Nine Worlds: Writing Realistic Characters

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Breaking the Glass Slipper live podcast! Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are genres created and loved by women as much as men, and yet the majority of the dialogue surrounding them still suggest that women are in the minority. Breaking the Glass Slipper is here to prove to all genre lovers that there is a place for female writers and great female characters amongst the men folk!
Podcast hosts: Megan Leigh, Lucy Hounsom, Charlotte Bond
Guests: Anna Smith-Spark, RJ Barker

You will doubtless be able to listen to the full audio recording of this session on the Glass Slipper website at some point soon, but here’s my notes from the session.

A fundamental part of getting your reader to engage with your work is by having realistic characters. Anna Smith-Spark and RJ Barker were asked how they achieved this. The first point they made was that you shouldn’t actually try to put the whole person on a page. People are far too complex to pin down like that. Instead, provide a skeleton with hooks included that the reader can identify with. The same goes for physical description – don’t pin it down, but make it something evocative. This actually game up in Ian Thomas’ presentation on creating horror, which I’ll post in a couple of weeks, and he cited Agatha Christie as an excellent practitioner. One of Christie’s descriptions is ‘she was the type of woman who wore limp dresses’ – a description that gives us no physical details but an instinctive knowledge of who she is and what she looks like, drawn from our own minds.

Humour and moments of humanity are so important for making emotional connections, both with the reader and other characters. You can’t be serious all the time – there’s got to be a light in the eyes at some point. As Joss Whedon said:

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I know he’s got into trouble lately but this is still a good point.

Similarly, and this isn’t breaking new ground but it bears repeating, don’t make them perfect. Flaws are more interesting than merits; Wolverine is more interesting than Superman. But don’t overcompensate in that direction – Batman is so depressing!

Integrating Character & Setting

Where your character comes from is crucial for making them believable. We are products of our environment, who function within that society. Your characters should reflect that. Socially prevalent attitudes to things like gender, slavery, class, capitalism and so on should be reflected in the character – and if they’re not, it needs to be for a good reason. Slaves born into slavery accepted that they were slaves, for example, and those who owned them considered slavery the norm.

Language and vocabulary is equally important, as it shapes how you think about certain things. There’s plenty of examples in real-life languages, but the first article I came across is about the use of Chinese Hanzi phonograms which stack certain ‘words’ to create completely different meanings. How does the character’s linguistic background impact their thinking, and perception of new environments, people or concepts? How does that, in turn, impact other people’s perception of them?

The point was made that, in a lot of genre fiction, characters end up in situations that we have no real-world examples of and which therefore are challenging to make realistic. Smith-Sparks and Barker suggested a solution to this – find historical analogues, read first-hand accounts of them, and use the emotions and challenges from those. The example given, which I love, compared dragon-hunting to 18th century whale hunting – insanely dangerous and dealing with an animal considerably larger than you.

As a nice closing note, Adrian Tchaikovsky (who was in the audience) made the point that realism isn’t always the right way to go. Dithering is boring to read, and people don’t change their world perceptions because of a stirring speech. If your character is swayed from their cultural stance on slavery when someone gives them a passionate lecture about manumission abolitionism, that’s believable. If it happened in real life, it really wouldn’t be.

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A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists

Next week: the darker side of fairytales

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