In the introductory notes to one of his novels, the richest author presently alive, Stephen King, explains that he was often asked how he writes. He states that his answer is always the same: one word at a time. And the answer is always dismissed by those asking the question. But when one strips away the cosmetic nuts, bolts, and plates, that is all it ever is. Take one word, connect it to another, and repeat until one has somewhere between a few hundred and tens of thousands of words. When one looks at it on this level, every author from King to Charlaine Harris to Harper Lee to Clive Barker has the same process. What makes authors different is in the cosmetics. The little frilly bits and pits that hang off the edges of the process proper. So, in the interests of promoting understanding of the world of the author, I am going to describe how I go about creating the characters that inhabit the worlds of my stories. Bear in mind that my process is like any other author’s. I use it because it works for me. I am sure that other authors will have other processes. This should only be taken as a rough guide.
Characters, much like plot points or locations, come in different levels of importance. It is important to understand from the get-go how important the character will be to the story. And that means the whole story, not merely the parts they appear in. This means it is important to have a general idea of the structure of your story in advance. If you are writing a George R. R. Martin type of epic in which the reader is expected to jump back and forth between several different groups of equally-important characters, it is important to have an idea of where every thread is going and what level of importance each character in each thread is expected to have. My stories are not even nearly that complex in terms of threads or characters. There is one central focus, one character or group of characters that are important to it, and a series of events building towards a singular main event. I prefer to hit a resonating note with one or two characters and let that ring for a while in the minds of my audience.
There are two characters in the last few stories I wrote that are the primary focus. They exchange places with one another at times for the position of the most important character in the story. Obviously, with this level of importance, they receive the highest level of priority in terms of development and answering questions about. If I were to describe them to a sketch artist, I would probably get a rendering of them so lifelike you could almost think that they were real people.
Ruby Amelda, the nicer and calmer of the two heroines, is a Halfling. This means she is approximately four feet tall, with a rough bodyweight of about sixty-six pounds. Being a Mage, she is also less prone to physically exercise to a degree that would cause any significant improvement in her physical fitness, so whilst she can hardly be described as voluptuous, she is certainly not slender by the standards of her people. So sixty-six would be a good estimate of Ruby’s total bodyweight. Ruby is also distinguished by her red, tending-to-brown, hair and green eyes. Even in fantasy stories, these characteristics are known for being rare, so in a crowd of Halfling women, she is easy to pick out. This can sometimes be significant in parts of stories, especially ones of battle.
Linula, the meaner and more disturbed of the heroines, is called a raven by others for a good reason. Her hair is so black that it both reflects and swallows light. Like Ruby, she is a Mage, but she is also noticeably more voluptuous in build, possessing breasts and hips that are large enough to attract attention even from proportionally larger peoples of the stories’ world. Her eyes are a light blue and are often described as having a perpetual questioning look, as if she is completely surprised or bewildered by what she sees. She is also the elder and smarter of the two heroines, although a distinction in intelligence between two Mages is usually pretty trivial. What distinguishes Ruby from Linula is that Ruby’s wisdom is greater. Given that a plot development in the second novel of this arc that resulted from a conversation with the real Ruby Amelda is that Ruby begins to study to become a healer, having a higher wisdom score is pretty natural.
But this last point also brings me to another aspect of my character development process that is worth talking about. Every character, whether they are a mighty warrior, a powerful Mage, a gifted healer, or even a lowly peasant, has strengths, weaknesses, and averages. In role-playing games like Eye Of The Beholder, these attributes are represented by a score, usually between 1 and 20, that represents how excellent or deficient the character is in that attribute. Most characters have a minimum score of 3 and a maximum of 18 in each attribute. Scores of 19 or 20 are generally the result of having bonuses associated with the character’s race. For instance, whilst most races have a maximum Constitution or Stamina or 18, a Dwarf can go up to 20 in this attribute because they receive a +2 bonus to this score. This represents the fact that Dwarrow are designed by nature to be tougher and more enduring than their peers. Similarly, Halflings, depending on which canon one is basing them upon, receive bonuses in Dexterity or Intelligence. Sometimes both. A score of 18 in Intelligence indicates that a character is smart enough to get the highest marks in every test thrown at them in any given subject, irrespective of how much study they do. But this score is also affected to a degree by the Wisdom score.
Ruby Amelda, for example, has an Intelligence score of 16 and a Wisdom score of 14. This is a slightly low Intelligence score for a Mage, but sufficient for her to be able to use all of the powers she needs in a given situation and succeed enough in her studies to progress forward. Whilst her Wisdom is not high enough to bring her any advantages in her secondary line of work, as a healer, she is not exactly at a disadvantage in this respect, either.
Linula, on the other hand, would have an Intelligence score of 18 and a Wisdom score of 9. What this translates to in storytelling terms is that information and casting comes very easily to her, but her ability to consider the feelings of others or foresee the consequences of the actions she is considering is distinctly average.
Obviously, explaining these things this way in a novel is not an option. One has to be poetic and florid in the language of the explanations. However, keeping information like this to one side and referring to it when asking oneself the question of how the character is going to respond to a challenge can simplify a lot of storytelling decisions.
And then there is the knowledge of how characters relate to one another to simplify storywriting decisions. It is one thing if you write that Group X (say, for instance, Orcs) hates Group Y (Elves), but the more you write to establish the reasons why (the latter cursing the lands of the former in anger, for instance), the more credible it becomes as a basis for a story later. Such research can also help when a storyteller decides to change the conditions of the world in which the characters exist and have the Orcs make peace with… well, just about everyone else. When you have researched the roots of the conflict and the reasons why one side is suing for peace, it makes reactions and arguments easier to write in an understandable fashion.
With all of the mentions of Orcs, Elves, Halflings, and such, it also helps to talk a bit about the races or physical compositions of the characters. In any story where characters are depicted as being different from what the reader expects in a significant manner, it helps to be able to describe how these characters differ from those norms, and why. And again, the more one thinks these things through, the better the results in your writing tend to be. Any idiot can write about how the Dwarrow are the grumpiest, grimmest, and most unmoderated speakers of the truth in the world. But only a good writer can come up with a credible or interesting explanation as to why. In the past, authors have gotten away with simply writing that this is the nature of these peoples, and leaving it at that. But this is pretty much the storytelling equivalent of “god did it”, and does not really help the story at all unless the reader is already “into” the fantasy canon and can fill the gaps with things from their own mental bank.
This is where relating stories from an imagined history for characters can come in real handy. Telling an audience that Frár Orcshield is named such because of his propensity to seize an Orc by the neck and use its body to shield himself from incoming arrows can solve multiple storytelling problems at once. For one thing, it explains a secondary name that would otherwise look silly. For another, it gives a graphic reminder of the utility and brutality in the Dwarvish approach to combat. Similar conventions exist when writing about the Elvish approach to combat. Simply telling the reader that the Elves have greater prowess with bows and/or swords will not suffice. Drawing examples in story form communicates this to the audience and can give what would otherwise be dull exposition an interesting format. For instance, writing a plot point about how an exceptionally skilled Elvish archer manages to put an arrow into the eye of an approaching Orc from a hundred feet away and, seeing the Orc fail to die from this injury, proceeds to put an arrow into the other eye. As you can see, this not only manages to communicate something about Elves in general, it also says something about the specific character.
This is where one of my favourite storytelling tools tends to come into play. Almost every major character in a story I write, regardless of racial, physical, or psychological characteristics, is based on a real-life person to some degree. That person might be my good self, a person I have met in the flesh, a person I talk to very regularly, or a celebrity whose meaning to me I wish to represent in the story. In the first novel that I managed to complete, the best example of this would be the Elvish King called Novannon. Because Trór Gravewater is essentially a thinly-veiled proxy for me in this novel, and I needed a character to act as a teacher or wise sage for this character, and Novannon presented himself as the logical choice, he began to take on a number of characteristics that some may recognise in social commentary legend Frank Zappa. Novannon’s words of wisdom to Trór touch upon a number of subjects, including the need for even the most modestly-educated of subjects needing to participate in the process of government to some degree.
For support characters or characters that exist to support or make a specific point, using a celebrity’s public persona as a basis can often solve a few problems. In scenes from more recent stories, music is used to bridge certain points of the story. And who better to base a character on for such scenes than a great musician. Aside from the aforementioned Frank Zappa, musicians like the Butthole Surfers, Sigh, or Black Sabbath are often referred to in such scenes.
Anyway, it is getting late, and I have already spent more time than I was anticipating on this writing. If you want to see more about the process by which my stories are written, feel free to expend words to this effect in the comment box. All credible questions will have effort expended towards an answer. In the meantime, I hope this essay proves somewhat enlightening.
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