How real are your characters?

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.

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17 thoughts on “How real are your characters?”

  1. Even more than plotting, character creation seems like an area where design-ahead and discovery writers are going to find each other incomprehensible as they move further apart on the spectrum.

  2. My library has the first two books of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy in an ebook called “Legacy”, but not the third book (or indeed the fourth). Her Gothics are also weirdly hard to get. She is still popular!! Why do publishers do what they do.

    I am far far less interested in villains’ psychology than in good guys, so a villain who is there just to perform his plot-ordained role with plausible motivation works perfectly well for me. On the other hand I’m very very interested in a sorcerer who doesn’t want to be evil, is fighting against it, seeks help, etc—that’s a lot of interesting interiority and a person I wouldn’t mind spending time with!

    15 or so years ago I took a Writing SF&F class from a very popular writer, and he explained that his theory of making minor characters memorable is to give them each a prop (a vest, a walking stick, etc) and a verbal tic/recognizable speech pattern (swearing by a particular god, etc) and then mention that in EVERY SINGLE APPEARANCE. Because apparently people won’t recognize this character without his vest! This author is very famous & wealthy now so apparently many readers don’t mind, but I’ve never read another one of his books…

  3. Mary Beth, I’ve heard that theory somewhere or other, maybe from the same person but who knows. I’m like, Or you know, you could make your minor characters memorable by making them memorable, just an idea. Of course, sometimes a minor character is so very minor there’s no point worrying about it.

    I think I remember someone else, I think Holly Black (don’t hold me to that), say, “If you give a minor character some obvious trait, such as she flips her hair or something, then every single time you show her, she’s likely to flip her hair and she will turn into Hair Flip Girl and everyone will roll their eyes at her.” I think that’s the problem with that notion of giving someone a particular tic of any kind as a way to recognize them.

    Much more important advice: try not to give any two characters, even unimportant characters, names that are too similar. This is incredibly difficult to avoid as your cast expands, but still, do make an effort. The time I blew off that concern and therefore gave Lord Lorellan a family name very similar to the name of Soretes’ elder son, I literally said to myself, “These names aren’t ever going to appear close together and they’ll hardly ever get used anyway, so who cares?” And now oops, sometimes there’s no way to avoid putting both names in fairly close proximity. That’s why I have to refer to the ex Lord Lorellan by his full name a lot of the time — because the prince is mentioned somewhere nearby. It’s a total pain.

    Not as bad as accidently naming Carissa Hammond “Carissa” when I already had a “Cassandra,” though. They’re both important enough that this is an even bigger nuisance.

    Back on topic: my agent once told me, “You need to trust the reader to remember things. You don’t need to repeat yourself like this.” Stopping myself from repeating things unnecessarily has been an ongoing effort ever since.

    Craig, you’re probably right, because all those posts about how you should write a character bio and all the backstory right down to childhood friends sounds like complete lunacy to me.

  4. I found some reviews saying that the Kindle version of the Merlin trilogy omnibus was borderline unreadable due to errors – it sounds like they basically put up an uncorrected scan. Which explains why they pulled it, if they didn’t think it was worth spending the money to fix it.

    Amazon’s version of EE Smith’s Lensman series was like that. I had to go to Project Gutenberg Canada (where it was out of copyright) to get a decent copy of those. (That a volunteer doing it for free produced better results than the publisher who took my money is obviously frustrating.)

  5. I wonder if that theory was behind Robert Jordan’s braid tugging woman. I think it was just one, but it was incredibly obnoxiously repetitive even in the few I made it through.

    None of those character bits, or the character backstories I’ve seen writers provide give you the pertinent information which I summarized once (here, I think) as Han came back (to blow Vader out of the sky). Or tells the writer or reader what the protagonist of Code Geass would do in the end. Nor the person who is both his best friend and his enemy. They may be the groundwork, but they aren’t enough.

  6. I recently encountered a similar disagreement about fictional intelligent species, where some people argued that sketching them in broadly where that fit their story purpose (Vulcans are logical, Klingons warlike, Elves noble, etc.) was not only bad writing but borderline racist.

    (Which last I’d personally limit to falsely stereotyping real human groups, rather than making creative decisions about fictional aliens or demihumans who don’t exist to be harmed.)

    My basic take was that three dimensional polycultures are great when that’s what the story calls for, but that all the tools in the toolbox should be available as needed. And it’s often the less nuanced versions that meet story needs, or resonate most with the audience. (A lot more people dress up as Klingons than Bajorans.)

  7. I agree that there’s no need for nuance with all sorts of characters and, in this case, alien species. When the Star Trek franchise tried to make Klingons more nuanced, they did a crappy job, imo. Various ST novels did a far, far better job, especially The Final Reflection by Ford. For the TV show, just saying “Klingons are violent and warlike” is fine for most episodes.

    The idea that it’s borderline racist to make a broad generalization about a nonhuman species is borderline speciest. Writing aliens who are just like humans is much worse and much more annoying (unless that’s exactly the kind of alien the story calls for, for whatever reason).

    Not realizing that the instincts of dogs, lions, and elephants are not the same as human instincts, and thus failing to realize that aliens would also have different and broadly uniform instincts, is just wrong. Also common, at least with dogs. Lots of people unfortunately treat dogs as little furry humans, causing vast harm to dogs and also a lot of stress for themselves. … And there is a soapbox that I’m trying not to step on, so I’ll stop now.

  8. Giving a character an identifying tic may also work better in live action works like theater and film. It’s generally a shorter form experience, it helps tag the characters when you can’t slow down or go back, and it’s being interpreted by an actor who will be running through variations and guided by response from the audience or the director. It can still get annoying if done badly like anything, but lots of characters become beloved in part because of their recurring bits of business.

  9. The irony of fairy tales is that you do, indeed, often have no character named, or at most one. Jack, Ivan, Hans, Jean, Catherine, Anna, Ferdinand, Ferko, Kate, Vasilisa, Gretel, Jeanette. (And that’s not getting into Cap O’Rushes, Catskin, All-Kinds-Of-Fur, Snow-White-Fire-Red, True and Untrue, etc,)

    But if you have two named characters, they often get the same name. Kate Crackernuts has a stepsister Kate in the original tale, even if Jacobs renamed the stepsister Anne. Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful. There’s even a Russian Tale of Three Ivans.

  10. I also add that fairy tale heroes are generally named a variant on John. In the British isles, we have Jack and John (unusually enough, the commoner and the prince), plus Ian and Sean; in France, Jean; in Italy Giovanni; in Germany Hans; in Russia Ivan, etc.

    Female names tend to be more varied. A lot of Annes (and variants), and Catherines (and variants), and a sprinkling of other popular names.

  11. Mary Catelli, one innovations that is definitely helpful is not to give all your characters the same name. Wow, that’s funny, but no. I read one of the 1632 books where every character seemed to be named Anna, Maria, Anna-Maria, or Ferdinand. Very confusing!

    And yes, if a character exists to sell your protagonist a loaf of bread in passing, then “the baker” is by far the best choice.

  12. And to continue ‘fun with names’, you must consider that Russian novels often have 3 or more names for _each character_! I read The Brother Karamazov a few years back, and boy, was that confusing, even with a character name chart provided.

  13. Mike S, that bit about identifying features for characters working better in visual media reminds me of the thing with the two male leads of Veronica Mars. Audience members couldn’t tell them apart well enough, so one always got blue shirts and the other wore green.

  14. SarahZ, interesting! I usually have trouble telling characters apart, but I don’t remember having trouble with that show. I wonder if that’s because of the blue/green shirt thing. I think that’s helpful!

    EC, now I’m thinking of historicals where people have (a) first names, (b) family names, and (c) names of the land their family holds, and they keep being addressed as “Lymond” rather than “Francis Crawford” or “Mr Crawford” or whatever. That gets SO CONFUSING when the cast is large. This is a time when a Dramatis Personae is truly essential.

  15. … I’m getting myself all wound-up and excited for a story which you have a basic concept and one scene for. (Although it WAS my question that triggered it, and it WAS a question burning in my mind ever since Tarashana, so… yeah. Very little chance that I *wouldn’t* be massively excited far too soon.) Aargh. I think how Aras would handle the situation would depend VERY MUCH on whether it occurs before or after the events of Tasmakat!!!

    Well, here’s hoping the tale lets itself be discovered in full without too much pain! I will *definitely* be buying…

  16. It’ll be a while, Heather, but if I stick with the protagonist I have in mind, the story will certainly take place after Tasmakat. So many stories, so little time…

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