Recently I’ve been talking to quite a lot of people about the trials of characterisation. How do you make a character nuanced, sympathetic (or not), and above all real? The first trap to avoid, of course, is the ever-present danger of the Mary-Sue, which can afflict even the most experienced of writers. If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘Mary-Sue’ read this article and then consider whether you are guilty. The criticism is NOT just applicable in fanfic, so be alert!
One of the generally accepted pieces of wisdom in writing is ‘write what you know’. Unfortunately this can only take you so far in fantasy writing, which is what I primarily do. Being a LARPer, I am lucky enough to have experienced bumping into a group of orcs on a dark night, but that isn’t something everyone can draw on. How about substituting going to a scary meeting with your boss for that fight with the ogre? It’s surprising what you can make relevant.
I usually don’t have too much of a problem with characterisation, possibly due to a tendency to have conversations with my characters whenever I’m walking somewhere. Often out loud. Yes, I am that crazy muttering girl. Recently, however, I’ve run up against a bit of a problem: narrator bias. In my current project there is a major character who can do no wrong in the narrator’s eyes. In actual fact he’s a bit of a jerk, but it is very difficult indeed to get that across. My solution is to use another character who really doesn’t like him, and have the narrator deal with the interpersonal tension. In a way it adds depth to all three voices, but it is one of the tougher challenges I’ve had to deal with and I’m not sure if I’ve managed to solve it adequately yet. Time, and maybe beta readers, will tell.
One really good way of adding depth to a character is by interviewing them. This is not necessarily appropriate for all characters or even all stories, but a couple of friends have said that it’s helped them properly visualise their protagonists and even generate plot points. There are a number of suggested interviews around – quite a good (if lengthy) one is here.
Don’t forget that it’s just as important to make the Bad Guy three-dimensional. What’s driving him/her/it to act in the way they do? What are they like in person? Why the obsession with white cats and a weakness for monologuing? If you’ve got, for example, a flaming eye on top of a tower as your main opponent, then why does he want to take over the world? How is he recruiting and feeding his Hordes of EvilTM, especially if his home turf is a wasted plain upon which no life will grow?
I have to admit that I often outsource this. The raptor has a part-time job as an Evil Genius Consultant, and the amount of impact this has can’t be understated. It means that the bad guy really does think completely differently to the good guys, because someone other than me is coming up with his plans. This is one of the reasons I love roleplaying so much – the collaboration of imaginations, which automatically generates new ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask other people for suggestions or ‘what ifs’. If you have multiple characters, then you should be dealing with multiple points of view. So go out and find them.