Jan 24 2011 3:33pm

Characters: What Are They Good For?

GandalfThere 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.

2. SWS
Nice piece about character building, but I am horrified at the number of times the word "rape" is used. Seems like that severe character flaw has been used far too often (once is too much IMO.)
3. I can't think of an alias
Couldn't agree more, although I would like to nominate Tyrion Lannister, Saltheart Foamfollower, Mat Cauthon and Karsa Orlong for inclusion on the list.

A sense of humor doesn't hurt (although in Karsa's case it is unintentional)
4. blueworld
Interesting thoughts on characterization, though you and I will just have to disagree on whether some of your examples are good characters. Jubal? Heinlein's mouthpiece and wish-fulfillment fantasy. Not a character I find well-rounded or believable.

I think a big key to good characters is realizing that different people think and behave differently. It's easy to write a hero that's like yourself, and not so easy to write someone completely different. Characters need strong personalities so that they have believable reasons to make bad decisions, to do things that make the plot more complicated, to work together or oppose each other.
5. hapax
Err, can I just note that there is a HUGE gulf between "rapist" and "a penchant for unconventional sex"?

Just like there is an equally huge gulf between "flawed character" and "character I will never willingly share headspace with again."

I know, mileage varies, to each his own, etc. etc. But it would be nice if the author of the article had allowed that there were more to not liking a particular character than prudish squeamishness.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
The bit about invulnerable skin is a later addition to the legend. In fact in the Iliad, after Patroklos has gotten himself killed and lost Achilles' armor, it's explicitly stated that Achilles can't enter the battle without armor, and his mother has to go and get a miraculous new set of armor from the forge-god. (It's true that this new set of armor is extra-good and stands up to blows that would have penetrated ordinary armor, which may have contributed to the invulnerability thing -- it's also my personal theory that someone conflated Achilles with the bronze automaton that Daedalos made to guard Crete, whose blood was molten copper held in with a stopper at the heel.) Meddling deities I will give you.
Paul Skelding
7. limubai2000
Glokta is an awesome character, easily my favorite in all of Abercrombie's work, scratch that, my favorite character of the last decade. I found myself cheering him on by the second book in the series.

I'd add Durzo Blint from Brent Week's Night Angel trilogy to the list. He tried to fix his own flaw and the "fix" turned into a bigger flaw.
8. GuruJ
Reading through the "Guards" series, I get the feeling that Pratchett always intended Carrot to be the main hero.

But Carrot was just too nice; it was the tarnished, world-weary Vimes who turned out to have more stories to be told.

Also see: Homer Simpson.
9. JohnFrost
"Of all my favorite characters, Croaker is the most...human."

I don't know if you meant for me to read that in a choked up William Shatner voice, but I did.
Jon Sprunk
11. JonSprunk1
Mr. Frost, I did indeed. You win a (proverbial) cookie.
Matthew Brown
12. morven
@hapax: I didn't see JonSprunkt say you had to like these characters, only that they are characters that people DO like, and that they are characters that have traditionally villainous attributes who are cast in the hero's role nonetheless, and that work for some people incredibly well.

I can't stand Covenant, personally, but it's not the rape that does it. That, he repents, and suffers punishment for. It's all the rest of his personality.
13. greggarious
Bravo for mentioning Gray Mouser. Classic rogue, though romantic and prone to childish whims and depression.
I'd add Pitchwife from Covenant. So obviously flawed in body, so noble in soul.
And Karl Edward Wagner's Kane. Now there was a brutally self-serving tyrant, a visciously malevolent schemer, and a spreader of utter choas and doom. But he was not so much immoral as amoral, a force beyond good and evil. Great fun to watch him thwarted in his grand selfish ambitions, knowing that even he didn't really care in the end. Just a way to while away the millennia. 'Part savage, part savant, with a dash of satanic seasoning' read the jacket blurb.
14. filkferengi
All the discussion of rapists and rape explains where the women are; they wisely stayed away!
15. Eigon
I was just going to ask if females were allowed to have characters!
A meeting between Gandalf and Granny Weatherwax would be interesting!

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