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Characters in Fantasy Novels
Halford
Posted: Monday, June 11, 2012 5:44 PM
I read a post recently that cited characters as one of fantasy's major flaws. It claimed something along the lines of - "Because of the nature of the genre, worldbuilding and backstory often take priority, much to its detriment." It went on to say that, because of the amount of time put into other aspects, characters were often clichéd and hard to connect with.
I have a feeling the only fantasy this person has ever read is Lord of the Rings; but what do you think? Do you find it hard to write a good, character-centred story while also trying to build a world?
This isn't a problem I've ever encountered in my own writing, but maybe I just can't see it there.

RJBlain
Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 3:38 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


I completely agree with that statement. In my own writing, this is painfully obvious, because I learned to write by reading a lot of published fiction. So, my writing has the serious flaw of bad characters, but I have way more than enough backstory and worldbuilding.

Figuring out how to write good characters is freaking hard.
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 4:38 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


Haha, characterization IS freaking hard...

Halford, I do think that fantasy characters could be a little trite but for me the issue lies elsewhere. Fantasy plots often revolve around conflicts between good and evil, and that leaves little space for moral ambiguity and character complexity. As a result, the protagonists are always unmistakably good and perhaps a little cliched? That's not necessarily such a bad thing - just a genre trope perhaps? What do you think?
Halford
Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 5:44 PM
It certainly can be difficult!

I understand the pain. Fantasy does tend to have a lot in it that can be difficult for the writer to express in addition to their characters: new landscapes, new creatures, systems of magic, sometimes new languages or tens of thousands of years of history important to the plot.

But - and this is just how I think of it - isn't that one of the things characters are for? If the plot requires the reader to have an intimate understanding of the mysteries of a created history, why not have a character whose ambition in life is discovering that history? And along the way, that ambition gets them into trouble.

I can see how deep, interesting characters might be a challenge in a generic good/evil plot [but how much fantasy remains that simple these days?]. The character's motivation is simply fight or the dark lord turns all to ash. But even that could be focused on and centred. I mean, clichéd or not, how many people want their village turned to ash? Though you're right, this plot does tend to spawn the 100% 'good' character, and maybe the post I quoted does have a point in this area.

I hope I didn't make it seem like I was trying to call characterisation easy! It's a hard thing. But worldbuilding or backstory, however vital, doesn't have to be in the way. If it's important, it will come out through the experience of the character. If it doesn't -- maybe its importance should be re-examined.
For example, say an elf and a dwarf are walking down a road. They need a place to rest. There's an Inn a little ahead with a rich history - you could stop the story to say something like "The Inn of Cormelíon was built by ... as a ... over a hundred years ago ... since then it..." That gets everything across, certianly. But instead, the Dwarf could simply say - "There's an Inn up ahead. Nice old place, I've stayed there before." This not only points out there's an inn, it also reveals something about the character: they're well-travelled.

As for making characters real, there's a good thread here on Book Country somewhere right now going through it.

RJ, I read a great fantasy novel recently that I thought characterisation was pulled off really well in. After the first chapter, I knew the personalities and abilities of both main characters, and had decided I really liked them, without knowing any backstory at all. It was 'Theft of Swords', by Michael J. Sullivan, if it piques your interest.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2012 2:30 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Hm.  Just ran into a similar discussion on another forum elsewhere on the internet.

I do think some readers critical of characterization just aren't reading the right books....they're reading books by writers who are less interested in the people, and having more fun writing background and action.  But those aren't the only fantasy books out there, by a long shot.   Many writers do write character-driven stories, in fantasy as elsewhere.

For me, character starts the story, and the rest grows around the character...but in both SF and fantasy the setting is usually "other" enough that it does require more wordage than in, say, a literary novel set in a familiar middle-class suburb or even a thriller set in Washington, D.C. using easily researched locations, weapons, political figures.  

Writing complex characters requires different skills than designing a castle complex or a trade network...and it all starts with being interested in people.  Interested enough to listen, observe,  connect what you might've read about psychology, cognition, sensory range,  with real live people.   Writers need to grow beyond whatever shallow assumptions they have about people and their motivations in order to write more interesting characters...if you think most people are boring, then your characters will be...well...boring.  (That's not the only source of boring characters, but it's one of them.) 

From there, a writer has to be willing to know, understand, and respect the main characters, rather than cramming them into an already-constructed plot...let their individual nature and the motivations arising from it drive the plot.  Just because you think a plot-twist is really cool...if you can't connect it reasonably to a character's motivations, it won't work with that character.   For the length of that lack of connection, the character will turn into a plastic toy, being moved through the plot-maze by the writer.  

The technical side of characterization--how to reveal that character to the reader without infodumps and without motivational gaps--is a different topic.  In brief, everything the character does, says, thinks, reveals character.  The reader needs to get that information exactly when it's relevant.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 1:03 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Bad characters in fantasy are like bad characters in any genre. The writer just doesn't know how to blend the characters with the plot and/or world.

Characterization is hard to do regardless of the genre. You have to make a fully formed person with a past, likes, dislikes, interests, education, skills, and so on. They have to be able to react in accordance with this personality that you've given them. You have to make the reader believe this person could be real.

Elizabeth gives some really good points at how you can make this happen, but my advice is to people watch. Sit in a public place and study how groups act, how individuals act. What gestures do people make? What items do they hold? Then branch out from there. Learn a little psychology, or base characters after people you know well to get started. It's all about practice. You can also ask people specifically about your characters to see if they understand them, or have some inkling.

Now, as for when I write, most of my stuff is character centered as anyone who has read it will tell you. I once had my fantasy hating writing professor tell me that I don't let the genre over ride the story. People become invested in the characters, so I try to make them the kind of people that draw you in. 
Natasha Hollerup
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 9:53 AM
Joined: 6/20/2011
Posts: 4


I am finding it difficult to build characters around the world building, and I didn't realize that I was having such a problem. I wish it was easier, but I hope that I get better at it.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 4:51 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


LeeAnna, I agree 100% about the people-watching.   Researching people starts with observation--and as you mentioned can be extended with reading in several fields (history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science.)   For the kind of fantasy I write, it's important to observe not just "my kind of people" but "other kinds of people" as well (life has been kind in giving me opportunity <G>  Rural people, suburban people, urban people; immigrants and natives, black, yellow, brown, and pink people. 

Natasha, characters often reveal themselves to the writer best if they're actively doing something (even if that something never gets into the final story.)   Drop "test characters" into your setting (if that's more advanced at this point) and throw something at them.  Do they react? Do you like how they react?  What does their reaction tell you about them that you didn't know before?   Do you want to live with them for a year?   The first scenes I wrote with one of my most popular characters aren't in the books...but helped me go beyond the basics in understanding her.   (I sent her into a bar in a small town; she was the stranger and the bar was full of local men.   She wasn't comfortable, but she proved herself a character I wanted to write about. 

This approach doesn't work for everyone; it does for me most of the time but not every time..  Another is to develop characters from the inside out (no height/hair color/eye color at the start) and from their past forward into the story.  I had another character--giving me some trouble at the start--so I went back and put her in a crib (yes...something else not in the book.)  Ran her backstory up to the present...what was innate, genetic in origin, what was the result of her parents' style of parenting, what was the result of other family members, of her schooling,  and a few random events thrown in for later use.  How her family saw her; how she saw herself in relation to them.  How the outside world saw her family--and as a result, saw her as one of them, not always as an individual.  What all this meant in terms of her reactions to situations and people. 

As these things fell into place, her character suddenly crystallized--complex, many-faceted, consistent with her entire background--and solved a lot of problems for me.  She had plenty of flaws along with her talents and good traits--a lot of growth potential, a lot of plot-generating potential.   The family background emerged again as a plot-driver, though not for the main plot, when she and her cousin had to learn to work together--and they had baggage behind them.  (Each had heard, in different contexts, "Why can't you be more like your cousin?"   Each had had the other's faults pointed out, too.  Each had been labeled early by the family and had "lived to the label" until finally getting past that--sort of.  Stella the beauty--and that idiot Stella.  Ky the smart one--and Ky the gullible, always helping the wrong lame dog.)

Dunno if either of these approaches would work for you, but it might be worth a try.


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 6:44 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


I've experimented with what Elizabeth is talking about, but instead of just writing a few scenes, I like to write short stories about a formative moment in that character's life. So far I have two complete ones, and they've been quite successful. Especially "Principium." I'm tweaking it right now, but it definitely helped me figure out an important moment in one of my character's back stories.
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 1:03 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


Ooh, another great thread! I struggle with creating realistic, interesting characters in my fantasy work. But I agree that it's difficult no matter the genre. I'm sure I'm repeating someone else's words of wisdom, but you have such a short amount of words to make a good impression, and readers will keep going because they can identify with the characters, not because the world seems cool (in most cases). In my work Aequitas, I feel like I'm walking a boulder uphill: my MC has no past as far as she's concerned, and her purpose is simple and absolute. At first. Then events and people begin to challenge everything she thinks she knows. Suddenly, her black and white world is filled with gray, and the pedestal she's put herself on a bit too lofty. God, I hope I can pull it off.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2012 7:39 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Laura, it often helps to think not of black & white, then gray, but color.  We're a species with color vision (most of us.)  Think of the emotional associations with color when you think of your MC.   This may help you "feel" her as more rounded and complex.   Where did she get that purple streak?  Why is there a muddy-green blob all down one leg?  Etc.

Also, she may not know her past, but you need to, because it's her past  that provides the motivations for how she acts now.  Even when she's not aware of it.   She thinks she knows stuff she finds out isn't quite right--where did she learn that stuff?  Under what conditions?  What impression did it make on her?

Herb Mallette
Posted: Friday, June 22, 2012 2:19 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188


I have an extraordinarily difficult time writing if my characters aren't compelling me. I wrote four books in five years, over half a million words total, because the characters took hold of me and helped me bring their stories out. But in the last year and a half I've struggled with false starts and slow progress on a single novel despite having three or four terrific worlds ready and waiting. I love world-building, and I can spend a tremendous amount of time on it. But no amount of fascination with a world will help me write stories if the people aren't there, or if I don't know them well enough.

Laura Dwyer
Posted: Friday, June 22, 2012 2:41 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


@Elizabeth - great suggestion, and one I hadn't considered (of course). In trying to live inside my characters, I really hadn't thought a lot about her past, even though I know she has one. And the idea that little tidbits of it surface, unbeknownst to her, is brilliant. Thanks!! 
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, June 22, 2012 3:36 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


All right, all right, I have a confession. For those who have read my work, you'll notice a lack of detail in my world. While this is something I have to fix, I leave most of it out because of the tendency for worlds in fantasy and science fiction to over ride the characters. Half of it because I lack the self confidence to just go for it, and the other half because that stuff bores me. I have a few paragraphs I have to rewrite or add because I was disinterested. I know what my world looks like, it isn't vague to me. I know its history and layout, but figuring out what is necessary is hard. I'm at the point where the fun part is done, and now it's all work. So I have a tendency to cut corners and am now paying for it. You could say I have the exact opposite problem most people suffer from. All character, not enough world.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Friday, June 22, 2012 4:02 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


Nevena, I would heartily suggest Jack Chalker's work, particularly the Dancing Gods series, for characters that are "GOOD" and "EVIL" but also a mix of good and evil, real people.

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2012 8:59 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


Thanks for the suggestion, Alexander! I'll definitely check it out =)
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 3:51 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


No sweat Nevena
also, going back and rereading the full thread...  Characters are very much products of their world. worldbuilding SHOULD be done in such a way as to also build the character, by showing how this world affects the people in it.

I think that might be why Chalker, mentioned above. is a bit better in that regard. He likes taking people from one world, and sticking them in another. For example, Dancing Gods takes a trucker and a waitress from our world, and sticks them into a classic swords and sorcery world.


Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 2:27 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Lee Anna, when you say you have trouble figuring out what part of the background of your world is necessary, you've brought up something important.  It's particularly important when you're having to backfill information into an already existing framework.  Maybe this will help.

What is necessary is what the reader needs in order to a) stay oriented (place/time) and b) understand what is going on, including the characters' reasons, at c) this particular point in the story.    "Floating" characters (not sure who they are, where they are, when they are, what they're doing) annoy most readers.  They need to be grounded, cast a shadow.  Mysterious goings on are fun only sometimes in a story--the reader needs to be able to trust that you're going somewhere eventually, and eventually the reader will be given the facts.  But the reader doesn't need to know everything up front--only when lack of that information would cause an uncomfortable level of confusion. 

Grounding a scene--giving characters a particular place to be and in which to act--consists of absolutely vital information (or readers skip) and enhancing information (which creates additional reader-glue.)   "Jane woke up and didn't know where she was" is vague.  Immediately add concrete detail--she looks around and she's in a bed in a small room with flowered wallpaper, or she's lying in a ditch and feels weeds scratching her face, or she's tied to a chair with a bright light shining in her face.  Enhancing detail comes from her: her sensory input.  She sees...she hears...she smells...she feels (touch, not emotion)...she tastes.   Cognitive/sensory dissonance adds both more reality and a story-hook.  She wakes up in an unfamiliar room with flowered wallpaper and lace curtains--but it smells like cow manure.  Or a hospital.  Or a bakery.  She--and the reader, now have a reason to care that she's there, and not somewhere else...they want to know why this dainty bedroom smells wrong. 

If the place would be familiar to readers and to your character, the character can recognize a detail or two--it doesn't take much to orient readers to ordinary things.  If not familiar to readers, but familiar to the character,  convey only that in details the character knows.  "The ship was a standard JX-247--familiar as her own apartment.  She punched the power button..."  

Everything you reveal should be plot-relevant--to the character and to the reader.  You can always enhance it with another sensory input, but not at great length unless that's needed..."She punched the power button, grimacing at the familiar squeal of start-up."   "She sniffed--it smelled like someone hadn't cleaned the recycler..."  (The uncleaned recycler, if that's it, could be a plot point...)

Since you say you tend to leave out background detail, then you (more than someone who puts in way too much) need to be sure that readers have all that they need, while the person who puts in too much needs to be sure they have only what they need.







LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 5:06 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Thanks for the input, Elizabeth.

I've come to notice that the chapter additions I'm working on now have more world detail than I was originally writing in. I'm consciously trying to make sure that readers have enough to orient themselves.
hagenpiper
Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012 10:13 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25




 

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