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Making your heroes

M. Popov

Scribe
I kept getting sidetracked. Well not anymore!

I wanted to create a thread where people discuss the main characters of their works and hey they approached them. We all have different ideas as to what constitutes a good main character, so I'm curious to get some opinions.

When making my characters I try to follow a guideline:
  • They need to serve some purpose to the main story.
  • They need to be distinguishable in things like appearance, race, personality, religion, accent, backstory, traits, etc.
  • They need to have a clear goal in life.
  • They need to have flaws that impact them and those around them. They need to have some kind of demons or weaknesses.
  • Just because a character is unique, doesn't mean they can't be killed.
  • Different characters provides more opportunity and risks.
  • Avoid making a Sue at all costs. It'll kill all enjoyment.
Derathor.png
This young man you're looking at is called Derathor De La Vega, the main character of Eternity illustrated by Asarax. He's a former soldier and currently the owner of a upper class tavern called The Petty Knight's Saloon, co-run with the love of his life. Though he's handsome, intelligent and a capable fighter, he's struggling with alcoholism and his past, having forfeited his commission due to the horrors of the most recent war. Eternity will depict him undertaking a journey to improve his life.

Though a swashbuckler with a desire for a grander existence, he's also a imperfect being struggling to cope with his past. During his journey in Eternity, I plan to show him coping with what he's done and finding a way to beat his addiction. So the reader will not only view the world through him, see his battles and intrigues, but also watch him change. I think change is a huge part of a making a character good and memorable, they need to learn something from the experience and become different. It shows the events of the story had an impact. It keeps things interesting and fresh. It makes them more sympathetic to the reader. That and I wanted someone who can be somewhat motivational, my little way of saying you can overcome your problems.

Well, that's my input for now. What say you?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I have lots of main characters. I don't have a clear approach. Looking back, I can see that I tend to think of a character that has at least a couple of key traits. I might or might not try to think through what those traits might engender, but mostly I start putting that character into story and fill out from there. None of my main characters are truly fleshed out. I don't invent a full biography. I don't even necessarily imagine their physical appearance in detail. I concentrate on what's needed for the story.

For example. The main character in Goblins at the Gates is Julian. He's a member of the high nobility, son of a famous general who died when he was a teenager. When I started with Julian, the only thing I was sure of was that he hated the army and was going to have to command one. When I thought about him for the longest time I was thinking of Alkibiades, a figure from the Peloponnesian War.

You'll note there's no physical description and not much backstory. As I started writing, I quickly gave him a slave and it was an easy choice to have that slave be a foil to Julian, in the spirit of the comedies of Aristophanes. Then I gave Julian a second-in-command who was old school army, also an easy choice. Those foils helped me push the character around some, which let me add interest and depth.

I'm pretty sure I went through a similar process with other characters, though the path wound through different forests. Making Talysse be a young female who believed she was half elf and half human let her have a fair amount of depth right from the start. Gabrielle was the only female on an expedition. Told in first person, this let us see her through her observations of the men around her. So that was another approach.

I mention these details to illustrate how hopeless I am at designing characters in the abstract. They need to exist inside a story for them to exist at all. Until then, they're just sort of auditioning for the part.
 
My approach to characters is—most of the time—the story. Meaning, characters are developed to fit the story's needs. Sometimes the characters change the story after their birth, but a POV character that no longer fits the story's needs falls into a secondary role. Some of my favorite characters, and ones mentioned often by readers as favorites, were spontaneous creations to fit a particular need at a particular moment and they expanded from there. In fact, a recent review mentioned one of those tertiary characters. I do make it a goal that every character with more than a few pages of book-time should feel like they have their own story even if that story isn't being told. Other than that, I don't really plan much.
 

pmmg

Istar
Generally, I create a character with a small list of ideas about what I want from them, and how they tend to behave. Some take on a life of their own, and some I am pretty rigid about. Many characters start off as minor characters and then grow into something bigger. I like when that happens. I like most the stuff that is not perfect about them. Sometimes, that is not overtly stated, and just kind of is.

One of my characters is a poor leader, for instance, and while no one ever says so, it can be inferred by their lack of success in many encounters.

I am hesitant to just list my characters up in a rouges gallery though. I want them in print first.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
'Empire' has four POV main characters, plus a fifth whose POV chapters take place in the distant past.

The origin was an old fan-made game module for 'Warhammer Fantasy Role Play' - it presented the concept of a group of characters in the employ of a powerful merchant, sent to check on said merchant's investments in a minor village. From there, it devolved into a hack and slash episode, but the initial concept appealed to me.

Enter Tia Samos, mercantile agent and rich girl searching for a noble husband willing to marry low. She's not idly roaming about hoping to bump into a suitable aristocrat - instead she has an itinerary. A list. Attractive, intelligent, dismissive of those beneath her social status. Tia is the lynchpin of the Four, the one at least nominally in charge of the others.

As a (almost) highborn lady on the social circuit, Tia needed a female confidant, somebody who could make her presentable in a hurry if need be. Enter, Rebecca, Tia's gypsy maid and minstrel. Rebecca is great at reading people - but not so good at reading words. Functionally illiterate. She does have an eye for fashion, is good with makeup, and is an excellent musician - just what Tia needs. The downside is that in the Empire, gypsies are automatically regarded as liars and thieves. Tia considers it a fair tradeoff. But for Rebecca, Tia is her protection. (Rebecca's clan offended the wrong lord and ended up enslaved. She escaped via a fluke.)

In addition to companionship, a wealthy young lady like Tia requires protection on roads filled with bandits and beasts. Enter Sir Peter Cortez, hero of the Traag War - a handsome man (apart from a receding hairline) with a blood soaked past and no future in the evolving empire. But Tia has nothing to fear from Peter - he knew and adored her sister Tessa during the war. Tessa was killed in one of the concluding battles, something Peter blames himself for. He has vowed he will keep Tia alive regardless of the cost to himself. That said, Peter is the half-brother of one of Tia's marriage prospects, though being a penniless bastard makes him ineligible as a husband for Tia. Peter's character arc is a long slow road to redemption.

Tia is traveling via coach; hence she gets her own coach driver. Enter Kyle, a massive fellow with a scarred face, freakish strength, a knack for magic - and a head full of nightmares, courtesy of his time in the Traag War. He spent several years as an ordinary legionnaire before it was discovered he possessed magic. That earned him a hasty arcane education followed by what amounted to one suicide mission after another, battling men, goblins, hobgoblins, demons, and other creatures. His reaction upon surviving was to get drunk - and try to stay that way. That decision cost him all of his coin and much of his magic. He signed on with Tia because she was desperate, and he needed the money. Kyle's arc is coming to terms with his past and trying to fit himself into a changing empire.

Last up is Li-Pang, the main antagonist of the tale. Well, sort of, because there's two of them: Li-Pang and Silam. These two are closely connected and have roamed the world for a long, long time. When conditions are right, Li-Pang's past escapades feature in her dreams.
 

Helen

Inkling
I kept getting sidetracked. Well not anymore!

I wanted to create a thread where people discuss the main characters of their works and hey they approached them. We all have different ideas as to what constitutes a good main character, so I'm curious to get some opinions.

When making my characters I try to follow a guideline:
  • They need to serve some purpose to the main story.
  • They need to be distinguishable in things like appearance, race, personality, religion, accent, backstory, traits, etc.
  • They need to have a clear goal in life.
  • They need to have flaws that impact them and those around them. They need to have some kind of demons or weaknesses.
  • Just because a character is unique, doesn't mean they can't be killed.
  • Different characters provides more opportunity and risks.
  • Avoid making a Sue at all costs. It'll kill all enjoyment.


Well, that's my input for now. What say you?
Change the character, based on theme. My two cents.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Given that I usually start by writing the opening scene my character creation tends to be iterative. I usually find myself asking what the characters do for a living and why, and then ask how they got involved with whatever has happened. Once the writing gets going I find that the characters develop almost on their own, growing with the story. I also find that the secondary characters are often more important than the main characters, in the sense that many of the complications in the story arise from the actions of secondary characters. That complexity adds to the depth of the story whilst also allowing more opportunities for development of the main characters.
 

M. Popov

Scribe
I want to thank you all for giving your input.
Given that I usually start by writing the opening scene my character creation tends to be iterative. I usually find myself asking what the characters do for a living and why, and then ask how they got involved with whatever has happened. Once the writing gets going I find that the characters develop almost on their own, growing with the story. I also find that the secondary characters are often more important than the main characters, in the sense that many of the complications in the story arise from the actions of secondary characters. That complexity adds to the depth of the story whilst also allowing more opportunities for development of the main characters.

Some of the complications in my novel did arise from secondary characters, such as the main female character's ex lover.

My approach to characters is—most of the time—the story. Meaning, characters are developed to fit the story's needs. Sometimes the characters change the story after their birth, but a POV character that no longer fits the story's needs falls into a secondary role. Some of my favorite characters, and ones mentioned often by readers as favorites, were spontaneous creations to fit a particular need at a particular moment and they expanded from there. In fact, a recent review mentioned one of those tertiary characters. I do make it a goal that every character with more than a few pages of book-time should feel like they have their own story even if that story isn't being told. Other than that, I don't really plan much.
Some of the characters created have been made for purely the sake of conflict, usually filling a secondary or tertiary role. A lot has changed between now and my initial posting. I guess my earlier interpretation regarding character creation was rather naïve since I'm finding myself in situations where I have to ditch the formulae approach.
 
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Miles Lacey

Maester
Every writer is going to have a different approach when it comes to how and why they create their characters. If a formula or checklist works for you there's nothing wrong with that. The danger is becoming a slave to the formula or checklist.

For me, the main character for my work in progress was originally modelled upon Evangelyne from the Wakfu TV series. A simple change from a continental European climate to a maritime tropical environment resulted in a total overhaul of the character because climate not only affects what a character looks like but it also changes everything from their culture to what they eat and wear.

I prefer to read fiction with young female characters because they are the polar opposite to who I am physically. Some of that fiction dates back as far as the 1930s. As I read those stories certain things began to appear that started to annoy me. Key among them were:

● The character becoming so dependent on the male love interest that she can't function without him.
● The character becoming married with children (which I call the Disney Syndrome).
● A badass character who has become that way because they were the victims of physical or sexual violence. Related to this was the character using that violence as a justification for whatever they did.
● The character being created as a role model for the writer's daughters or to help the writer deal with a traumatic situation in their life. I reckon that such characters go such a long way towards explaining why less than a tenth of young adult fiction is read by their intended readership. The characters that result from both these motives are just too boring and predictable.
● The character is used to promote (usually American or British) stereotypes about various races, cultures and socio-economic groups. Those stereotypes have serious real world consequences.

My main character is loosely based on Polynesian and southeast Asians in terms of appearance. Long black hair, light brown skin, small stature and average weight for a southeast Asian female.

She is a shoe shine girl who was bought by The Writer from her parents when she was about twelve. The sale was an act of desperation brought about by the need to pay off a huge debt. The Writer bought the main character to ensure the rest of the family kept their home and stayed together.

She views The Writer as a well intentioned and decent man who treated her well. He made sure she got an education. Her meals were basic but plentiful. She never went without but The Writer was inclined to be so caught up in his affairs he sometimes forgot about her. He also taught her the shoe shine trade. As he said, "Shining shoes won't make you rich but it's honest work you can do it anywhere and it'll pay the bills."

The main character is also an unranked mage who shines shoes while she works on a thesis that she hopes will get her a rank and, thus, start practising magic in her own right. When her thesis is rejected on dubious grounds her adventure begins.

She's a loner by nature. She can't have children because the cost of the gift of magic is sterility. As the sterile can't marry she knows that a normal family life will never be available for her but the knowledge the gods have chosen her to serve the people through the magical arts keeps her motivated.

It's just a shame her thesis has caught the interest of a patriotic nationalist who wants to use it to groom a class of military mages who'll restore the Empire to its old glory....
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Every writer is going to have a different approach when it comes to how and why they create their characters. If a formula or checklist works for you there's nothing wrong with that. The danger is becoming a slave to the formula or checklist.

For me, the main character for my work in progress was originally modelled upon Evangelyne from the Wakfu TV series. A simple change from a continental European climate to a maritime tropical environment resulted in a total overhaul of the character because climate not only affects what a character looks like but it also changes everything from their culture to what they eat and wear.

I prefer to read fiction with young female characters because they are the polar opposite to who I am physically. Some of that fiction dates back as far as the 1930s. As I read those stories certain things began to appear that started to annoy me. Key among them were:

● The character becoming so dependent on the male love interest that she can't function without him.
● The character becoming married with children (which I call the Disney Syndrome).
● A badass character who has become that way because they were the victims of physical or sexual violence. Related to this was the character using that violence as a justification for whatever they did.
● The character being created as a role model for the writer's daughters or to help the writer deal with a traumatic situation in their life. I reckon that such characters go such a long way towards explaining why less than a tenth of young adult fiction is read by their intended readership. The characters that result from both these motives are just too boring and predictable.
● The character is used to promote (usually American or British) stereotypes about various races, cultures and socio-economic groups. Those stereotypes have serious real world consequences.

My main character is loosely based on Polynesian and southeast Asians in terms of appearance. Long black hair, light brown skin, small stature and average weight for a southeast Asian female.

She is a shoe shine girl who was bought by The Writer from her parents when she was about twelve. The sale was an act of desperation brought about by the need to pay off a huge debt. The Writer bought the main character to ensure the rest of the family kept their home and stayed together.

She views The Writer as a well intentioned and decent man who treated her well. He made sure she got an education. Her meals were basic but plentiful. She never went without but The Writer was inclined to be so caught up in his affairs he sometimes forgot about her. He also taught her the shoe shine trade. As he said, "Shining shoes won't make you rich but it's honest work you can do it anywhere and it'll pay the bills."

The main character is also an unranked mage who shines shoes while she works on a thesis that she hopes will get her a rank and, thus, start practising magic in her own right. When her thesis is rejected on dubious grounds her adventure begins.

She's a loner by nature. She can't have children because the cost of the gift of magic is sterility. As the sterile can't marry she knows that a normal family life will never be available for her but the knowledge the gods have chosen her to serve the people through the magical arts keeps her motivated.

It's just a shame her thesis has caught the interest of a patriotic nationalist who wants to use it to groom a class of military mages who'll restore the Empire to its old glory....
That is an intriguing premise.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
As an example of how character development depends heavily on the story (and on accident).

I began my current work with a simple premise: I wanted to write fantasy mystery set in my world of Altearth. I knew I wanted to use multiple characters. I didn't want Mage Drelb, Private Eye. Nothing wrong with that, but in other stories with a group, I kept sending them off to unknown adventures in the denouement, so I figured why not start there.

Fine. A group. A group of what? I needed some pretense for them to move around. I suppose I could have confined them to a city, but I didn't want to, so there. Who moves about? Performers do. I tried that out for a while, just to see if it could work. By "try out" I mean I thought about it, made some notes. I may even have sketched a scene or two. I didn't have any objective measures; it was more a case of seeing if there was anything that told me oh no this ain't working.

So, performers. Now I had to come up with individuals. That was back and forth for quite a long time. I even had the beginnings of stories (I knew I wanted a series; I eventually settled on six) and was still moving people in and out. But I knew I needed a leader. Any acting troupe needs a director, so Val (Valentin) has been there almost from the start. Pretty early in a character's development, I need a name, simply so I have something for my notes, and a dialog tag for scenes. I have tried to use things like XYZ. These work ok for tertiary characters, but main characters need a name.

As for specifics, there seem to be two or three aspects that need addressing early on. One is voice. I need my characters to sound like themselves. I do try out various voices. And I don't stay rigorously in voice, especially early on. But I need to have a pretty good idea; I'll fix problems in rewrite. So, Val is not well educated, but he does have wide experience. His speech is informal, a little choppy, sometimes cryptic because it's so terse. I can be thought rude by some.

Backstory is important as well. I need some basic aspects of a life so I have some parameters for behavior. For example, Val dislikes nobles, doesn't think much of mages, and in general has a bad attitude toward authority. OTOH, he has almost a reverence for authority gained through experience and wisdom. Give him a wise nobleman and he's sort of at a loss. Because he's the leader, I needed to know what sort of captain, what sort of director he was. I'm still fussing about with that, but the main thing was to know he can't do it alone. He's not omnicompetent. So it's a matter of choosing failings and who else in the company can compensate for those.

One other thing to mention. I needed to know what sort of solver of mysteries he is. Is he brilliant? No. He works by instinct. He is sometimes wrong, especially if his prejudices get in the way. But his great virtue is that he respects the others in the troupe (each has earned it) and so he can fix his mistakes.

Most of this came up during writing. It wasn't all decided beforehand. When I came into the first mystery of the first volume, I just said to myself, he's not Sherlock Holmes. So I started kicking that around some and found I liked it. It felt like it made Val more interesting. A similar process has happened with the other five characters in the company, though mostly with two. The other two are youngsters and I'm still waiting for them to blossom.

Anyway, this has gone on a bit, but I hope it gives a bit of a clearer idea. When they talk about character *development* they ain't kidding. It's a process. It can (and probably should) go on for a very long time. The best analogy I can come up with is that it's like trying on clothes. It's not pure invention, but is more like pulling something off the rack, trying it on, and there's just a feeling that this is interesting or it isn't.
 
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