Your Fantasy Characters and How to Understand Them

It’s time for some honesty. When I think of the original version of my book (which I really try to never do), among all of the things that were horribly wrong, there’s one factor that’s oddly hit or miss. Characters. When I set out to rework the novel, a major part of the endeavor was dedicated to finally, truly sorting out all of the characters.

To specify, no, there weren’t many–that isn’t where the confusion was. And no, they weren’t all bad; to the contrary, in many of the cases where I initially thought I had to change a character, I ultimately reversed the changes I made when I looked over my edits.

So, what was the problem with them? What needed to change? Well, to say it in a seriously undefined way, a lot of them were just off. Lethe, my protagonist, and several side characters were solid from the start, but a lot of the others were just…

… weird.

I should specify–they were unnatural. Some of them believed and said strange, nonsensical things. Some of them had confused emotions; one moment they’re on the verge of tears, the next they’re angry or maybe playing a magical flute (that I clearly hated because this is like, the bajillionth time I’ve brought it up in the past weeks). To put it simply, they were all a mess.

I bring this up because, in my mind, unrealistic, unbelievable characters have always been the fantasy genre’s bane. Now, I don’t mean that I think it’s silly for a fantasy character to have giant fangs or blue skin–obviously–but because of the blue skin and the fangs, the realism of a character’s personality is incredibly important. Because if a character with fangs and blue skin walks up and says something silly or confusing, you’re suddenly reading an episode of Power Rangers (not to knock Power Rangers or anything, but that segue to Goldar was completely accidental). Although it may sound weird, personality is often the only thing standing between a reader watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor and knowing that they’re watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor.

This applies to normal fiction as well, of course, because believable characters are just part of what interests us as humans–we want to read other people’s stories and be entertained by their lives; when a character suddenly comes off as fake, we lose interest because the odd, backwards illusion of fiction is broken; in it’s simplest terms, we realize we’re reading something another person wrote.

So, the point of all of this: I thought I’d share my thoughts about sorting those characters out with the idea that maybe it’ll help you sort your own characters.

Allow me to start with another clarification…

Understanding, Not Fixing

I’ve said “sort” up until this point, but it’s really not the best term in relation to character design. According to my experience, at least, nothing good comes from trying to fix characters; the unnatural dialogue that didn’t fit with a character’s usual thoughts, the strange dialect they use or unusual choices that they make–all of those came from trying to make my characters into people who were cool enough. Not that your characters shouldn’t be cool–of course they should, particularly by your standards. But not at their expense; a lot of messy, nonsense traits can arise when you try to force a personality on someone who already has one.

Yep. You heard me.

Before you navigate away, consider this: writers often unintentionally create characters who mirror themselves. I can tell you personally that all of my characters have an aspect of my personality. There are many more who I understand because I’ve known them in real life. Likely, the first kind, who you understand from your own experiences, are your protagonists and the second kind, who you only understand from second-hand experience, would be your side characters. While I absolutely believe and support the idea that skilled writers create characters completely unlike themselves as protagonists, that doesn’t change the point here: despite how cheesy it is to say, “Your characters are actually people”–despite how much that makes it sound like I believe they’re living, breathing entities that exist in some other dimension–the point is that they’re real people because they’re you. Or me. Or someone you know. The point is that even writers who try really hard are likely going to put some facet of themselves into their characters because they’re writing the book. Their characters come from them–from their experiences, to say it in a non-cheesy way–and the more accurately they’re portrayed, the more real and intriguing they are.

So, to put it simply, treating your characters as actual people is the first step. Looking at them as someone from your subconscious that you have to understand and not someone who exists in a vacuum who you have to make is the key.

Actually understanding who they are and what they feel, however, is another, complicated matter. In my case, I adopted ill-fitting personalities for some of my characters because I just didn’t know better and didn’t know how. Now, however, as a man who’s far more confident in my character creation, I’ll leave you with my short list of the ways I came to understand my characters:

  1. Thinking About Them in Relation to Your World: Despite what I said earlier about characters coming from you or someone you know, I want to stress that you shouldn’t dwell on making them exactly like their source; treat them as real people–your people–in a situation that may be similar to yours (your friends’, etc.) and who have similar personality traits to you (your friends, etc.), but who are ultimately not you (or anyone you know).
    To hopefully be less confusing, consider that your life, and your experiences, shape you. Then consider that different experiences and decisions in your life would have changed who you are now. Your protagonists (for example), no matter how similar they are to you, would have to be an alternate version of you by default. Lethe, for example, is not me if only because I love pizza and he has absolutely no idea what pizza is.
    Now, in my experience, the best way to handle this is to start with a basic concept for your character (the initial idea of them–really honest and likable man, for example) and drop them into the world you designed. You’ll need to very seriously and thoroughly consider their place in that world. What’s this honest and likable man’s profession? Are there many honest people where he lives? Does his honesty have something to do with the fantasy culture you created? Does it have something to do with his past?
    Each answer will bring you closer to understanding who your character is, but it’s important to note that all of this relies on your familiarity with your world; naturally, it’s not essential that you decide on every detail of your world first, but when you decide on a new aspect of it, you should run through your cast to be sure that aspect influences everyone it should (despite how it sounds, relating a new element of my worlds to a character has been an awesome, irrationally exciting experience 100% of the time).
  2. Create Profiles for Each Character: The worst thing you can do for yourself is find these answers and not record them. At least if you’re anything like me, that is; I know that no matter how fantastic and nuanced my characterization decisions are, I will forget them with enough time.
    But beyond that basic functionality, making profiles for your characters, in which you hammer down the full range of personality traits (from Religion to Favorite Food), will only help you understand them more clearly. It sounds tedious–largely because it is–but the end result will be an answer to every possible question about your characters and, more importantly, more writing fuel.
    What do I mean by “writing fuel”? Simple:
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered an ale. He wouldn’t drink it–he never did (also a big difference between Lethe and I) , but he needed to look natural as he scanned the common room for a Silvertongue.”
    … as opposed to…
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered a–” uhhhhhh… <phew>… … Oh man. I dunno. What does he like? Hmm… <five hours later> Errrr… Hmmm… I’ll pick this up tomorrow! :D
  3. Avoid the Easy Answers: When you find the definitive answers to all of those questions, you’ll know because they’ll just work. You’ll know that you’ve found your character because they’ll absolutely make sense to you.
    However, there’s always the temptation to quickly settle with cliches. Is your protagonist an ultra badass who never breaks a sweat? Is your evil bad guy bald? Is your protagonist’s mentor a mysterious old Ben–er, man who lives outside of town?
    Then you’ve probably drawn your answers from another character. Although one could argue that there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from other, incredibly popular characters, I think it’s important to stop yourself from doing so; in most cases, these are simply easy answers to complicated questions that you’d rather not answer. And just one of these easy answers in the wrong place, executed in the wrong way (naming your father figure Ben Parker for example–even in homage) will just come off as cheap.
    In summary, it’s far better to give your characters the extra time and make sure they’re real and not caricatures of other fictional characters. If it helps, just think of Xerox’s; the more copies you make of a document that’s already been copied, the lower it’ll be in quality.
  4. Choose a Theme Song for Them: Have you ever watched Batman: The Animated Series? I know–tangent of the year–but not really. Even when I was a kid, one of the most striking things about that show was how every single villain had a theme song. If you’d like an extra assignment here, just go back and watch any episode (with a super villain [I’m not sure if Rupert Thorne and the other mobsters had themes]). Listen for their themes and how well they communicate everything about that villain (or just watch this for a few examples).
    What’s the point? A theme song can do wonders for how an audience understands a character. For the sake of understanding your characterss better, make yourself that audience; find a theme song that fits, whether it’s an actual song with lyrics or something composed (I’m partial to video game music for themes myself [here’s one of Lethe’s]). Even just the act of finding that theme will help refine how you feel about your character, and listening to it afterward will help remind you who your character is.
    It’s important to note though that this is another case where the potential to copy comes along. The simplest way to put it: Lethe’s other theme is also from Castlevania (I’d be the first to admit that I was absolutely inspired by that series), so I had to take extra care to not unwittingly give Lethe a whip and full head of long, luxurious vampire-slaying hair. No matter what theme you choose, make sure that the theme’s original source doesn’t influence your character more than your character influences it.
  5. Draw Them and/or Get Someone Else to Draw Them: Although I know it’s not always necessary in the fantasy genre, designing your characters is also a great way to get to know them. I’m absolutely not an artist, but I do love character design, so many of my sketch books are full of drawings of characters from different stories. Even just a sketch is likely to make you think of your character in a way you might not have–there may be a quirk that you realize they need or a physical attribute that you suddenly feel doesn’t work for them.
    If you really can’t draw, however (and even if you can) seeing someone else’s rendering of one of your characters will absolutely and instantly help define them in your eyes; if the depiction is perfect, you’ll know it, love the picture, and possibly print it and keep that copy in your wallet like it’s a photo of your kids.
    And if it’s terrible, you’ll immediately see everything your character isn’t, defining them in a backwards way (and perhaps you’ll also have an opportunity to change whatever bit of your writing gave your artist the wrong impression in the first place).

~~~

Well, I do believe that’s all I have for you on understanding your characters. If this helped in any way or you feel it may help someone you know, feel free to share. And as always, thanks for reading.

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