Monday, September 10, 2007

SAME BUT DIFFERENT: Building Memorable Characters while Breaking Boundaries

I’m going to be in Tampa, FL next week, teaching a characterization workshop at the Wizards of Words conference, so I thought I’d toss out a few of the ideas and concepts I’ll be using. Because this is the Alien Romances blog, I’m going to confine myself here to the speculative fiction genres. In the Tampa workshop, I’ll be talking all across the board.

So, what’s makes a memorable character in commercial genre speculative fiction? What can an author do when crafting her male protagonist, her female arch-villain, her you-name-it, not-of-this-universe sidekick and make that character seem real enough that the reader wants to add him, her or it to her holiday card list?

One of the first thing you have to know when writing fiction is that there is no one perfect, one-size-fits-all answer. You’re never going to create a character that everyone adores. It’s just not going to happen. What you should be trying to do is craft a character that the readers of your kind of story will understand, relate to and either want to befriend or kill. Figuratively, speaking.

That means you have to understand 1) the expectations of your reader and 2) the expectations of the genre. What makes a protagonist work in a cozy mystery might not be the same thing that works in a quest fantasy.

Readers (and agents and editors) often say they want something new and fresh, but it still has to be new and fresh without the constraints of the genre because people—readers—are creatures of habit. You walk into a Chinese restaurant, you expect to be served Chinese food. If the waiter plops Baked Ziti with Bolognese sauce in front of you, and a glass of chianti, you’re not going to be happy. (Well, the glass of chianti would make me happy no matter where I was, but I digress…).

It’s the same thing with genre fiction. Fantasy stories—let’s stick with quest here—are often populated by characters in medieval type garb, bearing medieval type weaponry and espousing medieval type philosophies. That doesn’t mean you can’t write a quest fantasy unless you write medieval. It means know when you’re working to type, and know when you’re working against it. Know the expectations of the genre before you go and break them because readers seeking a fantasy quest story will expect a certain type of character—they’re actively seeking that type of character to identify with. Chocolate is supposed to taste like chocolate, you know?

But, ah—then—there’s black raspberry chocolate chip. Same thing but different. Fresh, original and yet the same. (And if you don’t know where to find black raspberry chocolate chip, which I recently discovered whilst visiting my brother-in-law in Columbus, Ohio, go to http://www.graeters.com/ . But I digress…)

So how does a writer create a black raspberry chocolate chip kind of character in a fantasy story or a space opera adventure? First, know the expectations. Second, morph ‘em.

Notice I didn’t say obliterate ‘em. I said morph ‘em. Stretch them, push them, warp them while at the same time keeping a basic essence that readers of that genre will resonate to.

Two examples: Lisa Shearin’s characters in her MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND (and its 2008 sequel, ARMED & MAGICAL), and Elaine Corvidae’s characters in WINTER’S ORPHANS and sequels (PRINCE OF ASH, etc.). I’m using these because they’re fantasy and yet very different from each other. But both have intensely memorable characters.

Shearin’s female protagonist is a sorceress/private detective named Raine Benares. Raine’s not the most accomplished sorceress and is prone to act first and think much, much later. But bumbling magicians in fantasy are nothing new. But ah, Raine’s family is also part of organized crime. A medieval mafia. Now, that’s original backstory for a fantasy character! The impetus for much of what Raine does—and the impetus for how other character’s react to her—is solidly built on the fact that she comes from a lineage of pirates and thieves and con-artists.

Shearin does other fun, memorable things with her characters. The setting is dragons and dungeons but her characters speak in a contemporary, very snarky manner. (Why do we always assume and create fantasy as if it was OUR past? It’s the character’s present and who’s to say they can’t have contemporary-sounding slang expressions?)

Shearin also takes the usual notion of goblins and makes them sexy. Yes, they’re still scary and yes, they have fangs. But they’re down-right sexy. Raine even has a goblin lover.

Same but different, you see?

Corvidae’s SHADOW FAE TRILOGY, which starts with WINTER’S ORPHANS, takes the usual medieval and/or wooded setting for a fantasy with elves and sidhe and other fae and sets them in the city. A dank, dark, Victorian-era industrial waterfront city, in fact. There are elevators and hansom cabs. There are brick factories—sweat shops—belching smoke and unwashed workers. There are chimney sweeps. And there’s magic.

One of her key characters is wheelchair-bound. Her fae smoke cigarettes.

Corvidae takes a number of fantasy expectations and morphs them, and morphs them well. And wins numerous awards for doing so. (I also recommend her barbarian—yep, BARBARIAN—fantasy/magic series that starts with TYRANT MOON. Don’t think “Conan the Barbarian” or you’ll be doing yourself a disservice.)

The other thing you’ll notice is that Corvidae matches her world, her setting to her characters. Her setting fully supports her characterization. That’s why a reader becomes fully immersed in the books.

The key to creating memorable fantasy and SF characters is to craft a character that in essence meets the needs and expectations of the genre while at the same time offers a fresh and original perspective on that type of “person.” Shearin’s Raine Benares could have been just any old sorceress who finds a magic amulet of great power. It still would have been a fun story. And Corvidae’s Mina Cole could have been just another orphan unaware of the fae powers inside her. It still would have been a fun story. But Shearin and Corvidae made sure Raine and Mina were so much more than that. They broke boundaries, they took the given expectations and made them different. They created memorable fantasy characters.

~Linnea

3 comments:

  1. I love it when archetypes are turned on their ear. I love it when the hero rescues the beautiful princess who then snaps, "Somebody has to save our skins! Into the garbage chute, Flyboy!" I love Anti-Chosen One stories. I love super-tough cybes who are secret virgins and straight-talking elven sorceresses who stake out goblin gangsters.

    With that in mind, the Holy Bennu can be described as Lord of the Rings in outer space for teens in which Frodo is a girl and he, I mean, *she* and the Ring are one and the same and Sauron totally has the hots for her.

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  2. Interesting choice of topic, and very well covered, too.

    My post, next after this one, will delve into the roots of how to use dialogue to delineate character -- though the casual reader might not think that's what the post is about.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg
    http://www.simegen.com/jl/

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  3. If you love "Anti-Chosen One" stories, have you read China Mieville's UN LUN DUN? If not, go get it; you'll like it. It contains some very funny subversions of quest fantasy tropes (e.g., a talking prophetic book that sulks constantly because its predictions aren't coming true properly), yet with genuine suspense and emotional investment. It is also a "portal" fantasy, my favorite kind; the young heroine crosses from our world into the alternate city (Un Lun Dun, the distorted reflection of London) where the quest occurs.

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