Maybe I’ve been reading too many short stories lately, but it seems like more and more characters are turning into emotionless robots.
1) Go for description of emotions, but not cliched description.
I love it when an author can make me feel something that a character feels, whether that’s by analogy, description of physical reactions, dialogue, or something else. However, too often the author settles for cheap and common methods of doing that, such as using easily predictable dialogue or the horrible gooshy stuff that ends up in a lot of fantasy romance scenes.
Then, of course, sometimes the character only “says things angrily,” or “reacts with puzzlement,” and I get no sense of emotions at all.
Read as widely as you can for other authors’ senses of emotional description, but don’t let yourself be overly influenced by them. I think that all characters, whether reacting to confrontations or confessions or battles or murders, should do it as themselves, not Woman Escaping Evil Men #2389 or Teenager Rebelling Against Parents #9472. When the heroine starts throwing around dialogue like, “You could never handle a real woman!” while the people opposite her say, “I like a woman with spirit!” I put the book down. I’ve read this before, and most of the time, if the author has lured me into the story thus far, I can’t see the heroine saying that anyway.
And please, please, please watch the romantic descriptions. “His words touched her heart” or “He looked into her eyes and drowned in them” are just bad. Would your character really think and feel that way? And if they do, how do you differentiate them from the flat masses in other books?
Coupled with the right characterization, even the most seemingly trite words can be powerful. “One might have thought the sun had taken up residence in that cold room,” a sentence from Carol Berg’s Restoration, made me bawl like a baby, clichéd though it was, because of what it followed.
2) Learn to distinguish between grace note emotions and emotions that should be followed up on.
I love feeling that a character has depth and history—and one way to convince me of that is not to tell me that history all up-front. Still, authors overdo it sometimes. Because they want their characters to seem full or mysterious, they make them snap at seemingly innocent words or stare darkly into the distance without explanation. This is all right as a temptation to read further in the story, but if it’s never explained or made to meld with the rest of the character’s personality, it’s an annoyance and a distraction.
Sometimes, we may not learn what the “evil memory” was that made the character frown so. That “evil memory” line is a grace note, an adventure we can only fantasize about. Fine. But if the character is having a violent reaction every time his companion mentions the name “Lelli” and it’s never explained, I have a violent reaction at the author. It’s even more violent when the rest of the time the character is a quiet, gentle soul who never gets angry at anybody. Book, meet wall.
Don’t overdo the mysterious character bit. They should have reasons for gasping at a bit of information or looking particularly grim when someone is mentioned, and if they continually refuse to explain and/or the author forgets about it, they become Robert Jordan characters.
3) Don’t use the “But she was in shock!” bit to excuse every lack of an emotional reaction.
I’ve read fantasy stories where characters saw their parents get murdered in front of them…and ten pages later were laughing and talking as though nothing had happened. Shock is powerful enough on its own to make people act strangely for a while, but the point about shock is that it wears off. At some point, your character should cry, start screaming, vow vengeance, or have some other reaction that’s consistent with the way she’s been written.
I believe characters can have very, very understated reactions that can be just as affecting as any screaming outburst. But, again, those reactions should appear somewhere, even if it’s just a closing of the eyes or a refusal to acknowledge that those particular people are dead. Characters who remain “in shock” for the rest of the story are those emotionless robots I talked about, who seem to have switches the author flips on and off. “All right, now we want tears…now laughter…now a blank face will do…damn it, did the anger switch get stuck again?”
4) Don’t go for reactions that would be out of character given that particular person’s history, no matter how “moral” they are.
I don’t get all the hardened fantasy warriors who have fought in hundreds of battles, talk about death casually, kill without remorse, and yet start crying when they see a battlefield and talking about the terrible waste of life. Yes, yes, we understand that you don’t want to romanticize war, we get it. We understand that the young warrior who kills for the first time might have a reason to throw up (though I don’t understand why all of them seem to throw up after the first battle). We know that you want us to see this war as a terrible waste, a loss on both sides.
Just find some other character to preach about it for you.
To return to a healthy obsession of mine, this is yet another place where Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah books excel. The narrator, Seyonne, goes through dramatic changes that remove him further and further from most of humanity. He spends a lot of time being upset about that, but not all. He also uses his new powers to further his cause and his friends’ causes. I mean, wouldn’t you?
Those whiny fantasy heroes who start bemoaning the fact that they have power from the moment they learn they have it can go stand in a corner now.
5) Don’t give a character a “cool” reaction just to be cool either.
I bounce up and down in my seat with glee when the protagonist stands up to the nasty people who have been taking advantage of her and gives them what-for. However, that only works when there really has been a whole story, a whole book, building up the narrator’s awareness of the way they treat her and how much they get away with. It doesn’t work when the heroine has barely interacted at all with, say, her horrible father, and then comes back and tells him off.
Yep, confrontations and the heroes throwing off the bonds of parental or kingly or sexist or racist authority are cool. But they can’t be cool in isolation. The whole story has to bend towards that, either building up the narrator’s courage for such a confrontation or building up the need for one. Sometimes the narrator doesn’t even know what’s going on, after all, and has to realize that it’s not normal for someone else to drain her magic. If that epiphany isn’t well-handled and doesn’t match with the rest of her personality, it’s a disappointment, not the stand-up-and-cheer moment the author wants it to be.
“Cool” reactions to traumatic events are also a no-no. The hero should only be standing there making witty comebacks to the villain if that’s in-character for him. (And if they really are witty. A lot of fantasy authors are sadly confused about how well they can write humor). The heroine should only weep over her friend’s body if she loved that friend and is the kind of person who would weep in mourning. If she’s the kind of person who would snatch up a battle-axe and go hunting the killer instead, don’t destroy her personality for the sheer chance of showing her “softer side.”
6) Try to regard every character as a complete person in and of himself or herself, with a rich emotional life.
Any deities you believe in know this is hard, especially when you ride in one protagonist’s head and sympathize with her struggles and hate her enemies, but I think the best fantasy stories come from that. I can usually tell when the author has created a character just to be the “abusive parent” or “evil authority figure” or “comic relief.” They’re not allowed to have emotional depth. They’re not allowed to change or grow. They must continue doing whatever it is that they do when they first appear, which is evoke a single kind of emotional reaction from the hero. The only thing that (possibly) changes is the hero’s response to them. If the villain starts seeming petty and small, it’s not actually a change in the villain’s self-perception or self-confidence. It’s the way the hero perceives him.
If you’re writing from just one or two protagonists, it’s harder than if you write from the point of view of many, but it’s still possible. Let your characters be wrong about someone they thought was shallow and self-involved. Let the comic relief character say some wise things, even if the hero doesn’t know why. Indeed, showing the hero’s puzzlement is a good way to remind your audience that your character is not 100% right about the world and everything in it (and thus a Canon Mary Sue). Limitations can be a good way of developing other people, and thus a world, usually essential in fantasy.
And also, for the love of whatever gods you believe in, don’t make up a character just to be the bully. You’re not going to be in high school forever, and you shouldn’t inflict that mentality on your characters. If I read one more book where the teenage heroine’s antagonist has no motivation in life but to make fun of her looks or her magical heritage or her class status or wherever, I will invent a damn portal into the book just so that I can slit the whiner’s throat.
*makes “The Evil Girls In High School Were People Too” sign*