At Writer Unboxed, a post by Juliet Marillier: Princess, Washerwoman, Warrior, Goatherd: How Real are Your Characters?
This post caught my eye because, I mean, Juliet Marillier! She’s a wonderful writer! Usually wonderful! Stylistically wonderful, and often a great storyteller; sometimes I love her books and I always love her actual writing. How does she start this post?
In traditional storytelling, especially in fairy tales, the main characters often don’t have names. Instead they are referred to only by their roles: the tailor, the shepherdess, the knight, the princess, the giant. … Legends are different, being almost always associated with a particular location, a notable event that took place (or may have taken place) there, and a person or being: Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. Each of those has some historical basis, but in the cases of Arthur and Robin, the old story has morphed over the years into an elaborate piece of (mostly) fantasy. … Today’s writers, and fantasy writers in particular, have produced some ground-breaking work when re-interpreting well-known, and often well-loved, traditional stories. A case in point is Juliet E McKenna’s The Cleaving ... In this compelling novel, the heroic trappings of the Arthurian story are stripped away, and we are confronted with the gritty reality of the time and culture through the eyes of the women in the tale.
I’m pausing here to react.
AAAAGH no please do not show me the gritty reality of the time and culture! Not through the eyes of the women OR the men! While I wish Juliet McKenna all the luck in the world with her book, I’m also making a firm mental note not to read it myself. No, thank you!
I’m sticking with Mary Stewart’s version. Which, wow, is not available in a Kindle version. Why, why, why do publishers DO this? I had to search multiple times in multiple ways, finally found an audio version, from there I could get to a paperback version, and from THERE finally I could get to series page, which lists a kindle version, except that is not actually available! For crying out loud!
I am debating whether it might be nice to get this series in audio format. The language is beautiful. The pace is slow. Would the beautiful prose make the pace a pleasure rather than otherwise? Not sure. I think I’ll just add the audio version to my wishlist so I don’t totally forget it’s available.
Back to the linked post:
For purposes of this post, I tried giving my current cast of characters names like those in old fairy tales: the Girl; the Goatherd; the Guard; the Adviser; the Ruler; the Bishop; the Commander…. But that kind of name is inadequate for the three-dimenstional human beings I’m trying to create on the page … Each of them with a personal journey to make. Instead I’d have to make some kind of list …
– A person with a perilous ability
– A person blind to the needs of others
– A person with a secret agenda
– A person who finds it impossible to tell a lie
– A person expert at twisting words to convey a particular message
– A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision
– A person who believes the end justifies the means, however cruel those means may be
– A person who will do just about anything to salvage their reputation
The next step, of course, is getting inside the head of even the most misguided member of this lineup and understanding why they do what they do. Then crafting each journey. Does that character change along the way? Do they learn anything? Do they become wiser? And how does that come about? With those whose general outlook on life is similar to mine it’s not so difficult. With others it’s super-challenging. But worth it when the words flow and the true individual emerges like a butterfly from the chrysalis, a real person who has well and truly earned their name.
I don’t think I ever try to encapsulate characters in neat little phrases like that. I don’t mean I think that’s a useless thing to do; actually, that sounds like kind of a neat idea. Although sometimes I think if you try to capture someone in a sentence like that, you risk making that character too one-dimensional. I think I would lean more toward
A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision, until the beliefs they thought they held most dear turn out to be in total opposition to something they know is true or something they have to do, and then they have to reassess everything and reinterpret what they thought they believed.
A person who believes the end justifies the means, however cruel those means may be, until they realize they’re in danger of going too far. Maybe they have gone too far, and now they realize they need to back up and redeem some possibly terrible mistake.
If the character is a protagonist or an important secondary character, then you’re likely to need to keep going into the back half of that kind of encapsulation. Otherwise the character is going to be flat. Some kinds of stories work fine with flat characters; it depends. But saying “A person whose religious beliefs drive their every decision” does not strike me as actually any more detailed than saying “The bishop.” Both look equally simplistic to me.
Marillier winds up her post by asking:
Writers, how well do you know your characters, both major and minor? How do you go about forming them? At what point in the writing process do they become real for you (so that you know subconsciously how they will react in any given situation?) Do their names play any part in the process of character development?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I can exactly tell. I think I know who important characters are, I think they’re real for me, in the first scene. I’m not completely sure about that, because maybe I actually discover who they are (within broad limits) as I write the first couple of scenes. But I think I knew Aras would say kindly, “I think you’re judging yourself much too harshly” before he had reason to say it, and I think I knew Ryo was the kind of person who would knock Aras off his horse and save his life before it happened. Those are the kinds of characters I like to write about, so that’s what my characters are like.
I think I know much less about my villains than about other characters. That’s why reviews sometimes point out that my bad guys are flat. Sometimes that’s because the villain is actually a pretty simple person — the madness really did flatten Lorellan’s character; that was an actual thing. He couldn’t be complex because the madness was driving him. You know, that would be interesting to do sometime — show a sorcerer in this world who is sliding into evil and can tell and still retains individuality and complexity. And comes to Aras for help and the story goes on from there, and yes, one of you here suggested this idea and I do think that’s a great idea. I even have a potential scene from that story in my mind, though I hadn’t thought of that in exactly this way before.
Sometimes my bad guys are flat just because they’re flat. I don’t think I did a lot with the villain in the Death’s Lady series. Ambitious, manipulative, long-range planner, not a nice person, that’s pretty much it. Not particularly well-developed. I wasn’t particularly interested in him and he’s just well-developed enough to play his role in the plot and that’s it.
Antagonists aren’t the same. I like antagonists just fine and they turn into real people for me. I’m thinking of Oressa and Gulien’s father in The Mountain of Kept Memory; he was much more ambiguous than most of my antagonists. Or, maybe the king of Casmantium, the Arobern, in the Griffin Mage trilogy. He’s much more interesting than an actual villain. Oh, side note, looks like Hatchette has put the whole trilogy on sale at $1.99, which they do periodically but unpredictably, so I strongly suggest you pick it up now if you haven’t and think you might someday like to read it.
However, ordinarily, I’m just not very interested in the bad guy, and sometimes that shows. It gives me something to work on, I guess. But there’s zero chance I will ever put as much attention into writing real villains as I do into writing good guys.