When it comes to writing – novels, short stories, scripts – you first have to come up with believable characters. So how do authors and scriptwriters go about creating an unforgettable character, and what are the tricks of turning them into a series or franchise?
PANELLISTS: Stephen Gallagher, Robin Hobb, Jasper Kent, Fiona McIntosh, Suzanne McLeod, Thomas F. Monteleone, World Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013
The panel discussion on character development could have gone on all day and still had plenty of things to say, but there was only an hour allocated on the programme so obviously they were limited in how much they could cover. The discussion was roughly divided into two parts – what makes a good character, and what makes a good series character.
Emotional investment is vital. It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is Persil-clean, a bit dodgy or downright evil – if they are charismatic and able to engage the reader on an emotional level, then your audience will invest and root for them. Hannibal Lecter was given as the classic example here, which led to one of the panellists saying ‘when we’re at our worst, we’re at our most interesting’. Consistently upright characters are usually quite dull (Pratchett’s Captain Carrot being a notable exception); we want to see the dark underbelly. It gives the character depth and, crucially, conflict. Conflict is the key to any story and character. One of the first steps to character development is to work out what their drive and conflict is – what do they want and what’s in the way?
There was some discussion over what happens when writers are dictated to by their characters (i.e. when characters seem to disobey what the writer originally had planned for the plot). The panellists disagreed over whether this was an indication of a lack of professionalism or not. One (Thomas F. Monteleone?) quoted Nabokov, saying ‘Really good writers are always in control of their characters’, whereas Robin Hobb said ‘When your character takes control, unpredictable and wonderful things happen, and that’s when the magic happens’. It seemed to come down to whatever approach works best for you. They all agreed, however, that you can’t blame your characters’ minds for the dark and horrible things they do – you have to accept that this is all coming from your head.
On the subject of villains, this is something I think I’ve covered before but I’m going to repeat what the panel said anyway. Villains should be heroes in their own minds, doing something they absolutely believe in. It makes them more realistic and far more interesting. Stephen Gallagher said that every story needs ‘flawed good versus complex evil’ – without both, it becomes uninteresting.
A series character is different from a one-novel ‘solo’ character. They’re long distance runners, needing to save up certain reveals and developments for further down the line. There has to be a pact between the reader and writer that what’s seen in the first story will be developed over time, and to give it a chance to do so. Don’t give it all away at once. Every story has to challenge the character in a new way. If the end of the story puts everything back the way it was, what’s the point in telling the story at all? (The James Bond franchise seems to have done okay out of it, but I didn’t feel brave enough to challenge the panel on that one.)
That said, you can’t end up with too much happening to one person, or it becomes unbelievable (Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden was cited here). The series character must have enough depth to experience multiple ‘defining’ stories, without becoming some kind of disproportionately traumatised/experienced monster.