February 17th, 2011

hamlet, wookie

In Which We Introduce Ourselves

Or, “Alas, poor Yorrick. I knew him well.”

Now we come to my favorite part of the development process—character. I love finding awful, awful things in my characters’ pasts. I love doing even worse things to them in the present, and, in some cases, plotting their eminent demise. I love playing “what if?” Not to mention playing god with their destinies. Bwa-ha-ha-haaaaaa.


 Hey, if I can’t dominate this world, I’ll create my own to rule. The Brain wouldn’t have been the victim of so much narfy angst had he just written a novel instead after so many epic, yet hilarious, fails.

 There are four parts to the Weekend Novelist character development: Character Sketch, Back Story, Wardrobe, and Dream, with two weekends allotted for each. My writing ideas almost always begin with character, so I’ve had some percolating thoughts already. If you’ve been playing along at home, you know FK is already a budding protagonist. Now I’ll get to dig for this dirty little secrets.

Ah, yes. Mine is an evil plan. Mwa-ha.

You’ve probably seen more than one version of a character sketch before. I created a word doc template with a table for easy reference, and save as for each major character in their own files. There’s usually four for a novel, at least one of eacg I need to be cognizant of: protagonist, antagonist, helper, and/or romantic interest. 

I like my romantic interests for male protagonists to be helpful, not whiny. Nothing gets on my nerves worse than a supporting female character the hero is supposed to be in love with but gets nothing but complaints from. Especially when there’s ANOTHER female character who is always helpful and adorable without being a doormat who is so much worthier of said hero.

Correction. The one thing that gets on my nerves more is when an outright bee-yotch or overly whiny, angsty character  is mistaken for a strong, flawed, layered one. A flawed character I can warm up to (Helloooooo, Captain Tightpants) because they engender other emotions other than rage and a need to torpedo them into oblivion (a female Starbuck should be been awesome sauce. It wasn’t.) There’s layered like an onion, and then there’s just plain annoying, and setting back women’s rights by about fifty years because you’ve just proven the bastards right.

End rant.

I want our hero, the Fallen Knight, to come under the heading of the former, definitely not the latter. He’s going to have made some serious mistakes in his life, will no doubt make plenty more, and still be likable, someone to be rooted for. An excellent example of a flawed protagonist, a female one, with all sorts of foibles and likability in general, is Isyllt Iskaldur from Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles.

I’ve just started reading the second book in the series, and not a moment too soon. I was reminded again of how human all of the author’s characters are, flawed and layered and magnificent in all their human glory, despite the fantasy setting. Writing, when it comes down it, should always boil down to people, no matter the genre. Plot derives from the wants, needs and dreams of people, and the hurdles they have to overcome to get there. That’s life, for Merlin’s sake. Life should still be life, even in fiction. Perhaps more so. Otherwise how are readers going to relate?

Fantasy, despite all the fun of making up your own world to rule, makes it that much harder for it to be believable. If your reader doesn’t believe, they’ll put down your story. Why else are fan bases so rabid (*waves at fellow Browncoats*). They believe so much they want to be a part of it, immerse themselves in it. Captain Tightpants doesn’t just engender loyalty from his rabble crew, but the viewer’s as well. We all want to be on his crew. It’s what makes the adventure so gorram real.

One other trick I like to use, in conjunction with the character sketch, is cast actors for my main characters. Since the sketch specifies things like eye and hair color, height and age, defining speech patterns or gestures that make them interesting, I try to find actors who fit the role. I do the same thing when I read. Peeta from the Hunger Games will always be the kid who plays Sam on Glee. If there’s something off about a character or actor, some delivery of line or chemistry with a fellow cast member that feels wrong or forced, I wonder if they were miscast. The Code Monkey and I make a game of recasting roles with other actors, someone who might have been a better fit.

Some actors are so perfectly cast they become that character forever, and it feels wrong to see them in anything else. It was incredibly weird for me to see Nathan Fillion in Castle at first, but it didn’t take me long (like, fifteen minutes) to fall in love with what this yet another layered character had to offer. What sold me was Castle’s relationship with his teenage daughter.

So I have a fair idea of what my main characters are going to be, except for the antagonist. I may have to dig into back story to find the right fit. I have a sneaky inkling that, given the rocky relationship between FK and dear old dad, that I want both of their pasts to catch up with them. What if a deep dark secret from each of their pasts joined forces? I think I might have something there, but it will need to be explored.

FK is our protagonist, that’s a given. I want a foreigner, a newcomer he can't entirely trust, to be his helper, one that has secrets of his own that he’s hiding. For romantic interest, I want another newcomer, one destined to be a catalyst, the one person who can save his bacon. Each of these relationships is going to be a source of conflict for poor FK. I’ll work sketches for all four, and add notes to their files as needed as I discover more about them.

Tune in next time for details.