What our authors say…
For realistic flaws, I think about my character’s strengths and then push them until they become a weakness. A dedicated warrior pushed too far can become an obsessive one. A perfectionist might start rigidly avoiding risky or emotional behaviors. A desire for justice can distort into a painful lack of mercy. -Amy Bearce
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This rant goes deeper into issues I’ve only touched on before, such as in the teenage rant and the childhood rant. And there’s such a lot that I’ll probably end up making it two or even three parts.
I’m assuming here that protagonist means a main character, not necessarily a good one or even a viewpoint one, though sometimes the advice will be more specialized in those directions.
1) Make your protagonists realistic products of their backgrounds.
This was something I touched on in the teenage rant. How realistic is it that someone whose parents had physically abused him all his life would still be talking back to them? How realistic is it that someone whose biggest problem was her parents “not understanding her” would know and care about all the injustice in the world? I think abusive and spoiled backgrounds can certainly work; even whiny teenagers can work, though I’ve grown so tired of them in fantasy by now that I prefer adult characters. But it doesn’t work to take only the supposedly admirable traits from that background and exempt the character from other, realistic effects.
This goes the other way, of course. The hero should not be only the product of one event or set of events in his life. If the heroine lost her family to the charge of a wild boar, and it’s now twenty years later and she’s still so grief-stricken over them that she can’t think of anything else, then something iswrong with this character. She’s probably obsessive about her family for some reason, and a very lonely person. Showing her as living a normal life otherwise, or as being loved and adored by people to whom she’s moaned about her trauma hundreds of times, is silly.
It’s amazing how many times characters in fantasy can’t be healed—or can go for years without healing from the most minor of psychological wounds, and then can be healed in a matter of weeks or months by a short quest and that “one true love.”
2) Mix your motivations a little.
No person has just one goal in life, unless they’re the overly-obsessed caricature I described above. Say your hero wants to track down and torture the man who killed his father (not a common motive for heroes, of course, who aren’t supposed to be sadists, but bear with me a moment). He might spend years tracking him down and dreaming of the day the monster meets his fate, but is it true that he would do nothing else in that time? Not make any friends, not fall in love, not learn a new craft? At the very least, he would have to do something to earn money, unless he was the bearer of inherited wealth.
Touching up your character’s motivations with some paint, giving them little hobbies or obsessions or side-quests beside the lifelong goal, are ways to make them more “human” (if you’ll excuse a term that could also apply with profit to dragons, elves, dwarves, or creatures that change into various forms over a period of time). It even helps to touch noble motives with a hint of the selfish or the ridiculous. After all, someone shouldn’t want to save the world just because it’s there; it’s her world after all, too, and presumably she would end if it ended.
3) Avoid making your character a “never” stereotype.
This is what I call characters who have sworn never to fall in love again, never to trust men or women again, never to leave their home villages, etc. There are two reasons not to use this.
First, it’s a simplistic motivation, and in the case of something like swearing never to fall in love again, applicable to something that is probably not entirely under the character’s control, like his emotions.
Second, it destroys suspense. The moment a character makes a vow like that, I am 95% certain that the author will do something with the story’s plot to make him break it. Sometimes this can be done in a good or clever way, but usually there’s not much of a surprise in what happens, and the character comes off as stupid for having made such a vow in the first place.
4) Give your character moments of uncertainty, confusion, and despair.
These sometimes occur, but not nearly as often as they should. Imagine someone walking up to you and demanding that you save the world by crossing a river of fire, wrestling a dragon, and smashing an adamantine tower. Would you simply nod and accept it, or angst about it a little and then never doubt yourself again? If yes, may I salute you and watch you from a safe distance?
Fantasy characters, however, most often either have one crisis of self-confidence, at the beginning or near it, and then never again—or don’t doubt themselves at all. I can easily imagine crumpling under the responsibility of the world not once, but several times. I used to think that that was the reason companions usually went with the heroes on their journey, to give them company and means of cheering them when they came near to giving up. But that happens so rarely that now I think it’s more of a chance for the author to show off stereotypes. Even the wise old wizards or seers who often get the protagonists to go on the quest have the irritating habit of not telling them as much as they should know (one reason I wanted to strangle Robert Jordan’s Moiraine).
A character can tremble and cry and waver under the burden without coming off as weak. Remember that courage is not going fearlessly into battle; it’s pressing forward even when you are afraid.
5) Show your readers why the characters value what they do.
Romance is probably the greatest example of this, since so many fantasy romances have me tilting my head and thinking, “She loves him? But why?” Still, it can happen with other things. I have the same problem with many religious characters, one that has nothing to do with my own atheism. The character is devoted to a god without much description of childhood religious training, or even when the god is driving him or her to do things that conflict with other principles. Show me why this character would choose the god over the other principles. It can be done believably, but often it’s not explained, the contradiction exploited only for conflict and then abandoned when it becomes inconvenient.
Other things I sometimes have a hard time believing a character would actually value:
- Stupid defiance in the face of someone who can kill him or her
- Being right at the expense of others’ good opinions or even their lives
- The good opinions of people the author shows as scumbags
- Skills they never use
- Gifts that are dangerous (such as being given the quest object that the villain is after)
- Homes that have no attractive characteristics
Of course there are people who can and do love all these things, and sometimes the story is about the character’s awakening to the fact that, no, she really doesn’t need the good opinions of the people she once sought to gain recognition from. But too often, the author doesn’t develop the character otherwise as a person who would love these things; it seems to come from nowhere.
Which leads me to my next point.
6) Make your characters more than just a mix of character traits.
This is one of the problems with character profiles, and why I think a lot of the standard formats, untweaked by the individual author, are a bad idea. They want the writer to describe “problems” and “strengths” of the character as though they were entirely separate, and of course this is not true. Too often, then, the author winds up with a character like this:
Good points: She’s caring and compassionate to all kinds of people, scholarly, wise, and knows and cares a lot about the world, and nothing for herself.
Weaknesses: She’s a little arrogant sometimes, doesn’t want to love again, is sometimes wrong about things.
How can she be arrogant and yet care “nothing for herself?” How can she care for others and yet not want to love again? If she knows everything about everything, how can she be wrong? More explanation is needed. If she’s arrogant about her knowledge, practices the kind of smug altruism that means she’s actually proud of being selfless, and is sometimes wrong about things through not studying deeply enough or jumping to conclusions, that’s one thing. But often enough, the author doesn’t make any attempt to explain how the traits work together, and ends up with a character who’s a beaming mommy figure on page 3 and arrogant and condescending towards someone who “deserves it” on page 20. The weak traits are only used when needed, and with no thought for how they contradict the strong ones, and vice versa.
Try to weave your character a whole personality, not one patched together out of rags.
7) Show me why this character deserves to be your protagonist.
There are three different ways to do this. One is to make a likable character whom the reader genuinely cares about and wants everything to work out for. The second is to make a character who’s so infuriating, hateful, or stupid that the reader keeps reading in order to see him or her get what’s coming to him or her. The third is to create a fascinating personality, one that may not be completely likable at some points, but which the reader cannot stop reading about. I would characterize Crispin from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic series as the first kind, many villains from many books as the second, and Tyrion from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as the third. (And, of course, not all of these work for all readers. Some people might get too frustrated with the frustrating characters to continue reading, while others might find a person meant to be fascinating or likable as just drop-dead boring).
What I think doesn’t work is the Authorial Announcement From Above: “I will tell you this character is good/heroic/noble/generous, and you will accept it because I Say So.” I’ve read many fantasy books wondering why in the name of Dunsany this person is in the spotlight, and wishing the author had concentrated on a minor character instead. (This is why it’s good to get others’ reactions to the character, and to know whose story you’re really trying to tell). It’s also hard to read a story where the character is just basically there to keep an eye on events, or to act as a reader placeholder. Sometimes,sometimes, those stories work, but sometimes there’s a lunar eclipse too; that doesn’t mean it happens every day. Fantasy books are supposedly about heroes and heroines (one reason people can be ideally beautiful and heroic, according to a lot of fantasy authors). Then give me heroes and heroines, not someone you just say is, or someone who’s there to make the readers feel comfortable. Comfort is the last thing I want in the middle of a fantasy book. Heart-pounding excitement and horror and passion and laughter are more the done thing, for me.