A few thoughts on Character Building
Character building. What does that mean to you? Cross country running in the freezing cold at the behest of some smugly track-suited gym teacher? Night hikes in the rain as a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout? Yes, it’s all too often been the excuse for inflicting such delights on unwilling teens. But that’s not what I’m thinking of here. Well, I’ll come back to such experiences but my starting point is something else.
As a fantasy fan and reader, I’ve read a fair few articles on world building and now a writer myself, I’ve been invited to share my thoughts more than once. It’s undeniably an extremely important element in creating a satisfying story. But it’s not the whole story. A solidly constructed plot is equally important, and the third leg of the stool that supports the story teller in the chimney corner has to be well rounded, convincing characters. Readers rarely care about things as much as they care about people. A book’s characters must come off the page as living, breathing, loving, hating, sorrowful, joyful, triumphant individuals. As with the world they inhabit, if a fantasy novel’s characters aren’t solidly believable, the reader will have a far harder time accepting the outright fantastical, magical elements.
So where does one start? Bespoke or off the peg? It’s an unpalatable fact that SF&F as a genre is vulnerable to ridicule for relying on stereotypes. Glance along the bookshelf and identify the plethora of wise wizards, feisty heroines, salt of the earth artisans, the evil overlords each with their conniving underling, farm boys who suddenly turn out to be lost princes raised by wise women who dispense good advice along with clean clothes and nourishing soup. Taking any of these as a starting point is a bad idea in my opinion. If your character is defined by one overriding trait from the outset, they will always struggle to rise above it. You’ll continually run the risk of writing two-dimensional melodrama rather than fully rounded drama.
These days, with the breadth and depth of the fantasy genre, familiarity also breeds contempt. The first time we meet the solitary hero hiding a secret, struggling with his destiny or a seemingly impossible love, it’s intriguing, especially if it’s Aragorn, son of Arathorn. On the tenth such meeting, the reader is far more inclined simply to think it’s just Billy No-Mates again and to ask just why they should care?
That’s not to say that by the time you have painstakingly built your characters, readers won’t try to pigeonhole them but they’ll have a far harder time of it and your characters will easily escape such constraints. Voldemort’s hanger-on Wormtail might have less impact for those readers who’ve already encountered Grima Wormtongue but he does have sufficiently distinctive traits and a role of his own to justify standing on his own two feet – or four paws. Stereotypes do serve one useful purpose when building a character. As soon as you realise you’re in danger of perpetrating a loveable rogue, you can immediately start looking for ways to ensure that is merely one facet of his personality. After all, the people you know aren’t defined by one overriding label, are they?
Is that the answer? Should you draw your characters from your circle of friends? Some How to be a Writer books suggest as much. I wouldn’t necessarily advise it, not if you want to keep your friends and anyway, where is that going to get you? A random trawl through my address book wouldn’t supply a balanced cast for a fantasy adventure. On second thoughts it might but that’s only because I used to do live role-playing and still practise a martial art. Where I use my friends and family in character building is in making reality checks for action and reaction. Is what this character’s doing plausible or frankly unlikely? That’s certainly why I’ve no patience with the clichéd view of the writer’s life as a solitary one. Not if you’re doing it right, it isn’t. You have to meet as wide a range of people as you sensibly can, if you’re to portray them convincingly on the page and avoid the stereotypes.
But we’re still looking for a starting point. Where do we find the foundations of our character? What about that other great cliché of those how-to books that say write about what you know? All writing is autobiographical? Is it? Really? Well, you can certainly draw on the cold, the aching legs, the burning resentment of those afternoons driven out to pound pointlessly round the school field to convey your character’s feelings when faced with some trial. But unless you’ve had a remarkably startling life, your own experiences aren’t going to get you too far, certainly not for a fantasy book. You can and indeed should head for the autobiography and biography shelves of your local bookshop and library in search of character detail. I found The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw an invaluable read when fleshing out the character of Halice in my Tales of Einarinn. As a female swordfish-boat skipper (the one mentioned in The Perfect Storm) details of her life and working relationships gave me key insights me into the mind and the life of a female captain of mercenaries. But that wasn’t the starting point. I didn’t read that book and decide to write about a female sea-captain. The Hungry Ocean is a fascinating book but a thinly disguised copy wouldn’t make for a fantasy novel. Halice came first and then I went looking for the details I needed to make her a convincing character.
Where did Halice come from? She was initially a plot device whose broken leg gets my heroine Livak delayed on the road. As a consequence Livak is tempted into some foolishness that sets off the whole train of events in The Thief’s Gamble. To make Halice more than a plot device and to reveal more about the world where they both live as well as Livak’s less than respectable place within it, I decided Halice was a female mercenary and Livak’s partner as a travelling gambler. With that established, Halice was the obvious person to call on later in The Swordsman’s Oath and The Assassin’s Edge when Planir or Temar needed armed assistance. That’s when I needed to know a lot more about her.
So we have come back to the three legged stool that the story teller sits on. The overall story is built of character, plot and setting and all of these develop alongside each other. In this circular process creating one inevitably feeds into the creation of the others. Initial aspects of the plot dictate who the characters must be, to serve the story. The imagined world they live in affects who they are and what they can do. This is where you will find your characters in the first instance. Then it’s up to you to breathe life into your creation.
I find a good way to start is visualising the character and I don’t just mean applying the Crimewatch identikit approach. I have a whole box file of postcards of portraits from museums and galleries and not just for those details of period costume that are also so useful for describing a vivid character. I keep magazines ranging from National Geographic to SFX. If I’m looking through these for inspiration and someone catches my eye, I can describe them in far more varied and interesting terms than checking off height/weight/colour of hair/ colour of eyes/shape of nose. If the girl’s face that’s caught my eye is under a hat, I can consider giving her a hat in the book, possibly make that a quirk of hers. A fantasy heroine isn’t going to have a Jimmy Choo shoe habit but a weakness for frivolous feathers in her hair adds colour to her character as well as her coiffure. If I find an interesting portrait of an older man and notice he’s got a stick in his hand, adding some physical infirmity to a wizard can add realistic fraility as well as plot hurdles and steer us away from the Gandalf stereotype.
How do we go from picture/postcard to living colour? I find a useful next step is asking the method actor’s much-parodied question; what’s their motivation? Why is this person here and what are they after? Motives should range from the intensely personal to the broadly general. In The Swordsman’s Oath we learn Halice’s broken leg mended badly. Finding life as a cripple intolerable, she’ll work for wizards if they can even half-promise a cure. Livak isn’t at all keen but her guilt at not having done enough for Halice after that accident drives her co-operation as well as setting up tension between the two of them.
Taking a broader view, there are always those useful standbys; sex and money. Our hero can kill the dragon to rescue the princess or get first pick of the treasure depending on your choice. Ideally his motivation will be a little more complex and help drive plot, sub-plot and drama within the over-all scheme of the book. Our hero might want to kill the dragon to get first pick of the treasure so he can go back and marry the girl of his dreams. Mind you, he might be tempted to dally with the ever-so-grateful princess in the meantime. His choices will tell us a lot about him. Would that give his rival time to get back before him? What happens to the plot if the girl of his dreams finds out our hero’s been playing away? Does his rival race back to tell her? Is he acting out of spite towards our hero or unspoken devotion for her? Does our hero care at this point? Motives can change.
Motives are also a key element when considering your readers’ attitudes to your characters. It’s hard to engage with a book where everyone is unpleasant or unsympathetic. On the other hand, a book where even the baddies are actually just poor misunderstood victims of society will ring fairly hollow as well. You’re looking for balance and believability right across the spectrum. Heroes doing the honourable thing for solid, quantifiable reasons are far more satisfying that parfait noble knights just as villains with concrete ambitions are far more frightening than some evil overlord stroking his white fluffy cat as he plots to rule the world because it’s there.
If well-thought-out motives prompt our characters’ actions, let’s get Newtonian. For every action there’s an equal (and possibly opposite) reaction and those will tell us still more about each character. If our hero’s rival has raced back to tell the girl of his dreams who’s been creasing the princess’s wimple, her reaction will tell us a great deal about her. Does she break down weeping, either refusing to believe it or collapsing onto the rival’s sympathetic shoulder? Does she start yelling and throwing things? Does she cynically invite the rival into her bed out of sheer pique? Or does she grit her teeth and bide her time, plotting some nasty surprise for our hero on their wedding night?
When it comes to sex, we can consider Philip Larkin’s assertion about your Mum and Dad. An individual’s character is initially formed, as regards sex and much else besides, by the circumstances of their birth and the first relationships within the family. To get Livak out on to the road as an itinerant gambler, I made her the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid, so subject to snide remarks and contempt from the outset. Then I gave her the bloody-mindedness that made her rebel against this rather than a sensitive nature to end up crushed by it. Which subsequently explains her skittishness about formal commitment to a lover. Having abandoned her family, her carefully chosen friendships are extremely important to her and influence her choices elsewhere.
That’s not to say we need intense psychological exposition of every single nuance of every single character. ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ goes a long way in The Princess Bride. As a secondary character, (and in a book playing gleeful games with cliché and stereotypes) Inigo really doesn’t need much more motivation than that. The less important the character is to the plot, the less detailed motivation needs to be. I find a page of background notes suffices for main characters, maybe half a page for the supporting players and no more than a scribbled note for the incidental cast. All the same, it adds pleasing depth and realism to the world if the passing peasant who lets our hero know that his rival is a day ahead of him has some reason to be on the road. Let’s say he’s driving his pigs to market. That’ll do for someone coming on for a spit and a cough. We don’t need a detailed breakdown of the pork economy of the whole region and that peasant’s place within it.
All the same, their place within the society they live in will influence our main characters, just as much as their motives, be they selfish or noble, and their relationships with other people, good and bad. We’re contemplating another, slightly different three legged stool. If the girl of our dragon-slaying hero’s dreams is a princess in her own right, she is far more likely to have the self-confidence to tell him to sling his hook. If she’s the poor but honest daughter of an impoverished merchant, she’s far more likely to have the habit of deference. Alternatively, the princess in her own right might be forced to overlook his betrayal, for the sake of dynastic marriage. The poor but honest lass would have far less stake in such a society. She might even take to the road herself – and run into Livak.
This is another area where character and world building overlap. Your character’s reactions to their plight must be believable in the context of their world. Grafting modern feminist attitudes onto a quasi-medieval princess is going to jar. Equally, a historically plausible world coloured by unthinking sexism and racism isn’t going to sit well with modern audiences. Again, we’re looking for balance and once more, background reading will help you. Historical biography, autobiography and social history will broaden your own horizons, show you how such historical attitudes developed and changed. Consequently you’ll construct a convincing world where your characters can live their lives to your satisfaction.
So after asking all these questions and making these choices we have our characters developed alongside our plot and our world. Now comes the stringing the words together and actually writing the book. Ideally the plot will proceed with gradual revelation, occasional misdirection and a gripping ebb and flow of drama. Readers will come to know the world through careful use of incidental description, scrupulous maintenance of internal logic and accuracy of facts while at the same time avoiding the data dump. The characters must come alive through similar well-crafted writing.
Dialogue is crucial for exposing character; crude or prissy, bold or hesitant, shy or arrogantly insensitive. It cuts both ways when a woman inadvertently betrays herself with an ill-chosen word or man is proved a hypocrite by doing the very thing he has scorned in someone else. Actions speak loud than words, as we see our characters react to challenges, how they interact with each other and with their world. Whether in first or third person, we learn most when we see that world through the character’s own eyes.
When I sign a book contract, my publisher has accepted an outline of what I plan to write. The finished book is never the same as that outline. Plot problems crop up, inconsistencies in the world need rethinking but the main force driving such changes is when the characters grow in the writing to develop a life and an autonomy of their own. It’s quite one of the most satisfying aspects of being a writer and is why, after the way the cast of characters developed in Southern Fire, my copy of the outline for Northern Storm is now covered in red pen amendments.