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:
- What is his/her most appealing quality?
- What is his/her least appealing quality?
- What is his/her immutable quality?
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.