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On Character Construction

Desert Gate by Maciej KuciaraWhen writing in the fantasy genre, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the wonder of the world: the magic, the monsters, the bleak dungeons and shining cites can overwhelm everything else. But in such a world, the character is all the more important; they are the reader’s viewpoint into the story and deserve hard work.

An author should know their character intimately, they should know their history, how they would react in a situation, they should know their look and mannerisms down to the smallest facial tick. Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader. Like most writing, what you know should only inform the page, not dominate it – you’re not writing a biography after all. Still, good preparation work can be a great advantage when constructing a character.

Some characters can appear fully formed, born from a conjoining of two or more ideas. They might be an expression of a theme or emotion, or a figure that saunters into your mind with a wave and a cocky grin that you know is going to be a trait of the character because this guy is just so damn arrogant. If you have your basic idea, it can be relatively easy to fill in the back story and explain why the character is like that.

Musketeer by wesburtOther times characters need work, they have to develop from an idea into a well rounded individual. It can be helpful to start off with the purpose for your character, why are they in the story? Do you need a hero or a villain? An enabler or an obstacle? Perhaps a love interest? No matter how great a character, they need to have a function or they are just dead weight. Once you have that purpose, you can begin to think what traits and features would be good for such a character to have. A villain would benefit from ruthlessness and maybe a snappy dress sense, while a hero could use an underdog quality, perhaps coming from a humble background?

When constructing a character, motivation is key. It is the reason for everything the character does and a massive part of their personality. What motivates a character should come across through the entirety of their narrative. It can help to give the writing more depth and make your characters more believable if they have rational and realistic motivations. Understanding the motivations of a character will allow the reader to form a more complete picture of the story, and the knowledge can add drama to the narrative.

Mentor of the Meek by algenpflegerAs an example – imagine a young, polite nobleman who suddenly turns ruthless and conducts a campaign of blackmail, sabotage and assassination in order to gain a seat at court. This is an interesting premise in itself, but when you find out he’s doing it because he learned his father was murdered by someone at court who sought to steal his seat, the young nobleman’s actions take on a much deeper significance. Instead of a sudden change in personality for no reason, you have a previously kind man, tortured by grief and now driven by a need for vengeance, careless of who gets hurt along the way.

This is just one source of motivation, it doesn’t have to come from their backstory. It could be a character trait that spurs the individual to help others and relive suffering – a classic attribute of wandering hero characters. Whatever your source, be sure you know what your characters motivations are, and that they come through as you write them.

The Year Of Our War by sivet-christopheNow in order to make your characters realistic and believable they need flaws. It could be something as simple as a bad temper; it could be a life destroying addiction. Jant from Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War is an immortal with wings, but is also a serious addict to the lethal drug Cat. This chronic flaw completely colours our perception of the character, and Steph keeps his addiction at the forefront of Jant’s mind through the novel, even serious plot events cannot shake him from his next fix. His addiction turns Jant from a character that could easily be seen as distant and alien into something very relatable and human.

Flaws can serve to make a character more interesting as well. Who can forget the treacherous drunk Cosca from Abercrombie’s work? The character would be far less interesting without his rampant alcoholism. You can even take it further and make a character that is all about their flaw. Keeping with alcoholics, Sergeant Hellion from The Malazan Book of the Fallen series is a character defined by her drunkenness. Her narrative with its distorted perspective that is visible to the reader, but not Hellion herself, is thoroughly interesting and the narrative voice is very well crafted in its portrayal of a belligerent drunk.

Ultimate Agni Kai by ming85Flaws stop the character from being too implausible and too aloof from the readers. This can be a particular issue in the fantasy genre where the characters can be of a more fantastical nature. Flaws can help humanise an individual, and allow the reader to develop a relationship with them. It can be hard to connect with a gifted mage who has godlike powers. But an absent minded one, prone to losing various objects and getting frustrated, well that’s something the reader can respond to.

In order to differentiate your character and make a more rounded individual, you might want to give them a few quirks. It could a particular trait or mannerism that sets them apart and fleshes them out a bit. It could be a way of speaking, or nervous habit. It’s nice if you can make it visual so the reader can see it, but there are subtler options as well. The quirk may just be a random aspect of the character, or it may have some hidden significance like with Durzo Blint from The Night Angel trilogy; his habit of unlocking and relocking a door when he enters a room is a fitting trait for an assassin, and could hint at either paranoia or a need to have an escape route? It’s great if you can use a quirk to reveal something about the character and give them a bit more depth while making the writing more interesting.

Let me catch a break guys by NorkeThe fantasy genre opens up a host of new options with regards to character construction. Instead of a regular Joe your character might be a horrific monster, a powerful wizard, or a lone warrior suffering an ancient curse. Don’t be afraid to explore these possibilities with regards to character construction, the more original and different you can make a character the more the reader will be drawn to them. Don’t limit your characters to just the obvious tropes either, in your average fantasy world there are a number aspects that you can use to create a character.

Professions are a good one to explore, what kind of jobs does your world have? Do you have dragon riders, then do you have a job gap for dragon stable hands? Is it much more dangerous than being a normal stable hand? What kind of character would that profession attract? If you can find a way to link aspects of the character together then they will seem much more natural, rather than a literary construct.

So the next time your shining knight faces off against a dark lord, be sure you’ve put the effort in to make them authentic, they should be flawed individuals with layers of depth and hidden motivations. They should bring the story to life, because if you can get the reader to believe in your character, then they might just believe in your story.

Title image by Karla Ortiz.

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On Character Construction, 9.5 out of 10 based on 17 ratings
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3 Comments

  1. Rosalia says:

    This is a fantastic article, thank you for posting this Aaron! Time and again, I come across books with fantastic plots and amazing worlds, and then everything falls flat because the character is as interesting as a second hand vacuum sale. I think the big three character-building must-haves are: backstory, flaws, humour

  2. Rosalia says:

    I’m also curious to understand why so many heroes are orphans? It would be interesting to follow a character who is married/has children/has a huge family scattered throughout the world. Obviously orphan heroes are easier to write because they don’t carry the “family baggage” tag, but in a way, this would make the hero more realistic.

  3. […] I found a really interesting article about character construction and what looks like a bevy of more essays all about writing […]

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