Arielle K Harris
In my previous articles I’ve discussed the Style and Setting aspects of storytelling, two essential aspects of the writing craft. However, I believe there’s an argument to be made that modern readers care more about characters than previous audiences through the history of literature and are generally more willing to forgive a lack in other areas of a story if the characters are compelling enough. So this stuff is important.
Like in world-building, building a character is an exercise in details. It’s as easy and as hard as making up a person, a human being complete with flaws, motives, secrets, quirks, aspirations, doubts, love, hate, and all the rest. (Unless you’re not writing about human beings, but even then most of those things likely still apply.) Every character has a story, even the most minor character, and it’s your job as their writer, their creator, to know what that story is even if it’s never fully told. You never know when a minor character might suddenly become a main player. Your earlier casually-dropped details about that minor character are now effortless foreshadowing for what’s to come.
A lot of writers talk about this element of unexpectedness when dealing with characters, having a protagonist go off-outline whether the writer likes it or not, or self-determining sudden actions previously unaccounted for. Inexperienced writers, or those disturbingly normal folk who aren’t writers at all, might be like, “Eh?? But they’re your characters, you made them up so you can have them do whatever you want to, right??”
Sort of. Yes, you’ve made a character up, it exists only inside your brain and on paper, and you can control what it does. To a point. There comes a time, however, when you find that you’ve given your character too much autonomy, like a rogue AI program that suddenly becomes self-aware. The part of your brain that houses that character is now an autonomous part of your consciousness with its own motives and self-interests which sometimes gives you sass and argues back when you try to impose your original plans upon it.
And this slightly disturbing development is precisely what you’re aiming for as a writer.
You want a character that’s been so well created that it becomes its own voice inside your mind, because if you haven’t reached that point then you’re not chronicling the story of unique and compelling beings. Instead you’re moving puppets around a backdrop, and the voice that comes out of their mouths is your voice, not theirs.
What’s the key difference between your voice and your character’s voice? Well, in some writing there is no difference. There are some stories which, whether deliberately or not, transpose the author into the main character, for better or for worse. I would like to make the argument, however, that this is not ideal. In order to write effective fiction with compelling characters I honestly believe those characters need to gain autonomy from their authors. This is part of the craft of fiction writing.
Given their own flaws, motives, secrets, quirks, aspirations, doubts, love, hate, etc., etc., as previously mentioned should be enough to help you find a character’s unique voice, or better still, to let that character find their own voice. By all means use your own experiences to “write what you know” and give authenticity to their journey through the story, but your character may respond to events differently than you. Give them the freedom to do so.
In speculative fiction when you’re worldbuilding don’t forget how that world affects your characters. They have their own language, though you’re helpfully translating into one your readers can understand. And for the love of all things literary please don’t just call it the Common Tongue. Language is so rich and interesting, don’t let your created language down. Obviously there are very few of us capable of creating actual languages themselves to the high standards of the likes of Tolkien but even if you don’t actually create the language you should know what it is, what it’s called, and what other languages exist on your world. To be a realistic world there should be other languages, unless your world is very small indeed, or recently colonized.
Let me get linguistic on you for a minute. There’s are lot of links between worldbuilding and language and character, as geography affects both the physical interactions of societies and their language development. Languages lend each other words when they interact regularly, so physically distant groups of people who don’t interact develop languages which are more obviously distinct from each other. Consider this phenomena fully. How do your world’s languages interact? Who can understand who, and how do they reach that level of understanding? Generally only the wealthy, who have free time and funds to spend on learning, will know more than one language unless necessity or constant multilingual interaction of the lower classes results in otherwise. However, misunderstandings are a great way to further plot and create tension, so you don’t necessarily want to gloss over the difficulties of language interaction.
Religion is another important world-building facet which links to character development, and just like language this can provide another conflict between either groups or individual characters. This affects how characters speak to other characters who are within their religious group or outside it, how they utter obscenities, and how they make promises to each other or swear fealties. This may affect what foods they eat, and when, what holy days they observe, or deliberately don’t observe. This may affect a character’s relationships with other characters, determine expected gender roles, or have serious repercussions if they defy those precepts.
I think it’s important for a writer of speculative fiction to answer all the important questions of language and religion, philosophy and society, and every other facet of worldbuilding before deciding even the most basic of details about a character. Even something as simple as a name is firmly rooted in language and/or religion and has societal implications and significance. Names have so much potential to impart subtle messages to the reader, and sometimes messages that are… not so subtle, e.g.: Cruella de Vil, Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, and Kilgrave (Jessica Jones said it herself, “Kilgrave? Talk about obvious. Was ‘Murdercorpse’ already taken?”) so don’t throw away the opportunity to underscore something of importance to your readers.
Above all, avoid writing character stereotypes. The farm boy who would be king. The questing hero with his band of followers, never forgetting to include the one feisty female included to add sexual tension and to prove that the (inevitably white cis-male) author is giving a nod to feminism. (He’s not.) The plain little Mary Jane who has one endearing character flaw like being unable to cross a parking lot without getting nearly killed, who is oh so very unattractive, which she bemoans at length, but somehow is caught in a love triangle with two hot guys with rock-hard abs and optional sparkles. Yeah, just stop that.
Given enough thoughtful detail a writer should be able to avoid all the pitfalls in character creation, and then be blessed with several argumentative new brain-friends. After that, all you need to do is tell the story. I say that like it’s easy, but of course it’s not and my next article will focus on this next vital and devastating step in the process of storytelling – telling the damned story.
Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.
She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris