Fantasy scribes, here's how to write good characters

January 28, 2018

As I work on my fantasy novel, it occurs to me that one of my strengths lies in how I write and develop characters. Don't mistake this for egoism - I'm just as self-critical of my writing as I ever was, as is necessary for any author. But I wanted to share what knowledge and experience I do have, when it comes to creating interesting and believable characters, with other aspiring writers. Without further ado, here are some (non-pro) tips for how to do just that.

Kill your darlings

With the advent of social media, fandom now more than ever has a loud voice, and authors listen. The thing is, the fans are not the writers, and for good reason. I can’t tell you how many times fan support for a particular fictional character has caused that character to overstay his or her welcome (though this happens more often in TV series than in books). A writer keeps the character around because the reader wants more of him or her, but there’s one problem: the character’s backstory or relevance to the plot has come to its natural conclusion, and in the effort to keep that character around, the writer doesn’t know what to do with him or her. We end up with contrived or derivative storylines revolving around this character, or having the character shoehorned into places where he or she simply has no place.

I can easily name two shows I’m a fan of where this happened. In Heroes, a fantasy drama that used to air on NBC, the villain Sylar was a great character, but I felt that his story naturally concluded at the middle of Season 4 (some even believe he should have been killed off in Season 3). Sylar takes control of Peter’s brother Nathan, and Nathan kills himself in order to escape Sylar’s influence. Thing is, Sylar should have died right there and then. It would have given the sacrifice more meaning and served as a fitting conclusion to Sylar’s story. But Sylar came back, and they decided to make him “a good guy.” That plot line was completely unbelievable and not only ruined the character, but essentially disgraced the viewer’s memories of the characters he killed. Nope.

And in Supernatural, the character that definitely overstayed his welcome is Castiel. I’m sorry, Misha Collins is a great actor and Castiel was a great character, but we’re on Season 13 and they’re still trying to find something for this angel to do. Cas supposedly died at the beginning of Season 7, only to return toward the season’s end, in an incredibly convoluted and boring storyline that essentially made Cas’s character that of comedy relief (and, to a lesser extent, a plot device). From Seasons 4 through 6, Castiel served a purpose and had an interesting role in the series. During the seven seasons since then, he has just been an annoying intrusion upon the show that once was supposed to be about two brothers. It’s time to clip this angel’s wings.

But don’t kill for shock value

Now, the reverse is also true. Sometimes, an author will kill off a character whose story is not yet finished, so avoid that, too. Since Game of Thrones became popular, writers suddenly think they constantly need to keep a steady flow of death going in order to shock readers and keep them on the edges of their seats. This simply isn’t true, and leaning too much on murder and death to keep the plot moving also indicates a lack of creativity on the part of the author. And if you’ll take a careful look at George R. R. Martin’s books, you’ll see that many of the major character deaths serve an important purpose or are the results of concluding backstories. The presence of characters like Robb Stark, for example, were no longer necessary as other characters gained prominence. The death of Ned Stark, of course, was crucial to the escalation of events and the driving force behind the plot of the subsequent two books.

Writers must understand when and when not to kill. Keep that narrative sword sharp, but don’t swing it too often. One example of offing a character who still had more to give is on The Walking Dead. I speak not of Glenn, or Andrea, or even Merle, but rather, of Maggie’s sister, Beth. The character was really starting to come into her own, and her chemistry with Daryl was awesome. The two were really starting to come off as a badass duo with lots of character development to explore, and then we got a hamfisted kidnapping/hospital storyline that dragged on and centered around Beth, only to result in her death, which barely seemed to affect Maggie in the long run. Another show that killed off too many characters was Sons of Anarchy, so that by the time Season 5 rolled around, most of the best actors were gone from the show, and Season 7, despite having a great finale, was largely a dragged out, yawn-inducing affair revolving around people you just didn’t care about. Oh, and Supernatural – you should have killed Cas and Crowley seven seasons ago, but you never should have let Bobby or Charlie die.

Characters need to learn from their mistakes

A lack of character growth ruins the suspension of disbelief. Now, it’s true that plenty of people in real life don’t learn from all their mistakes – but they often learn from at least a few of them, and your characters should, too. If you’ve written five books and your character has not evolved in any way or learned anything, has not gained any sort of wisdom, or even apathy or cynicism (dejection can technically be a form of growth), readers are going to lose interest in that character, and look elsewhere (possibly, at another book series). I’ll point out some examples of characters who grew and developed, and ones who didn’t.

Rand al’Thor is an example, in my opinion, of a character who doesn’t grow, at least over the course of five books (I haven’t read the rest of The Wheel of Time series yet). The fantasy series’ main character continues to display the same stubbornness, immaturity, and indecisiveness. On the other hand, we actually see growth in the supporting characters, like Mat and Egwene, making Rand’s lack of development even more glaring. Another example is that of Noah, or “HRG” – Claire’s father in Heroes. Instead of developing trust between this father and his daughter, the show continued to put him in positions where he snuck around behind her back or did nefarious things, to the point where it could no longer even be argued that it was for any “greater good” – the writers were simply doing it to create needless drama.

Examples of characters who do grow include Harry Potter, Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark (among others), both Thor and Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, Thea Queen in Arrow, Barry Allen/Flash in The Flash, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Study the writing behind these characters and learn from it, because that’s how you make the reader or viewer care about those characters, take them seriously, and continue to follow their storylines.

Keep that natural chemistry going

Sometimes you’ll find that you create a group of characters who just get on well together. The dialogue flows nicely and they just bounce off one another with this great, creative, and fun energy. Some of the examples people don’t often mention are the ones most worth noting – one, off the top of my head, is the chemistry between Han Solo and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They have this father-daughter vibe going on, and it’s quite enjoyable to watch. Rey and Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, have no chemistry whatsoever in The Last Jedi; they just don’t click, and it hurts the story. Look, if you’re working on a puzzle, you don’t force two pieces together that don’t connect, so why do it with characters? Take care to position your characters so that they can play off one another in an effective way. It’s true that sometimes a lack of chemistry can be used for comedic effect, but implement this sparingly, if at all. More often, readers really enjoy seeing two or more characters they like have really snappy, energetic exchanges of dialogue, bonding experiences together, or witty, easy-flowing banter.

One important thing to keep in mind is that if you want your reader to follow a handful of main characters that are always together, you need to make sure they have good chemistry. In Harry Potter, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all great together, and so were Luke, Han, and Leia in Star Wars. Wil, Amberle, and Eretria were another trio who had fantastic chemistry in The Shannara Chronicles, especially due to a lot of unspoken and subtextual romantic tension; on the other hand, in the series’ second season, Wil and new character Mareth had very poor chemistry, leading us to miss seeing the original three characters together. Be aware of which characters belong together, and which don’t. Also, this is one of the times when you should listen to your readers – if characters get on well with one another, they’ll pick up on that. If they don’t, they usually won’t enjoy reading about them being together, or may instead look forward to seeing one or more of those main characters interact with a supporting character you may not have thought about.

Sympathetic villains vs. dark overlords

A lot of people say that fantasy has a lack of good villains becuase of the “dark lord” problem. Star Wars has the Emperor, The Lord of the Rings has Sauron, Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort, so on and so forth. It’s often argued that the more interesting villains are the ones with which the reader can sympathize; i.e., every well-written villain is, in his or her own mind, the hero of his or her own personal story. Certainly, Darth Vader thought he was doing great things when he joined the Dark Side to try and save the life of his wife Padmé, and Game of Thrones’ Lannister family seemed despicable at first, until Jaime lost his hand and was shown to care about his children and other characters, and Tyrion, despite being a drunk with a love for prostitutes, went through hell and came out of it a wiser and more respectable man. Whether it’s a sympathetic villain or one who finds redemption, readers and viewers are really drawn to these types of stories. On the other hand, purely evil dark lords are poorly conceived, cardboard cut-out characters that often just exist to move the plot along and give the hero something to fight against. They’re not characters that will please the reader or viewer in any way, right?

Wrong. At least, sometimes that’s wrong. You see, there’s a reason why horror films are so successful. Most people have an innate fear of the unknown, and that’s why The Exorcist scared more people than any gore or slasher film. It’s why demons and zombie plagues are so unsettling – they stem from something the characters of the show, film, or book often don’t understand and are afraid of. If you can take that fear and embody it in the form of a menacing, shadowy enemy, you’ve potentially got a great character. But you have to sell that fear – you have to make it work. The Lord of the Rings is great, but the menace of Sauron is not felt enough to make the character anything more than something to simply be overcome; to be beaten. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, is an effective “dark lord,” because we constantly feel his presence through other characters and in the narrative itself. Harry literally has a scar from an encounter with Voldemort, and most of the main characters are absolutely terrified to speak his name. Even Voldemort’s followers are scared to death of him, and many actually seem to kneel in fearful worship of him. This is all great set-up for Voldemort’s actual true appearance in Book Four, and when he finally is introduced, it really shakes the reader because it’s been built up so much and so effectively.

Both sympathetic and “dark lord” type villains can be fantastic, if they’re well-written and the author has an understanding of what does and doesn’t make them work. If you’re writing a sympathetic villain, or one who will eventually be redeemed, give that character traits the reader will be able to identify with on some level; desires, regrets, trauma, pain, etc. Make that character care about something or someone, and be sure to give him or her the same range of emotions as the hero – it’s how a villain uses (or misuses) those emotions that make him stand apart from the protagonist. On the other hand, if you’re writing a dark, malevolent villain, give him or her a lot of early set-up, make sure the reader experiences the character’s evil through the eyes of other characters at least sometimes, and develop an aura of terror by not telling the reader everything. The less you know about a character like this, the more you question and feel uncertain about him or her, which can make well-executed scenes featuring this kind of character extremely nerve-wracking. This is one reason why Voldemort was more disturbing in the Harry Potter books than the films: in the books, he had glowing, red, snake-like eyes, and that made you think – how did he get this way? What’s behind those eyes? Whereas, in my opinion, his human eyes in the film adaptations sucked the fearsomeness right out of him.

Sometimes, a villain can even be both – he or she can start out as mysterious and menacing, and become sympathetic later, but be careful with this – it still has to be believable. A good example of this is Sylar in Heroes; throughout much of the first season, we see him only as a man in shadow who cuts people’s heads apart and does something – we don’t know what – to their brains. This is exactly the type of thing you want if you’re trying to make viewers or readers clutch the arms of their chairs and wonder what plans this character has, what drives him, and where he will appear and what awful thing he will do next. Of course, when we finally do meet Sylar, we eventually sympathize with him on at least some level. It’s a mark of good writing when the reader or viewer cares almost as much about the villain as the hero, whether that care manifests as an obsessive fear, or genuine concern. Tap into one or both of those feelings, and you’ve got a good antagonist for your series.

Neither damsels nor sexpots

It’s an understatement that fantasy fiction in particular has a major woman problem, though today, many writers are course-correcting and either improving old female characters or writing fantastic new ones. Nevertheless, women are so often poorly written or objectified in fantasy novels, series, and films. In the 60s and 70s, the most common trope for a female character was that of the damsel in distress, a beautiful lady always trapped or in some dire situation and waiting for the brave man to come to her rescue. This permeated much more than just fantasy – everything from Western films to action movies capitalized on this concept.

Then, in the 80s and 90s, we very much had the opposite. The woman did not necessarily need to be saved, but she was just there to titillate the reader or viewer, or the other characters. She was often a scantily-clad, mysterious and seductive sexpot, making the boys argue over her as though she were some sort of prize to be claimed or won, and causing all kinds of idiotic, macho antics and acts of bravado in her name. She herself had few, if any, actual character traits and really served no other purpose in the story. The original Star Wars trilogy managed to adhere to both of these tropes – Leia was a princess in need of Luke and Han to rescue her, and by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around in ’83, one of the most famous scenes had her barely wearing any clothes.

Indeed, the sexpot character isn’t just an issue that arises in books. In TV and film, we often get women who are just there to be “eye candy” for viewers. Megan Fox is an example of this. Her character in Transformers is mainly just there to show off her body to the film’s target teenage audience and to create sexual tension. Her actual character is vapid and without any narrative purpose. Even though the damsel in distress trope has more or less been relegated to the stuff of decades’ past, the sexpot one still prevails, and many fantasy stories are full of horny nymphets and tempting seductresses who have no other identifiable character attributes beyond that, unless it’s to blow shit up or kill people (see the Resident Evil films, the Underworld films, and Catwoman in Batman Returns), prancing around in a skin-tight or scantily clad outfit and staring daggers with her sexy, heavily mascaraed eyes while doing so.

Dear writers: don’t perpetuate this degrading, objectifying problem. Women are not simply “things” to be disregarded, sidelined, or used for the arousal of men – even when writing lesbian characters, authors miss the point entirely and use this as an excuse to write sex scenes meant to titillate readers. Bad, bad, bad. Instead, develop and write a fully fleshed out (no pun intended) girl or woman with any and all of the sorts of traits and emotions you would give to any character of the opposite sex. And women should not be carbon copies of one another, either – that’s also quite disrespectful. 

Game of Thrones is an example of a series that does an excellent job of portraying all sorts of wonderful and sympathetic female characters, with varying personalities and who come from different walks of life. Brienne of Tarth is defined not be her sexuality, but by her loyalty, her need to carve out a path for herself in a patriarchal society, etc. Arya is defined not be her sexuality – in fact, nothing remotely sexual ever happens to her or has anything to do with her – but rather, by her need for vengeance and her desire to attain a sense of belonging. That’s right, your women can be good or evil! They can do great or despicable things, like any other character, but please, don’t make them two-dimensional. Don’t make them dependent upon any man unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, and don’t make them sex objects.

Good examples to follow are, thankfully, available today, as books, shows, and films slowly improve in this area. See Gal Gadot’s fantastic take on Wonder Woman, see Rey in the new Star Wars trilogy (she’s one of my absolute favorite characters), see Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, see Eretria in The Shannara Chronicles, read about Hermione in Harry Potter, read about Shallan in The Stormlight Archive, read about Katniss in The Hunger Games, read about Lizbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and watch/read about Daenerys, Arya, Brienne, Missandei, and Cersei in Game of Thrones

The future is here, and in most good fantasy fiction, women finally matter. Make sure your writing is reflective of that.

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