But for today’s topic? A key part of any story – it’s Characters.
It’s probably a bit of a moot topic to talk about, seeing as this is the one area of writing I think most people think about.
There seems to be this thought going on (and I’m not saying it’s bad!) in the world today that every person has a book inside them. I think that’s probably true – all of us have some kind of story to tell, whether it’s real or fantasy.
Now, whether we all have the time, drive and insanity to actually write them… different story altogether.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that lots of people think about writing at some point in their life, seriously or not, and one of the first things minds seem to center on is ‘who are the characters?’.
It probably says a heck of a lot about our species that our focus almost universally comes down to the players in the story more than anything else – rare are the works that hold a place or a time as the core, over a ‘person’. We even make animal protagonists, or toys, people before they are their natural state.
Heck, go to Google right now and type in ‘character generator’ and you can happily waste an entire day either filling in blank forms to detail every aspect of a protagonist, or have one auto-generated for you (now with personalized neuroses!)
Rather than waxing philosophical on that some more (if you want that, check out my early post, here, where I ramble about what writing is even for), I’ll instead just talk about how I came up with some of my current roster of main characters and what I think makes them special.
I’m going to start with Princess Anka Colel, because she was the first character I came up with that cemented herself down without hassle. Technically, Leona existed before her, but we’ll come back to Leona at the end.
Anka, like all my characters, did not exist before her plot did. If this series of witterings has shown nothing else about my method and focus, it has shown that world-building gives me my stories far over wanting to write about certain kinds of people.
Anka’s story is born of my love of volcanology, and my feelings on corrupt government. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to push an agenda with the piece (far from it), but I think it is impossible not to write what you feel in some cases, and The Meaning of Power reflects that very strongly.
Considering my story was about nature’s power, set in the corrupt and destabilized country of Rasaal I had already planned out, I knew I needed a certain kind of person to carry the story. That person is Anka.
The first job in creating her came from listing on a sheet of paper the things my world building so far told me. When I created Rasaal, I listed who ruled it, thus I knew who her father was. I also knew the Emperor’s of Rasaal were not monogamous in terms of siring children to continue the line, thus her mother could be the Empress or a concubine. I knew that she would have multiple siblings and that the dynasty had originated long ago in Arlatene so her skin would be a little paler than the Nagan natives. Very basic facts, but things I could build on.
I knew what the plot would concern, and while I won’t spoil it here, I knew I would need someone intelligent, driven, strong and with a very defined moral code, not to mention an underhanded streak. She would need to be a hardliner at times, but with a soft and empathic core not just for the readers, but for her own mental make-up and drive.
To achieve her ends, she would also need some degree of power to her… and she needed allies. She was taking shape in my head.
With these traits in mind, I decided her mother would be a concubine, and that Anka would be pretty far down the line of inheritance. Thus she would have the obstacle of siblings in her way for her ultimate goals, but also an influx of ideas and love from her mother that the rest of her siblings might not – a source for her morals and empathy.
I decided too that she would have a foreign tutor, enforcing those positive quirks and unorthodox traits I wished her to have, without them being unsupported or unrealistic. She would also be young, with an older head on her shoulders, a result of her tumultuous upbringing.
To all this, I then added a quirk of her birth – a form of weak Weaving designed not to make her over-powered or striking, but to instead supplement and highlight her cunning intellect. Her exact age and date of birth could then be pinned down by looking at my calendar of storm years for Rasaal and selecting an appropriate window for her birth.
Her physical description I allowed to come out once I started writing, recording the details on her sheet as I came to them until I finally had a three-page document on everything she represented at the time her story began. The rest has simply come down to thinking about how a real person would react to her situation.
But she was only the start, for that trilogy…
Anka was never going to walk this story alone. I already knew Rasaal was a vast area of land, and that for all the men within it claimed to be of one Kingdom, that didn’t mean the locals had taken their invasion lying down.
Into the mix went Sarus. I had always known Anka would face opposition in her goals, and that she could not help but be tarred by the sins of her elders, especially when the Nagan races were concerned. These long-term more ‘earthy’ inhabitants of the jungle were unlikely to sit down quietly while their world changed around them, and thus I needed a champion of their interests, as well as a companion to Anka’s perspective for the full narrative of the story to play out.
Sarus came into being in much the same way as Anka. I started with the facts known from building the country, then filled in extra details pursuant to his role in the story, and then uniquely his own as I began to write and he came to life.
I won’t say more about him here, as his development arc in The Meaning of Power is extensive and full of spoilers, but he was a joy to bring to life, and I learned much from the research I ended up doing to make him real.
Professor Orrin Wood
Not every character who needs building is the main character, of course. The supporting cast certainly deserves time and attention to, and Orrin is a good example of that in my world building.
Orrin came to be because Anka needed a foreign teacher, for perspective and to enable the knowledge of volcanology in her that I had gained in myself. A geologist first and foremost, Orrin became a tutor almost by accident as story and people began to marry together.
Unlike the previous two characters, who were conjured by the plot and molded to fit it, Orrin actually began to change some of the plot to mold to him instead.
This is where I indulged what I suspect is the more normal creation process for other authors, by leading from the character instead of the plot idea. For Orrin to do his job properly, he needed to be more than just a plot device shoehorned in to allow Anka to perform her role, and thus I sat down longest with this character to figure out his personal goals and drives, and how they could have led him to his current situation.
Before I knew it, his personal plot and development were laid out on paper in almost as much detail as the plot of the book itself. While he might have popped into existence to help me tell a story, he sure as heck wasn’t going to let me ignore that for HIM… he was the main character, not Anka or anyone else.
Some characters write themselves and refuse to stick to one book.
There are writers out there who I know create their protagonists until they are real enough that the author just kind of follows them around as they have their own adventures, crafting out plot across the page by dint of being that well crafted of a being.
To date, I have rejected that style of writing because I know exactly where doing so would lead me, and I refuse to let the lunatics run the asylum! I am the sort to be the ringmaster of my own circus and do my best to keep the characters in line, at least to a degree.
Of all the important figures I have marching around my head in service to the stories I wish to tell, the Dread Pirate has gone on to become the most unpredictable, yet enjoyable of them all, and he turns up all over the place.
Fun, unbound from the rules by dint of piracy and charismatic to a fault, he is the one person I would say I do not so much write and let race across my paper without any real knowledge where the words come from during his appearances. Despite this, his interludes are always believable, practical and add something to my work (at least in my opinion!) before he leaves the stage to his co-stars.
He has bad habits, an ability to lie with ease and a sense of humour totally at odds with my own, to the point I am always uncertain how the passages concerning him can have come from my own head, but so long as it works… in his one case, I try not to think about it too much.
I am sure Freud would have declared him some manifestation of repression.
Finally, a little bit of real talk on building a character, and what it really means to pull a story together with a good protagonist.
Leona was a nightmare.
When I first started drafting ideas for Hevna, and knew I wanted to write an adventure book, Leona was my lead that would do the job.
She was a noble.
Then a princess.
Then adopted princess by right of Weaving.
Then a scullery maid.
Then a prostitute.
Then, finally, a young priest.
None of those happened because I couldn’t figure her out though. In terms of her persona, I already had a good idea of who I wanted to act as the herald of the plot. I knew how she should and would act, what her motive was and the end goal to have in sight… but I was struggling to find her grounding in reality.
Ordinary people do not go on grand adventures. Something pushes one to do so, even in books, and a person becomes extraordinary for it. Some inciting factor, which a character either rises to eagerly or rejects until it is the only remaining choice.
I had to understand why Leona would choose the adventure, rather than bow out, and why she would take the moral stance I already knew was in her persona to do. Why would she choose it? Why did she have her morals? Why isn’t there something pushing her elsewhere, or holding her back? How and why will she justify this moment at the end of the story? What revelations will she have to come to, and from where to allow that?
I wrote out her mental journey in each of the above examples, but they were not working. Each time I matched the ‘new Leona’ to the inciting incident and overall plot arc, she ended up feeling stale or unbelievable. That is until I matched her with the right combination of factors and defining childhood moments in her incarnation as a Priest of the Seven. Suddenly, her personality and beliefs had context, believability, and a whole slew of new ideas presented themselves. I could see how and why she would interact with the other characters, and what would drive her in the end to the choices she would need to make. It worked.
The Point of all This
So, what exactly has this post all been in service to? Beyond just an insight into how I made my nonsense up.
Well, I think it’s in tribute to the fact that you don’t have to create a person you want to read about first, and events second. There’s nothing wrong with doing it the other way around.
A well-crafted character can fit the point of a plot, just as a plot can fit the intricacies of a character. I build worlds, and people seem to come to populate them of their own accord, leaving me only to fit them in the correct place in the sequence of events I call my stories.
Or maybe this has just been a long diatribe to point out the obvious: I’m just weird ^^