Bridging the Gap Between Author and Character

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.

Brian DeLeonard writes for the Article Team at Mythic Scribes where he contributes as a moderator. DeLeonard enjoys developing the creativity of his writing, and he is currently working on a series of short stories to introduce the characters of his novel. After graduating from NYU’s business school with a degree in marketing and economics, DeLeonard spends his days at a standing desk with his laptop, clipboard and a box of crayons as the full-time father of four young children. You may email him at [email protected] or send him a PM through his screen name Devor on the Mythic Scribes forums.

15 Responses to Bridging the Gap Between Author and Character

  1. Thanks everyone, it’s great to read through all of your comments.
    Riviera – For my own characters, I make a bullet list of notes and then try to tie things to an outline.  That way I can keep the character development moving forward.
    Kaylee – You’re probably right.
    Steve Redmond – Absolutely.

  2. Great advice! So many writers these days, not just those of fantasy, seem disconnected from their characters. If the writer can’t take the time to care about what has happened and what is happening to them and make them full of life, then why should the reader? 

  3. I enjoyed reading this piece, so thanks for that,and thanks for the inspiration too. I am about to begin my first complete novel after several short stories and this is just what I need.

  4. You need to build everything about your character. Start with the basics and then work your way to the difficult stuff. Imagine the questions you would ask your character if you were getting to know him/her, then answer those questions.

  5. I find that my characters take on a life of their own and it’s them who take me beyond what I know and open areas of the world I couldn’t have imagined. Anyone else had that?

  6. I like your advice to create a history and personality for each character. Do you follow a standard outline for them all. or choose to focus on different aspects for each?

  7. Seth Stone, character development is the same across genres in many ways, and I think the tips I’ve provided are broad enough to be used by authors of other genres.  But I have seen a larger gap for a fantasy author to understand his or her characters.

    Our personalities adapt to the situations we’ve grown up in, and the lives of fantasy characters are often unique and challenging in ways we’re not prepared for as an author. A person who is writing largely about their own life experiences may find that their character’s personality traits come naturally because they’ve been there, done that themselves.  A fantasy author, I believe, just needs to do a little more work to get there.

    Even taken in the abstract, it’s extremely difficult to write what you know when your characters are felling demons, endowed with magic or struggling for their lives. You don’t “know” it. You have to imagine how these things would affect you.

    • Devor, I think your article is fantastic and filled with advice that writers of any genre could benefit from.  I do rather agree with Seth a bit, though.  I think sometimes as authors we tend to overthink some things. 

  8. I think character development is the same in fantasy as in other genres.  Human motivations and natures are the same whether in a fantastical setting or not, unless you are creating a completely mythical character.  That’s when “write what you know” comes into play – as a writer you know human nature, it’s part of our makeup.

  9. Thank you all for the great comments.  I’m writing these articles because I believe we need to see stories and find ways to make them more powerful with fantasy.  We need to know people, but we need to wrap our heads around their potential so that we can use fantasy to reinforce and highlight their humanity. 

    Alexis, “Write What You Know” can be great advice if you understand it in a way that’s helpful for you.  Fantasy just entails so much of the strange and unknown that I have no problem shaking it up.  I also believe that in fantasy, we need to unlearn what we know about as much as we use it.  People are in many ways the same throughout history, but our characters have different kinds of lives which we need to make use of.

  10. Every time someone tells me “write what you know,” I think, “I don’t want to write something boring.” That said, I do think that piece of advice can be taken in a less literal sense. Even in a fantasy setting, life lessons you’ve learned are relevant.

    You give some great tips on character development. Too often I read young adult fantasy books that portray a typical modern teen in a fantasy setting, and the characters feel too far removed from the genre. Characters should grow from their environment.

  11. Talking with people is a wonderful way to open your mind. Every person has a story, you just have to find away to get through the fluff they put out and dig a little deeper. People are interesting creatures.

  12. I have always thought that the advice “write what you know” is extremely limiting.  Thank goodness many people don’t listen!  The world would be poorer if we didn’t use our imaginations.

  13. I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout nuthin’…but I have found that if I have a vague idea of who I want that character to be, I think about a movie star that has played a similar one. Once I mentally have “that character” fill things out, the writing seems to flow smoother.

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