A key element of any successful novel is a cast of vivid, compelling characters. I recently discussed the topic of character development with author Frank LaVoie, whose debut novel Firesoul has been praised for its colorful characters. We also chatted about the special importance of characterization in the sub-genre of High Fantasy.
You are an unabashed fan of so-called “epic” or “high” fantasy. Can you elaborate on what sets this sub-genre apart from other forms of fantasy?
High Fantasy serves as the category’s best example in terms of defining the archetype. Typical structures might include the questing hero, a supportive band of allies, fantastical settings, magic as a vehicle for both good and evil, and a vast array of other fictional and far-fetched elements.
But the catcher for me is this: High Fantasy should have a goal of high literary quality. Do some fail in this attempt? Of course. But what I consider High Fantasy is well-written prose.
Another element might be age; High Fantasy is an adult-genre, much like other genres to include mystery, history, and the memoir. One won’t find High Fantasy at the bookstore on the kid or tween shelves, but in the fiction section. So, somewhere amidst the attempt to produce literature that might find its place among the greats, but meshed with the adherence to the literary standards of fantasy, one might find High Fantasy.
How did you discover this sub-genre, and why do you love it?
I fell in love with this type of fantasy the way many have, by discovering some of the masters when I was young. I read the Lord of the Rings series when I was about seven, and have been hooked ever since.
I followed that with a membership to a public library. I entered a summer reading program for kids. If I wrote a summary and review of books I read, the library had a supply of donated texts to give away as prizes. I submitted over a hundred that summer, and left with my own veritable library. Every book I selected as a reward was a fantasy novel – some good, some awful.
In the pile, and early in the process, I found a worn-out copy of the Dragonlance Chronicles, Volume 1. Something about that book toyed with my imagination and stole my interest away from other readings. My love of fantasy, something I had already flirted with, now became a full on romance.
I love High Fantasy because of the endless possibilities. But that exists in almost all literature. So what else? It is the nature of discovery. Most High Fantasy is character driven at its core, not too complex in plot or conflict. I found myself in those characters and their struggles became mine. I wanted to be them, to feel what they felt, and to know what they knew. As a well-read kid, I didn’t get this out of other genres.
You say that fantasy writing is character driven at its core. I’m not sure how that differs from other forms of literature. Can you elaborate on this?
Fantasy literature is more character-driven than some other genres. And, typically, the cast of characters is a bit more expanded. Mystery, for instance, usually relies heavily on plot and plot twists. Memoir writing focuses on imagery and theme. Historical accounts are typically dry and have the goal of informing readers. Generic fiction aims at sharing a story with a message. These are all stereotypes, of course.
Well, fantasy literature is steeped in stereotypes of its own. Character-driven plots and sub-plots are among these archetypes. I don’t see as colorful an array of pain-stakingly produced personages in other forms of literature that I see in fantasy fiction. An example is among my favorites. Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman created the Dragonlance series. Their stock cast of characters from the original trilogy are fairly typical in form and function, but their vivid personalities and starkly contrasting characters sets allow readers to see bits of themselves in each. We see this ‘band of heroes’ in Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind, and more. Each of these great authors then applies his own energy and style to the genre.
In my opinion, the King and Queen of characterization are Stephen King and J.K. Rowling; they both mastered the development of character. They have the art of ‘show don’t tell’ down to a science. We hear their characters in revealing dialogue and feel their characters in emotional moments. Seldom do these authors have to tell us anything. The best fantasy pieces do this, applying the technique to the vast and interesting character sets.
I’ve read across the genres and fallen in love with many characters, but none strike me as so…well…important…as those from my favorite fantasy selections. Frodo, Bilbo, and their lot. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Gemmell’s Druss. Drizzt the dark elf. Vin and her companions from Mistborn. But who are the best among them all. Far from opinion, but rather steeped in decades of studying the genre, Raistlin Majere and Tasslehoff Burfoot are the two greatest characters in all of fantasy – and the Dragonlance series was among my first loves in reading.
Is there something about fantasy that inherently lends itself to rich characterization?
Like its literary cousin Science-Fiction, fantasy comes with the ability to create infinite races and cultures. Authors have few (if any) limits in world-building. As such, fantasy literature yields characters that have the propensity to be more unique than those in regular fiction. Like human characters, they will still encompass the plethora of possible emotions, but with new racial and cultural characteristics (odd ones at that), possibilities are limitless.
Also, Epic/High Fantasy is typically focused around a set of questing heroes and supporting casts. Reminiscent of Campbell’s “Hero’s Quest” archetype (perfect for studying his protégé George Lucas’s Star Wars), the questing heroes have to fill certain roles and accomplish specific goals. I love to see creative authors finding new ways to do this within the genre. The patterns in our genre are why readers love the genre. They yield a very basic blueprint for the telling of new tales.
For you as a reader, what makes for an interesting and memorable character?
The first component that comes to mind is the flaw. Characters, like real people, need to have flaws. Some authors forget this and readers end up with an idealized version of the hero. As a reader, I want a protagonist with internal conflict. I want that character to make mistakes, maybe even big ones. Maybe I won’t agree with everything that character does or says (from a moral standpoint), but then I end up liking the character even more for the obvious layers and complexities. Even in the genre of fantasy, authors can still attempt a certain realism in character development. When I’m reading, I tend to be drawn to a few types: the humble bad-ass, the morally ambiguous hero, and the comic relief.
As a writer, how do you make your characters come alive?
I inject them with (what I hope to be) just the right amount of realism. I harness memory and imbue my characters with bits and pieces of people that I have known, seen, or heard of. Like I mentioned before, I think it is important that characters have flaws. I try to keep my characters far removed from perfection. And, once I develop a personality, I try to think like that character and not write what I want in the narrative, but instead write what that character might actually do or say. I try to envision the reality of my character and let them exist as a real person.
Slowly, my characters reveal themselves. I get to know them, and then as the author, try to maintain their realistic nature. There are technical tricks that might work as well. Using varied syntax to mirror emotion or intellect is a start. Dialect and diction are also important; these aspects of language can give a realism to include culture, intelligence, and more.
Let’s talk for a while about your book, Firesoul. How did you come up with your characters?
Some I created long ago and simply needed a home for them. Others, I had in my head while developing the ideas for Firesoul and the rest of the Empires of Magic series. The oldest characters (at least in terms of creation date) are Niema and Sateb; an oddly paired dark-skinned lady pirate and a overgrown white minotaur. I wrote a short story featuring the two characters (one that I lost) about a decade ago. They fit perfectly into the story, but their true origins and nature won’t be explored until later in the series.
Tristan, one of two main protagonists has been in my heart and head for a while. He’s partly based on the man that I would like to be. Map was my favorite character creation – a sarcastic and cocky color-changing dragon, his personality is a bit more like mine that I would perhaps like to admit. Some characters were loosely based on good friends, but only in a trait or two. Yet others I discovered in story-telling like lost memories in a photo album. It was a great experience to watch those characters grow and then shift the plot in angles I didn’t expect.
The worst is when I have to kill one of my characters off; I can see why authors might feel like a father or mother-figure to their characters. Playing god as I write is tough at times.
Do you follow any process or method when developing your characters?
Honestly, no. Their personalities revealed themselves in writing.
I once read in Stephen King’s On Writing that story plotting, at least for him, was more like sculpture. Slowly, the artist would reveal his work with each shaping strike of the hammer on stone. I like to think that some of my characters are born this way. I get the seed of the idea and then the story shapes them. I appreciate the realism and honesty that comes from this method-less methodology.
As we’ve discussed, fantasy is full of archetypal characters. How do you keep your characters from becoming clichés?
I made a marked attempt at refraining from molding my party of heroes and villains after anything I knew. I’ve heard and read so many critiques that accused this author of copying Tolkien or that author of trying too hard to mimic the Star Wars mold. I made sure my set didn’t ‘fit’ anywhere else.
In terms of more acute character development, my attempt was to make each of my characters real with flaws and then let them reveal themselves. The process felt organic and right. If one of my inventions has the flavor of a cliché, so be it. There are clichés in fantasy literature that I absolutely love; these are the same patterns that draw readers to the genre.
What are some of the common mistakes that authors make when developing characters?
Some authors tend to make characters too perfect or invulnerable: this is boring and trite. Others, in an attempt to create flaws, juxtapose personality types that would only exist in the schizophrenic. Yet more authors simply don’t have fun with their creations – and the ennui flows. There is no right or wrong way to go about character creation, but (for me) when an author seems to force something for the sake of plot, that is the most damning mistake.
Finally, do you have any pearls of wisdom for new authors who are struggling to create interesting characters?
I would tell new authors to be honest – both with themselves and with their creations. A character should come from genuine spirit and not from a need to please, or a need to fit an archetype, or a need to ‘add’ more to a narrative. The process should feel natural.
And, regardless of genre, an author should make an attempt at realism. Don’t question how you would act, but how the character would. What would the character say?
Also, characters readers care about are typically in possession of emotional qualities with which readers can either empathize or sympathize. Make this a goal (within reason) as well, let characters speak. When we hear dialogue, we learn so much more as readers than direct description. This and other forms of characterization are the keys to the ‘show don’t tell’ method.
My last advice is somewhat unrelated. I would tell new authors to never be afraid to kill even their favorite creations. Martyrdom can lead to greatness.
To learn more about Frank LaVoie and his diverse writing projects, visit frank-lavoie.com.