Thinking about characters

A week or two ago, I decided to focus on finishing the first complete draft of the book* instead of going back and strengthening the main character. I’m trying like hell to stick to that approach, however, I’m still trying to work out the main character as I do. As he’s present in these chapters, it’s pretty much unavoidable anyhow. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to put that character though different scenarios and see what works and what doesn’t. After all, I do have an idea about how I want to revise him, even if it isn’t the current focus of my energy.

With that in mind, I’m asking myself “How does one write a compelling character?” My book does have a few fairly well done characters, so I’m pretty sure my problem isn’t that I’m terrible at writing good characters. On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well on that score. It’s more a question of why one character is not done well, but another is.

One thing about the main character I’m struggling with is how he changes through the book. How should he grow? What is the change he undergoes? As a writer who is still really trying to master the craft, this is a pretty daunting pair of questions. Lacking the skill and experience to tackle these, I simply omitted certain personality details and worked to bring those out in later chapters. It’s not that I realized this is what was happening, if I had, I wouldn’t have done it that way. It’s only upon reflection that I’m able to see I was attempting to use omission of personality as a proxy for real change. Now, it’s not that my problem isn’t fixable, it’s just a matter of understanding what the change ought to be. The main character starts out the book avoiding his innate magical skill. By the end, he has managed to learn how to harness some of the most powerful aspects of this magic. There’s the change. I can make it big, and it’s pretty straight forward.

Another problem I had with the main character is that I started out the concept with two characters, friends and war-buddies. One of them I imagined as a free-wheeling, drinking and womanizing ruffian. The other, was more of a buttoned-up noble-born stiff. Early on in the project, I made a major change to the back-story. I gave the noble-born the ruffian’s back story and made it the beginning of the book. This was actually a break-through change for the story as a whole. It gave the thing a starting point and some conflict to ignite the larger fight. However, I made a mistake, which was that when I dropped that back-story on to the noble-born, the personality traits associated with the original character had to go with. Since I chose not to do that, I ended up with a mis-matched and incomplete personality coming through on the page.

To take this discussion further, I hit the books to see what might be learned there. I’m not talking about books on writing or writing characters, I’m talking about other fiction I’ve read and what struck me as being a particularly good example of characterization. There are a number of good examples, but my first thought was Dune. It was a book where I was blown away at how strong virtually every character was, from the very moment they walked into the scene. A good case example is Dr. Yueh. Over the course of six pages, Frank Herbert manages to introduce and draw Yueh as a tormented and unwilling participant in the Baron’s plans to utterly destroy the Atreides. What’s super interesting about this approach is that Herbert basically tells the reader what’s coming. Yueh is cursing himself for what’s coming, without directly or explicitly saying what that is. The Doctor acts and thinks in terms of the context he’s in without holding back. Nothing is muted to protect that bit of information from the reader until the writer is ready to spring it on them. Now, this is the important point. Because Herbert is not trying to hide what Yueh is up to from the reader, it allows him to more completely draw the character, highlight his anguish at being thrust into this situation.

The takeaway in this? When it comes to characters, don’t hold back.

For my situation, I think the solution is to make the main character’s evolution much more targeted, focused on the magic. He is not an uncertain person, and should not read that way. I know the context and history and so it shouldn’t be a horribly difficult task to write the character using that context as a framework. Just like the Dr. Yueh example, this will give a much more natural feel to those situations where the character reacts in a particular way, which is explained by his back story, but isn’t quite known by the reader.


* I have to call it a book now because it’s so close to being a full draft, I couldn’t rightly call it a story. Besides, I’m planning at least two more after, and in my mind, that’s the ‘story’.

The strong female character

In the chapter I’m banging through right now, I’m just past the part where I’ve introduced a female character, the first of any consequence for the story. She is by far my favorite character. Not so much because of the role she plays, although it’s important, but because she was the first character I’d ever written who simply jumped off the page and told ME who she was. In fact, the plot of my whole story totally sucked until she walked into my main character’s dreams and tries to kill him. (I generally think this sort of description of how characters are created as total flowery bullshit, I usually think about it as a long intense process. However, this really happened. My wife wrote a couple of pages about this woman before she was introduced into the story, and this is what happened when I let the character loose in the events of my story.)

I am fighting hard against the cliche of the type of woman one might think of with bad fantasy. Her favored garb consists of drab cloaks and armor that conceal her nature. (yes she’s still beautiful, but it’s not the first impression of the main character, it will take time for him to see it) She is the body-guard, and not the other way around. She is not the totally indestructible warrior princess either. Yes, she’s very good, and very mouthy about it, but she’s as susceptible to a misstep as any man. I’d describe her relationship with the main character as similar that of Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones, though in my story I would say my female is both Jamie and Brienne in one person (I look forward to the day where a reader might read far enough in to argue the point). Also, my female character is much more like to equal my male lead than the Brienne/Jamie situation. In a male-dominated society of my story (Yes, so typical of high fantasy, why not get rid of that – I did consider it. My wife, however, suggested it would be a difficult thing for an amateur such as myself to pull off without sounding patronizing.), having equal females shouldn’t really happen, but I can’t help myself in this case. The character is so strong, she knocks past all of those barriers and demands they stay down. What I hope is that the strategy of allowing her to take charge as she has done so far makes for a believable, engaging and cohesive world, and not a disjointed, confused mess.

Where’s Waldo?

How many characters should I have?

This question borders on stupid, really, the answer is obvious: As many as it takes to tell the story.

Okay, great, as many as it takes, got it… How many you reckon that is?

For someone like me, these questions don’t seem stupid, nor does the obvious answer help. In my mind these are major issues. As a reader it’s easy to look at a huge epic fantasy series with dozens of main characters and think: “I am NOT going to to that” – or – “I totally want to do that”. I’m in more of the where’s Waldo? camp. That is, I really prefer to know who the main character is within a chapter or two. I get frustrated at stories where I’ve got to re-read a chapter just to meet and remember all of the characters who seem equally important. Now, it’s not that I think these are badly done, it’s that I don’t like them. From that perspective, I’m going to focus on writing a story where there are fewer characters to deal with.

When I started on my current project, I tried to keep the number of characters to an absolute minimum. This was a problem. Mainly because you’ve got to start with enough people to have dialogue and also conflict, even if it’s something as simple as a stolen horse. Someone’s got to do it and ideally there will be at least a couple of others to talk about it. Right off the bat that’s 3 people, and I haven’t even gotten the main character out of his village yet. Perhaps it’ll take a few more people to get him down the road. Turns out my minimalist ideal wasn’t an approach that would work with the story I’m writing, and after thinking about it starting off with 3 seems like a good rule of thumb.

So, what was my solution to keep the number of characters to something I felt comfortable with? Well, first of all the story is a 3rd person limited, with a focus on two specific characters with the idea that I’m going to stick with that one sub-plot. The second bit is that I’m trying to keep the number of characters in any given scene in the range of 3-4, more than that is hard anyhow (not impossible, of course, just hard). Thirdly, and most importantly, I only add in characters who are absolutely essential to the scene. The last part is that I avoid naming characters who aren’t significant to the story as a whole. So, a character might be essential for a scene, but doesn’t get a name because she isn’t essential to the larger story. This category of character is only given a one or two word description instead of a proper name – this is a super common approach, but I’m taking it a little further than you usually see it in that these names are how the main characters think about them and apply to people that would usually get a name.

These are tricks I’ve seen in tons of other stories, and so I don’t know that it qualifies as advice, or even gets to the point, but this is how I’m approaching my story. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject at some point.