Getting the Best From Your Characters

If you write fantasy fiction (or at least read it) you’ll be familiar with the trend of having multiple viewpoint characters. It’s become such a part of fantasy, that we almost come to expect it when we pick up a new book. As writers, this can be a blessing… but it can also be a curse. You see, every time you add a viewpoint to your novel, you divide the reader’s emotions, thereby making your job 2/3/4x harder. That’s the theory at least.

Want to know what I think? I think a writer’s job is only as difficult as he chooses to make it. If you start off planning your novel and throwing in characters left, right and centre then you’re going to have a hard time. Characters should be carefully considered before even making it into your plan, let alone your actual first draft. If you add a character whenever you feel like it, you’ll soon end up swamped and having to contend with dozens of potential plot threads.

Think of it like this: every character equals a new story to tell. Every character equals a chance that you’ll lose your readers. But if you think of those two sentences together, you’ll soon start to see how you create an effective character. It’s all about the story.

Take a look at your characters. Now ask yourself some questions. What is that character’s story? What do they have to do with the main plot? What will they/do they actually do in your book? Too many times I have created characters who just seem to be there for the sake of it; characters who don’t have their own story but instead piggyback on the main character’s.

Here’s an example for you…

Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He loves the Maid Marian but has to contend with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham for her affections.

Now, what if we also had Little John as a viewpoint character?

Little John is Robin’s friend and greatest ally. As Robin and his Merry Men plot to defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham once and for all, Little John must ready the men for battle.

Meh. Kinda boring, isn’t it? I mean, what are we going to get from Little John that we don’t get from Robin Hood? Maybe a few scenes focusing on the battle tactics and training of the Merry Men, but that’s it. So what if we gave the character some depth. What if we gave him his own story?

Little John has been with Robin Hood since the beginning. But as he readies the Merry Men for a daring raid on Nottingham to end the Sheriffs reign of terror, something preys on John’s mind. A son he had thought dead almost a decade ago has been sighted in Nottingham under the care of a corrupt friar named Tuck. If John is to reunite with his son and win his affections, he will need to convince Tuck to side with Robin’s men in their righteous struggle.

Ok, it’s not great, but you get the idea. Give each of your characters a purpose and a perspective all of their own. In reality, our lives don’t all revolve around, say, President Obama, the Queen or the astronauts up in the ISS just because they’re deemed important. We all have our own stuff going on. Make sure your characters do too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you develop your characters? Got any tips to share?

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Stuck? It’s not you, it’s your character!

Traits

When I start writing something new, whether it’s a new story or the first chapter for a new character, I occasionally find myself not fully getting into the writing. Usually, it’s a case of going back and doing a little more plotting, character development or just taking a break to collect my thoughts. On rare occasions, though, I realise what the real problem is… the character.

I ran into this problem recently, in fact. I had two main characters that I was intending to use to tell the story. They were both fully formed in my mind and I felt that I knew all about them and knew how they would speak, react and live. The only thing was, one of the characters didn’t seem right. I felt like I was writing a sub-plot (and not a very interesting one). I thought about ways to change this character’s story around and make them more interesting to follow. In the end, nothing worked. I knew that this character needed to be in the story, but he just wasn’t a viewpoint character.

So, I took another character that I had been developing and explored him in more detail. He was a little older, grittier, more bitter and had something to prove to the world. Now this was the kind of character that I could really do something with. What’s more, he was the opposite of my other viewpoint character and I could already see conflict emerging between them.

I can’t give you any concrete advice on spotting whether your character might be wrong. It’s instinct, really. Try writing a chapter with that character and see how it flows. Read it back to yourself and see if you like the character and believe their motives. If not, strip it back down and try another tack. When you’ve exhausted all possible ways of salvaging the character, then you can start thinking about a new character. Don’t just throw characters away straight off the bat, though. They need development and time to grow in your mind. If you’re struggling to come up with characters who excite you, try thinking of a negative trait and a positive one and then amplifying them for the purposes of your character. Conflicting traits are present in real people and they provide great inner conflict for your story.

First Person vs. Third Person

I thought I would talk a little about viewpoint in today’s post. I know it’s a topic that’s frequently discussed across the internet, but I wanted to share my own experiences with viewpoints with you all. Who knows, one of you might find it helpful!

First, a list of pros and cons:

First Person

Pros

  • Easy to get inside the character’s head from the start.
  • Easy to develop a distinctive voice, as the character ‘talks’ to the reader.
  • More immediate and personal.

Cons

  • Very limited in its scope (difficult to follow more than one character).
  • The writer’s voice can become lost amongst the character’s thoughts.
  • Can often feel ‘reflective’ and difficult to speculate on future events.
  • No danger – the character survives or they would not be telling the story.

Third Person

Pros

  • Perfect vehicle for putting across the author/writer’s voice.
  • Preferred style for many works of fiction. Readers sometimes put off by 1st person.
  • Great for covering a wide-ranging, epic story as multiple characters can be used as viewpoints.
  • Can become as personal as 1st person if the writing is good (close 3rd person).

Cons

  • Can be more difficult to use for inexperienced writers.
  • Requires hard work and solid writing to get readers connecting to characters.
  • Can become too ‘loose’ and detached if the writer isn’t careful.

My Thoughts

I personally prefer the use of third person when writing. I tend to write in a close-ish third person as I enjoy being inside the character’s head as much as possible. Sometimes, I’ll take a wider view of the world for the story’s purposes, but never for very long. I have written a couple of stories in first person and I remember particularly enjoying writing one of them. Overall, though, I found it restrictive for the sort of writing that I like to do. Maybe my style is just not suited to first person. Maybe I just need to learn a few more tricks.

Your Thoughts

It’s open to the floor now. What do you think?

~ James