Here he is in the movie.
I don’t know if I’ve ever achieved this as a story-teller: moved readers to love a character whom I made up. But J.R.R. Tolkien achieved it.
Loving a Fictional Character
Old King Theoden! Some of the things he says and does move me practically to tears. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to covering nooze dominated by characters who would definitely be on the Mordor team if they were in The Lord of the Rings. Where else would you put Chuck Schumer?
We need more models of goodness. Maybe if we had more, it’d start spilling over into our public business.
Worth a try, at least.
Ellayne at work in Book 2
I’ve written almost 100 pages of my new book, Ozias, Prince in Peril, and have had to meet a whole new cast of characters–’cause it’s 2,000 years before the events described in my other Bell Mountain books.
I Love My Characters
I say I “meet” my characters because that’s what it feels like. It’s like they’re already there, waiting to come into the story. I take pains NOT to pattern them on real people. Let that mask slip just once, and your book is toast.
Queen Maressa has already shown herself a top-flight villain; but can she outwit Lady Gwenlann, the scatterbrained wardrobe mistress who controls the late king’s spy network? (“Scatterbrained” is only an act.) There’s the little fat man, Mallen, who heads a troupe of actors: Maressa wants to buy them. And of course Queen Parella, Prince Ozias’ mother, written off my Maressa as “that goose-girl,” but with a lot of gumption to her.
Dagnabbit, writing a novel is fun! And if it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Despite losing a whole day last week to allergies, Ozias, Prince in Peril seems to be shaping up very nicely. I’ve got eight chapters written, and already populated with a dozen major characters. They hear their cues and come onstage: I feel like I don’t have much of a say in it.
Friday I had to make up some lost ground, and it was 96 degrees at the time. Patty came out and asked, “Aren’t you hot?”
“Yes, I’m hot!” And that was that, had to retreat indoors to the air conditioning.
Hint to budding young writers: Maybe the worst thing any writer can do is make the story be about himself, thinly disguised as its protagonist. “I’m a macho stud he-man!” is a mindset guaranteed to destroy your fiction.
I strive to be invisible to the reader, to remove all obstacles between the reader and the story… so if you’re reading my book, you can be there! This effect is not easy to achieve; but read a lot, write a lot, work hard at it, and eventually you’ll get it.
And for heaven’s sake, let your characters be themselves! Never mind about paying back that bum who bugged you in third grade; frankly, the reader doesn’t care. And neither should you.
An Elizabethan stage play
If you write novels, people are bound to ask, “Where do your characters come from?”
Well, I write fantasy, so “write what you know” is out. Model characters after real people. But I’ve never met any kings, outlaws, hermits, or barbarian chieftains, so that’s out, too.
I don’t know where my characters come from!
It’s the truth. It’s as if the book were a stage set up for a play, with the characters all waiting in the wings for their cues to come onstage. They already know their lines! They know what they’re supposed to do. Pop goes the cue, and “Enter Lady Gwenlann,” who appears to be a scatterbrained wardrobe mistress but in reality is in charge of all the king’s spies. Cue again, and “Enter Jocky,” the king’s fool.
Really, it’s just as if the characters were already signed up and waiting to play their parts… and I didn’t have much to do with it. I need ’em, and there they are.
This is one of those things that makes writing fun. You don’t have to do it this way, but I’ve come to enjoy it.
Scottish blogger and writer Ailish Sinclair asks a question which I can answer, sort of: “Crying While Writing: anyone else do this?”
Crying While Writing: anyone else do this?
The other day, as I read to my wife a chapter of my new book in progress, Ozias, Prince in Peril, I found my voice beginning to break as I came to the death of a major character to whom I’d already grown attached. I didn’t actually cry, but I came close: I already loved this character and writing him out of the saga was… well, hard.
Ailish makes a good point. If the writer can’t get emotionally involved with the story he or she is telling, why should the reader? You have to believe in your story. It has to seem real to you, at least while you’re writing it.
I won’t forget how upset Patty and my editor, Susan, got a few books ago when they thought I’d killed off the old Abnak warrior, Chief Uduqu. “I was ready to come up there and punch you in the nose!” Susan said. And Sir Walter Scott had to rewrite part of Ivanhoe because his printer was so upset over the death of Athelstane. I’m glad I didn’t have to rewrite The Glass Bridge.
If he’s really worse than Shakespeare’s Richard III, or Iago, your villain’s got problems–which will be passed on to both the writer and the reader.
How Bad Should Your Bad Guys Be?
Well, okay, how many of us have to worry whether the villains we make up are credible? Oh, but many people do like to try their hand had writing a story, so these tips may not come amiss. And fiction can sometimes help us to understand what we see and hear in real life.
My villains all have something in common–they justify themselves to themselves. The elasticity of this approach is limitless. Even Stalin, Mao, or Hitler could have used it, and very likely did.
P.S.–I don’t believe Richard was anywhere near the villain Shakespeare made him out to be. He’s a great example of what happens when your enemies win and get to write the history.
Faith H. thinks that maybe she would like to be a writer someday, and has asked me for some writing tips.
Tip No. 1: Be good to the people out there who want to read you! Really, I can’t stress this enough. Some writers grow a bit snooty and take their public for granted. Don’t do that! Ever.
And then there’s the fun of creating fictional characters.
My Fantasy Tool Kit (5): Let Your Characters Rock
You’ve got to let your characters be themselves–and they’ll surprise you, especially if you’re writing a series–then they really have a lot of room in which to move around. Writing my Bell Mountain books, I had plenty of surprises provided by characters like Lord Orth, Bassas, Ellayne’s mother, Judge Zerayah, Gallgoid–let your characters do what they’re gonna do, and you can have a lot of fun as a novelist.
Never, never, never write up a character who’s only a thinly-disguised version of yourself, carrying out assorted wish-fulfillments. Readers see through that at once, and most of them don’t like it.
Try to think of your fictional characters as real people with their own lives to lead, their own hopes and dreams and fears; and you, too, might wind up with a Gallgoid or two.
There are many things a writer can do to wreck his own work. One of them is to make the reader think that you think he’s a dunce who can’t tell good from evil.
Another Literary Crime
Why else would the author continually editorialize about his characters? How badly do we need to be told that the villain is a bad guy? Page after page after page?
And yet we see this, sometimes in fantastically successful best-selling books. Never mind that those books will be forgotten someday, while better books live on. For the time being, they’re selling like hotcakes.
I think it’s just further evidence that we’re living in a fallen world.
If your characters don’t connect with your readers, your book won’t work, your story will fall flat.
I introduced the fierce old Abnak sub-chief, Uduqu, in Book No. 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar. I liked him and kept him around. And in Book No. 7, The Glass Bridge, he took part in a desperate battle.
I won’t forget how my wife and my editor reacted when they thought I’d killed off this character. They were about ready to scalp me. Sheesh, what was I thinking! But they only had to read a few more paragraphs before they learned Uduqu was all right, after all.
There are characters who walk into the story just to do some little thing and then wind up staying to do a lot of things, and growing, and getting you attached to them. With 12 Bell Mountain novels published so far, there are of necessity an awful lot of characters.
Why am I talking about this when I have to crank out a Newswithviews column? Oh, I don’t know. Do I feel a need to justify populating my books with all those characters?
Well, heck, it’s a history–like Livy’s history of Rome. Count up all the characters in Livy sometime. True, the history of Obann, in my books, is fictional. Some uncharitable souls have said the same of Livy. Not to mention Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Herodotus. I guess if you don’t like their histories, you won’t like mine, either. But there’s something to be said for a book that’s stayed in print since 400 B.C.
[Confidential to “Unknowable”: I hear you, brother!]
Shortly after publication of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien had a very strange experience.
Tolkien Was Deeper Than I Thought
He could only describe it by saying it was like actually meeting one of the characters he thought he’d made up–Gandalf the Grey, the wizard. If you haven’t read the book, trust me: this is not the sort of person anyone encounters in real life.
Once you’re able to see the Christianity in Tolkien’s work, you can’t unsee it.
Everyone who works in Christian fantasy owes him a debt.