Thursday, September 22, 2011

Character Building in Fantasy

I will be giving a copy of my novel Firedancer (electronic version in the format of your choice) to a commenter chosen at random from those who comment on this post before September 30. Please stay on topic and keep it clean. I am genuinely interested in other writers' processes for building characters, and hope we can all share and glean some insights.

I hate talking about myself and screaming "buy my book!" all the time, though I am (ahem) proud of the reviews Firedancer has gotten thus far. I would far rather talk about the writing process and share some of the painfully-won knowledge that has shaken out of my own writing journey.

Characters, of course, are what make or break any fiction effort. The worldbuilding in fantasy better be plausible, but the characters in any fiction had better be even more so. I just saw a discussion about Mary Sue characters on a science fiction forum, and oh yes, this is a stage that most beginning writers go through. The Mary Sue is, basically, you, but better. Prettier, stronger, cooler, kick-ass dangerous, competent, never breaks a fingernail or a sweat.... Oh, yeah, that person we'd all like to be deep down, and who doesn't actually exist. That gorgeous girl? She has insecurities, trust me. "Am I a trophy date? Am I getting fat? Will my friends drop me like dog doo if I don't know what's 'hot' this week?" And that guy who seems to just have everything going for him? He really can't walk on water, so get over it.

Then there is the opposite of the Mary Sue, the guy who can't do anything right, or the guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that we just love to hate. Can you spell boring? Even the most inept guy is right occasionally, or loves his dog, or has some unexpected spark of courage that can shame the hero. And the Evil Overlord? Boring! Hannibal Lector fascinates us because he has a history, and is barking mad besides. The guy who just kills or tortures for fun, baby, is not someone most of us want to read about, and is too one-dimensional to drive an interesting plot. Even Darth Vader had issues, and inconvenient offspring.

Fantasy is full of stock characters, from the dogged hero who will not quit before he/she saves the world to the dark wizard who wants to enslave the world to the collection of magical or bumbling sidekicks. The heroine of Firedancer is, I suppose, the damaged hero, the one who wants to walk away but can't, and brings everything she has left to the fight. And Settak, her companion? Oh, yes, he has issues with competence and confidence, but stubborn? Hoo boy, he could teach rocks how to defy rain. But it is these qualities, and others, that will lead them to succeed or fail, because it is characterization and the choices each character makes that ultimately drive a good plot.

It's actually hard to get away from recognizable fantasy character tropes, because a great part of the charm in fantasy comes from these guys. You know what to expect. You want the hero to win. It's how you construct them within the boxes that makes them different, and interesting, and, hopefully, memorable.

I talked in an earlier post about the matrix I've begun to construct for my characters. Over time, I've discovered the 3 most important questions in it are:
  1. What is his/her most appealing quality?
  2. What is his/her least appealing quality?
  3. What is his/her immutable quality?
We all need our characters to be appealing in some way or no one will want to stick with them for several hundred pages. And for them to be well-rounded and "human" (even if they're not) they need a darker side. Even saints probably pitched fits now and again, and your character needs quirks, dirty little secrets, bad habits, temper tantrums, and plausible (and sometimes unfortunate) reactions to the unexpected in order to come across as real.

Then we come to the last one. The immutable quality. Here is the gold. Here is the one that tells you how your character will react when a ten-foot Snarkian jax rises up in his face. Will he run? Try to talk to it? Stop long enough to find out if it's dangerous? Attempt to feed it cookies? Take its picture? Complain to the authorities because it pooped on his lawn? We all know people who might react in one of these ways. The immutable character trait is how your character will react when confronted by a stronger personality, a subordinate, a threat, an opportunity. Some people will show compassion even in the direst circumstances; others will turn their backs and look out for #1. Some will always back down from confrontation; others will wade in, from pride or stubbornness or the brains to know that backing down will make it worse.

I recently had to change the matrix for a secondary character I'm building in Windrider, the sequel to Firedancer. I thought he was a coward, but no. His ruling quality is simply self-interest. Despite his dearly-held opinions, he will not defend them when it looks like someone with more power disagrees. Nor will he let them go, so he is a seething mess of frustration likely to pop at an awkward time. He is physically brave, and will argue with people he thinks he can dominate, but he will always duck, dodge, and slide to make himself look better and keep himself out of trouble, until at some point he will have to choose. And trust me, he will always choose in the name of self-interest, whatever that is at the moment.

Fantasy characters are people with all the same basic needs, flaws, and potentials as any person in the "real" world. But they have that extra factor to contend with, the magic, the unreal, the threat that will never confront your average New York cab driver or French schoolteacher. Before you equip them to deal with that added layer of complication, make sure they are plausible people first.

Happy writing!


Diane Stephenson said...

You have some vital information here, Sue. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and found your explanation easy to follow.

I do not write fantasy, but I have written some fiction. After reading countless books filled with "perfect" characters, the most beautiful, most handsome, most successful people anyone would not care to know, I decided I wanted my characters to be rather commonplace. I don't mean boring, but normal, down-to-earth people who have their good points and their not-so-good points, people who have little problems and sometimes hard-to-handle problems. I don't want my story to sound like a fairy tale. I really like your approach.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Diane,

Rounded characters are just so much more interesting, aren't they? I'm so glad some of this made sense to you. It is always so much more fun to read about "ordinary" folk making good than the silver-spoon types breezing through life. Good luck with your writing!


Scott Bury said...

I like your matrix approach. It's interesting.
I myself am tired of stock characters and stock plots in fantasy.
Do you put characters of people you know personally into your stories?

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Actually, a lot of the characters end up with facets of my own personality, good or bad (I'll let you figure out which ones!) Occasionally I observe a personality quirk in someone that's just too good to pass up, or I will tag someone with behavior that has either impressed or infuriated me in someone I know (ex-bosses and former co-workers are wonderful sources). But I avoid using a real person for a character. I do have a handy database that I built of character traits/quirks and physical traits that I mix and match, though.

Lynda said...

I am sure formulas work because they're just a version of analysis. But for myself, I've grown up with the main characters in my saga over decades and it's almost like asking "why is your friend/daughter/etc. a well rounded character". I'm also interested by the topic, however, particularly with respect to continuing characters that evolve over multiple works. Doing a feature called "continuing characters" this year (Fall to Fall) on my blog, Reality Skimming.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

I agree, Lynda, that continuing characters are interesting. It is also an interesting writing challenge to let them grow and change without altering the core personality or accidentally taking them down a road that removes all the endearing qualities about them that you most liked. Switching POVs with the same characters is also an interesting challenge, I'm finding. I headhop within books all the time, but shifting from one main POV character in the first book to someone else for the next book in the series is proving more difficult than anticipated. How many books are in your series, and do you write from the same perspective all the time?

SophieGale said...

Wow! I'm just getting back to writing after a decade of not writing anything more complicated than the grocery list. When somebody asks me, "How do you build a character?" I typically say, "Once I've got her feet in the scene, the whole character just appears... Up to that point I've just got a talking head."

Many years ago a woman member of my writing group was trying to pin down her hard-boiled PI. "How do you write a realistic male character?" she asked. I said, "Where does he carry his weight? Up high in his chest? In his belly? In his gut? Or is he 'ungrounded'? 'Light in his loafers' as the saying goes?"

Frankly she stared at me. I get that a lot... Typically I start out just hearing a character's voice--But once I can slide into a character's skin and work the muscles, the character is pretty much there. The really interesting ones often seem to have knots in their spines--seems to mess with the energy in their lower chakra sites... People get spiritually constipated, as it were.

Yes, sometimes I make my characters do stupid things, and sometimes I hear them and just don't understand what they trying to say, but that's what editing is about. If I can stay "in the body," the character will be "well rounded."

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sophie, this is exactly how I used to let all my characters appear, and it worked well for my whole writing career until the last couple of years--just plop them on the page and let them tell you who they are. And then I found myself gradually writing the same characters again and again, and making them a bit too nice, or too awful. Having a lot of life threads to juggle has also carved out my writing time to the point where it's difficult to maintain all the threads from session to session. Sketching characters out like this not only helps me keep their eye color straight and avoid ridiculous continuity slips, it forces me to stack them up against each other and see where they're coming from. I am an organic writer, unable to outline, and mostly willing to let characters shape themselves, but I have found this to be a really useful tool. Everybody works differently, though, and what works for one writer certainly will hobble another. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

e_journeys said...

As I developed my series, my characters became three-dimensional not just from their own actions and thought processes, but from how other characters viewed them. A heroine who acted from her own deep convictions was viewed by an ally as impulsive and by a nemesis as naive, and despite her best intentions she was capable of doing great damage to herself and others. A villain who would do anything to save the city and the citizens he loved was viewed by others as monster, lover, savior, and more.

Janet Lane Walters said...

Been writing for a long time and use Astrology when casting my characters. The Sun sign gives me the person's inner self. The Moon gives the emotional response and the Ascendant gives the face they show the world. I've a number of fantasies and paranormal stories. In the Henge Betrayed series, the characters have affinities that speak to their astrological natures, Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

JL, that's an interesting way of developing your characters. Mine, too, have traits drawn from the elements they command (fire, air, etc.) And yes, Elissa, I agree it is so important to remember that your characters don't exist in a vacuum (figuratively speaking, anyway!). We are shaped by our interactions with others, and how they perceive us can be inspirational or devastating to our egos, affecting how we approach a situation. How they view us, however, is not necessarily how we are deep down, so the character still needs a deep core that drives him or her to succeed or fail regardless of opinion. Somehow heroes just keep slogging away despite how they're viewed, or they end up being rags in the wind. Thanks for your comments!

Vonnie said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I must say I piece my characters together with scraps from people I know/meet. I tend to jot down mannerisms, quotes, facial expressions, careers, childhood tales, etc. that I'm either told or (she blushes) over-hear at a restaurant or mall or in line at the store. And, believe it or not, I also jot down tidbits while watching a reality television show. I couldn't make up some of the characters, behavior, and explanations (and excuses) for less than acceptable behavior I've witnessed. I think characters become well-rounded and easier to identify with when we recognize the "real" world people we've seen -- plus a bit of ourselves in them.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Vonnie. Thanks for your thoughts! People-watching is such an excellent way to build "real" people. I wish I had the opportunity to do it more often (I live 30 miles out of town and no longer have a need to commute). Do you have a place where you compile your observations for later use?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I tend to be the type of storyteller who finds an interesting entry point--the "what if" that intrigues me, the image of a strange scene, a bizarre scenario or a moral dilemma that stumps me... and grows the story from there, as I investigate.

My character building is much the same way. I'll start out with something--maybe even a matrix like yours--but then it becomes very organic. I just try to believe in this person as if they were someone I know. I "run" them like a program in the back of my mind, constantly imagining them in other scenarios, outside of the main story. In a way it's like method acting. Part of me pretends to be that person and seeks to understand that person and to get why they do what they do, even if it's so alien and different from my own self.

Much on that draws from observing others, of course, from people I know or strangers I observe interacting or even characters I find realistic and fascinating, in order to learn how people might really behave in those situations, people whose approach to life is other than mine.

I always find the more I view my character as a person--a whole, rounded, quirky, fun, horrible, bizarre, love-and-hateworthy human being, and not just a concept/plot point--the more successful they are.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

It sounds like our processes are similar, elsiewho (love that handle, by the way). As I get older and put more characters under my belt, I find myself doing all kinds of things I never did before, like the matrix, to keep them from becoming too much alike, and to force myself to really think about the kinds of things you list in your post. It's especially easy to let the secondary characters slide, to the point they become sort of homogeneous and unmemorable. I tend to have groups of characters, to they all need to be distinct. Sometimes they turn out more interesting than the POV character in their own peculiar ways. Some of them have certainly threatened to steal the show!