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Homo Fabula

Updated on July 12, 2011


Vandenita Copyright Desmin Williams 2010
Vandenita Copyright Desmin Williams 2010

Storytelling Humans

"Remember - a storyteller wants to be all of his characters or knows he's already all of them." - James Berry

I suppose this hub is going to be about characters and their relation to us, though as usual, I have little idea of where it is headed. Do bear with me.

There are certain clichés that are, for any self-respecting fantasy writer, a giant 'no'. Clichés are clichés for a reason - they've been used, repeatedly, and now that formula is old and will turn off a good percentage of your audience. It worked for the originals at the time (and then lovely things like manga, anime, bad televised fantasy series and films came along and hammered any originality out of them). It is quite likely not going to work for you now.

For example, your blond haired, blue eyed farmboy whose life gets swept away by a mysterious stranger, who spends a good 80% of your first novel wide-eyed and confused, has been used so many times it's painful. Eddings did this well. It moved through several authors until it came to Paolini, and by that point he might as well have been beating its corpse with a cat o' nine tails.

The damsel heroine is useful - but turn away from the usual two-dimensional 'oh no, I'm far too pathetic to do anything for myself' route. She's just a catalyst, and no character you ever create should ever purely be a catalyst if you intend to use them for more than two pages.

There's a fair amount of research that says that we like to kill off parents because they just get in the way. Which is true, it's a little irritating to have to have your epic hero return home to visit mummy and daddy. But really, 'his parents were brutally murdered when he was twelve and now he's moody and bitter and wants revenge' is so worn down at this point. Revenge can be a good plot when done right, but oftentimes, it isn't done right. It becomes an excuse for everything. You can't answer every question about your character with, 'Yeah, but his parents were murdered'. We know. We read that part. Move on.

Another giant 'no' is the all-powerful. No one is impermeable. I write with the one solid rule of every character having at least one big weakness/flaw and around three or four others that are less concerning. They make characters interesting. The perfect knight is dead. Galahad is well into the pages of history. And a lot of the time, when we see a Galahad-esque character, we roll our eyes and start praying for some abysmal event to come along and knock some reality into him. Magic cannot do everything. Muscle cannot do everything. Brains cannot do everything. They have their strengths, but they also have their weakness. Balance is essential.

Your villain did not just wake up one morning evil, either. When your villain is 'just evil' and you explain nothing about why, they become two dimensional. Your villain is as important as your hero, if not moreso. A story will stand or fall based on whether your antagonist grabs people. The worst thing is when a villain is both all-powerful and 'just evil'. He becomes another catalyst, and you can't get by on having a paper villain. You make it obvious from the outset that his purpose is to stand there and look bad for a while before Galahad and Damsel come along with a pair of scissors.

Whether your character wants to be along on the trip or not, they have motives. Whether the motive is 'saving the world' (and God, avoid that phrase where possible) or getting the Hell away from these lunatics he's caught up with, he still has a motive. He ought to have several. Every last one of your cast should be up to their own thing. They are people. I have my motives, as you have yours. On occasion, they clash. That's life. The whole point of a fantasy story is based on motives.

That said, I think this is my first rule of characters; fear not the drama.

Drama is excellent. It's juicy. It gives you subplot without even needing to think about it. If Galahad hates Wizard-Hat, there are at least fifty possibilities for character clashes. Especially when you add other characters into the mix. 'Galahad hates Wizard-Hat because Damsel actually fancies the pants off Wizard-Hat instead' is just ripe with it. That's also a bit of a cliché in itself - but you get the drift.

A character's appearance will always reflect who they are at least slightly. My example is above. The she-hulk you see is Vandenita, my current protagonist. She is a General from a relatively small annex of an Empire, and if you look closely, you'll see a few hints as to who she is and what she does. And where she's been, too. She has tattoos that have cultural significance and features that suit her racial profile. She is built as she would be built after hauling around armour and weapons all her life. Her belt and braid-tip represent an elephant because it is her mount of choice and holds great significance to her. She opts for less armour because her culture believes that the more armour one wears, the lower one's military status. She has several scars that all have some significance. And the earrings? Well, they're just decorative.

The point of the above isn't a rambling explanation that I'll insert into a novel. The details are there for your reader to pick up on, and wonder over, or in the end, understand. How your character chooses to dress is a facet of their personality. How they look physically is less set in stone, but if they are involved in heavy labour or spend a lot of time in the sun, some things are going to change. Visuals are more important than you might think.

There's this stereotype in fantasy that you must have your warrior, wizard, mother-figure, hero, damsel and a few choice rogue-types for flavour. You don't need these labels. If you've developed a strong group of characters, how many of what type you have isn't something you need to consider. They could all be wizards, or warriors, or archers. If their personalities are distinctly different, it doesn't matter. We're not going for equal opportunities here. Just bear in mind that a group without wizards will be in trouble when encountering a group of them - but that's just a little bit of drama for you to write yourself out of.

I never really begin with a set plot. I will, of course, dictate the important things. Big catalysts. But I let my characters decide what's going on between those things. I won't shoehorn them into something that doesn't fit. My reader will notice, and it's quite likely that I'll blur my characters in the process. If you have enough of a varied cast, you'll be struggling to decide which drama to go with rather than desperately trying to come up with one.

I think that's all for now. The most important thing? Have fun. You don't need to like these people. You can enjoy it when a character you hate gets into deep doodoo.

More than that, you should enjoy it.

- L


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