Characters: What Are They Good For?

There is a memo stuck beside my computer screen. It’s the only writing advice hanging in my den. Four words in capital letters.

“Character is the story.”

I don’t know if it’s a maxim or an article of faith, but whenever I get stuck in my writing, when I can’t make heads or tails of what I’m trying to say, I go back to the characters. For all the theories about plot and structure, narrative versus dialogue, I don’t give much of a damn about a story if the characters don’t grab me. In fact, characters are usually the first thing I remember about my favorite stories. They’re like old friends.

So, if we accept that interesting characters are a vital ingredient to a successful story, then a writer’s first job is create such a cast. Easy, right? Well, perhaps. What makes a good character? Pick up a writing guide on the subject and you’ll likely find pages of advice on the subject. I’ll break it down.

Writers are encouraged to give their characters traits that people can admire, like courage, loyalty, and a sense of justice. That sounds good, but modern storytelling isn’t like a strip from Goofus and Gallant. Not every character needs to be a paragon of virtue or a dastardly villain. In fact, we can often get more mileage out of characters who don’t display such obvious traits.

Take a semi-psychopathic mass murderer who consorts with demon lords and prefers the company of his power-mad sword over human companionship. Hero or villain? Well, if you ask the fans of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, you’d find out that Elric is both flawed and heroic.

What about an immortal soldier who often kills first and asks questions later, who can only have sex through rape, and is so thoroughly despicable that only other bloody-handed mercenaries can stand to be around him? Janet Morris’s creation, Tempus from the Thieves’ World series, isn’t always likeable, but he’s damned entertaining.

Would you root for a self-loathing leper who rapes a young woman trying to help him? Maybe, if he was Thomas Covenant from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson.

That brings us to the next nugget of character-building wisdom, that every character must have a flaw, like a drinking problem or a soft spot for serial killers. On the surface, this is good advice. Gone are the days when people would accept perfect heroes and heroines. We demand more realistic persons in our fiction! But we don’t want a character that is too flawed, either.

So, all a writer needs to do is mix together a few admirable traits, stir in a penchant for unconventional sex, and—voila!—we have the perfect, well-rounded, interesting, troubled-but-still-likable character. Right? Well, there’s a little more to it than that.

There is another vital element to this strange alchemy: heart.

Heart is the difference between Samwise Gamgee and some poor schlub who gets guilt-tripped into going on a very long walk. Heart is what makes us care about a character and be willing to follow her adventures through thick and thin, always hoping that she gets the guy and saves the world.

But why bother? Isn’t everything about glittering vampires and secret chambers under the Vatican these days? Well, not to everyone. Some folk still value the sentiment more than the thrill ride, and explosions and shoot-outs don’t exactly have a lot of emotional depths. Take the most amazing, explosive concept and infuse it with paper-thin characters and you get, well, Transformers 2.

On the other hand, if you build genuine characters who are true to themselves and sensitive to their surroundings, they will do and say extraordinary things no matter where you place them, whether it’s in an 18th-century English manor or on a starship orbiting the fifth moon of Jupiter. They will breathe life into your story. In fact, they will become the story, and when that happens it’s like spinning straw into gold.

Some of my favorite SF/F literary characters are:

  • Gandalf, from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know Frodo is the real hero, Aragon is the king, and Samwise has a heart bigger than Mount Doom, but from the first time he shows up on Bilbo Baggins’ doorstep to the final goodbye, Gandalf lends depth and intelligence to every scene he’s in.
  • Croaker, from The Black Company by Glen Cook. Physician, soldier, and historian, Croaker is the emotional core of Cook’s not-so-nice band of brothers. Of all my favorite characters, Croaker is the most…human. He has aches and pains. He bitches and complains. But no matter how rough the road becomes, he does what has to be done to keep his crew alive.
  • Jubal Harshaw, from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. He’s cantankerous, sexist, and rude. He’s also a new age pater familias in this vibrant classic about love, sex, politics, religion, and just about everything important to humans on this planet.
  • Hector (Hektor), from The Iliad by Homer. Not technically SFF, but grant me this exception. Let me just state for the record that Achilles is a whiny brat. But Hector not only stands up to this demigod with impenetrable flesh, knowing its suicide, he actually holds his own until Athena interferes. What a hose job. In a rematch with no invulnerable flesh and no meddling deities, Hector wins hands-down.
  • Glokta, from The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie. This one was a tough choice between Glokta and the Bloody Nine, but in the end I had to go for the torturer. Glokta is a bag of flaws, from his grotesque physical appearance (the result of, ironically, torture) to his current career, but he faces every day with a dry wit as sharp as the tools he uses to wring confessions from his victims. It’s hard to root for a character that knows all the ways to make you scream, but Glokta is nothing if not persistent.
  • The Gray Mouser, from the Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser saga by Fritz Leiber. The perfect balance to Fafhrd boisterous antics, The Gray Mouser is as clever and resourceful as his sword is sharp. Loyal to a fault and hopelessly romantic, The Gray Mouser showcases the best traits of old-school sword & sorcery.

Jon Sprunk’s debut novel, Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books) was released in June 2010, and the sequel is due out this summer (2011). For more about his and his work, check out his website linked above.


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