When sitting down to plan a story, I focus my attention on developing memorable heroes and horrendous villains, constructing epic settings filled with ancient magic, and crafting plots with satisfying endings. But what’s lacking is anything connected to the piece of advice that I’ve heard repeatedly:
Write what you know.
These words, which I’ve been told again and again, have vanished from my arsenal of aphorisms. I write fantasy, which means that I write from my imagination. I write about lives and experiences that have never existed in history. My characters are impossible to know before I meet them on the page.
That’s the downside. In fantasy, we don’t intuitively know our characters the way authors of another genre might. We have clear concepts of life in our own time, how modern relationships progress and personalities evolve in the twenty-first century. Authors of non-speculative fiction can more readily draw upon their own lives as a model for their characters. They can start with what they know.
But it takes us a bit more work to get there.
Because we are writing about societies that don’t exist, we can’t know the lives of our characters as readily as we’d like. These characters have come of age in bizarre and magical worlds. Therefore, we need to be careful, or we may write characters whose personalities are incomplete or out of place in the settings that we’ve built for them. We don’t want our readers to hear the smart, snarky voice of today echoing through characters of another world.
To create characters that fit their worlds, I have to imagine how the circumstances of their lives would shape each person. What does it do to you when your family’s survival depends on the weather to give you a good harvest? What kind of desperation does it create when your village has been raided and your friends murdered? And of course, the crescendo, how does it change you when you take another human life?
And that’s even before the magic.
With this in mind, I’ve put together guidelines to help me understand who my characters are.
Begin with what you can imagine. Start with characters, plot twists or magic that excites you. Let your imagination run wild, and plan to clean it up later. Your enthusiasm trumps all, and you’ll have plenty of time to refine the details later.
Delve into your character’s life. Do this through research, character mapping, daydreaming or free-writing. However you choose to approach it, you need to wrap your brain around your character’s life. It’s not enough to know who they are or how they spend their time. You must also understand how they react to the day-to-day elements of their lives, as well as how these responses change throughout the story. These reactions are the key to defining characters beyond their abilities.
Expand forward, backward and sideways. Life goes through phases, and unless you begin with your character’s birth, much of your character’s growth will have already occurred. A blacksmith’s son would learn early on not to be reckless with his work, and a farmer would have learned how to manage his or her own work schedule. These lessons would have been learned long ago, and might extend into personality traits outside of their workshop or farm. Your characters’ lives have already shaped their worldview, and will define their perceptions of events going forward. Follow those connections, and you can bring your character’s life and history to bear on your story.
Remember that life has themes. While you don’t need to constrain your story within literary themes, it is important to realize that there are subtle patterns which form as a consequence of our personalities. As our characters develop, so do the actions they take and the results they achieve. If we look for ways to play with those consequences, we can conclude those patterns in ways that are more satisfying for our readers.
Learn more by talking to people. Writing a story is about understanding people, and the best way to do that is by talking to people and asking questions about their lives. In my experience, most people have trouble crossing the threshold from a shallow conversation to a more meaningful discussion. But when you are able to get there, the experience can be rewarding, especially for a writer.
As a final tip, in college I learned the phrase “seismic shift” for managing change in an organization. This concept can also apply to managing a character’s growth over time. For each phase, choose an idea to remain the same, and change what’s on the surface the way that you need to.
When starting the writing process, there’s often a disconnect between author and character. That’s part of what fuels the misconception that fantasy is a genre filled with bad writing. With effort we can defy that cliché. While it may seem like an obstacle to understand how fantastical experiences would shape a person’s development, the results are worth the effort. We have the opportunity to surprise our readers with characters more powerful and real than their expectations.
I write fantasy because I want to tell a story greater than what I know.
In this genre, we can bend not only lives but the fabric of reality to create characters more enduring and terrifying than otherwise possible. We can give them experiences that would be inconceivable in other genres. So what kinds of fantastical experiences have helped to define your characters?
This is the first in a series of posts by Devor on using fantasy elements in your writing. Read the next entry, Using Fantasy to Enhance a Story.
- Writing Character-Driven Fantasy
- Character Girl – Letting Characters Drive the Story
- Lessons from the Wire: Character Development and Contrast