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.
When you’re writing a series of novels, you never know when a minor character might grow into a major one.
Lord Chutt entered my Bell Mountain series as the only member of Obann’s high council who survived the siege of the city–because he ran away before the enemy could surround it.
We next find him in the north as an independent warlord who, when he learns that the city was saved, after all, and Obann now has a king, wishes only to re-establish the old order, without a king. But Chutt’s governing passion is a sordid lust for wealth; and he sates this by taking his northern army to the Golden Pass and taking possession of the Thunder King’s gold. Suddenly he is the richest man in Obann.
By then he had become a major character. Returning to the city, he separates it from the king and, step by step, with his vast wealth as his source of strength, appoints a new ruling council, hand-picked by himself.
It might have ended there; but as Chutt becomes increasingly fascinated, and then obsessed, with the greatness of Obann’s Empire long ago, he loses control of his ambition. From this flow many untoward events. And I have to stop here for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say his obsession degenerates into madness. It has taken eleven books to get him there.
I hope this thumbnail sketch will make you want to read these books. They’re full of characters who entered the story as walk-ons and, well… stayed. And grew.
Sort of like real people, only with more adventurous and hazardous careers.
It wasn’t easy to find this image. It’s from a movie, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm: Jakob Grimm, deathly ill, is visited by the characters from his fairy tales who need him to get better because they can’t exist without him.
The trick to writing fiction that the reader can believe in is to write about your characters as if they were real people (and about your locations as if they were real places). Bear in mind that all of them have lives that go well beyond the little piece you’re writing about. If they live for you, they’ll live for the reader, too.
One of the things I really enjoy, as a writer, is seeing a character enter a story as a walk-on and then stay in the story, and grow into a major character. Some of your fictional characters can really surprise you–like, I never dreamed, never even suspected, Lord Orth would turn out the way he did.
After I learned how to control a story, I learned I didn’t have to.
Just the other day Chagadai, the captain of King Ryons’ Ghols, his bodyguard, walked into the Bell Mountain movie I’m going to make someday, when my ship comes in. I recognized him immediately as Burt Kwok, who played Mr. Entwhistle in Last of the Summer Wine.
This little game helps me to see and write about my fictional characters as if they were real people. I know, I know–movies and TV? You think that’s real? But I’m writing fantasies, not accident reports.
One of these days I’d like to try writing up a character who’s incompetent, foolish, scared of his own shadow, and worth absolutely nothing in a crisis.
I can only speak for myself, but this is one of the most fun things about writing fiction: the way characters walk into the story for just a page or two, and the next thing you know, they stay! You should see what Redegger the vice boss gets up to in His Mercy Endureth Forever. And I knew no better than Lord Chutt what Zeriah was going to do after she was elected Judge of Obann.
I think the unexpected is a sign that you’ve made your characters real.
I have a couple of fictional characters on hand who weren’t able to find jobs in any of my books. So I am advertising them here, for employment by any aspiring fantasy writers who may wish to give them work.
Gombo the Magnificent is a wizard whose magic mostly produces unintended, and unappreciated, consequences. His love potion grows hair on your furniture. His hex makes his enemies stronger. And don’t even think about asking him to cast a spell to make you lose weight. The last customer who tried that wound up with two left feet and a bottomless ashtray.
Dr. Fretorius, an unemployed sage, is the world’s foremost expert on the philosophical writings of Wing Chow Foon, who was executed by his emperor for turning his students into useless idiots. Dr. Fretorius became unemployed when this began happening to his students at the university. Obviously a fantasy character: in real life, he would have been promoted to department head.
Beetrice Blotter rebelled against her parents’ plan for her to follow in their footsteps as professional beekeepers and turned instead to keeping wasps. It’s actually rather dangerous to approach her property. Her pride and joy is a wasps’ nest the size of a medicine ball, inhabited by a multitude of the most aggressive wasps anyone has ever seen. Her inability to get her wasps to produce marketable honey has left her with an obsession to achieve this goal no matter what.
All three have expressed the desire to appear in a fantasy novel and a willingness to do it without being paid. So if you mean to write such a novel, and have an opening suitable for any of these three characters, please feel free to give them a chance to show what they can do.
King Theoden, from the Lord of the Rings movie (which I didn’t see, but never mind)
There are hundreds of characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but only one that stirs me to the point of tears: old Theoden, King of Rohan. I love this guy! And I do mean love–as if he were my grandfather. How in the world did Tolkien do that?
When we meet him, Theoden is a broken-down old crock who has been skillfully manipulated to sap his morale and make him feeble before his time. But he comes back from that. The hero inside him, once he has been healed by Gandalf, bursts out like a fireworks display. At the same time, he is gentle, kind, and even humble: and everything he does, everything, is motivated by just one thing–by love. Love for his family and friends, love for his allies in the war, love for his country and its traditions. And love for every little thing with which he has been blessed. Love that is willing and able to sacrifice himself for what is right, for what is true.
Tolkien doesn’t tell us so. That never works. He shows it in what Theoden says and does, in his every word and action. Easy to say, but hard to do. If great art was easy, everyone would do it. It really is an amazing feat of art to create a character that a reader can actually love. Lots of authors can create characters that amuse us, or annoy us; but to inspire love is something special.
Hard to do: but for any writer, well worth trying.
Y’know, I’m beginning to think ill of publicists. They’ll take anybody’s money.
Today a publicist invited me to read a great new fantasy novel “about a female warrior with a kind heart.” When the Sarmatians went culturally extinct almost 2,000 years ago, that was the end of the only nation that actually produced female warriors on purpose. Look it up in Herodotus if you don’t believe me.
Since then, The Invincible Female Warrior has become the most commonplace–and the most annoying–cliche in half-baked fantasy literature. Along with crusty but benign old wizards and know-it-all elves: but really, Ms. Gorgeous with the unbeatable kung-fu moves is the worst of them all–except for maybe little kids with fantastic martial arts skills that enable them to wipe out full-grown male villains.
The book seems to be self-published. This is what gets me about self-publishing: no quality control. The publicist ought to be ashamed for taking this author’s money and trying to hoodwink people like me into reviewing it. I won’t give the author’s name because it just wouldn’t be humane. By the way, though, she wants a pretty hefty chunk of money for this book.
Do not name the principle characters in your story after familiar household products. Trust me, it doesn’t work. Here we have an Invincible Female Warrior named “Aleave.” Does that at all bring to mind the brand name of a popular headache medicine?
If you conscientiously avoid all the cliches that make fantasy so prone to low expectations on the readers’ part, and write a great story populated by memorable characters, and yet succumb to the temptation to give those characters names like Drano, Tylenol, Pennzoil, or Fancy Feast–well, you might as well not have written it at all.