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.
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!]
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.