Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

After years of toiling on two drafts of Ghets, my latest novel, I proudly declared on Facebook that I was looking for beta-readers. Friends and family immediately requested copies, showering me with support. I felt loved and ready to share…but then had to stall. There was just one little problem with the latest draft of Ghets, about half the things in it were missing names.

I love worldbuilding: creating towns and creatures, different legends and cultures, but I absolutely hate naming them. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s more that I want to get the name absolutely right and nothing will gum up your writing flow quicker than trying to come up with a name on the fly.

My practice for name generation is to brute force it. Open a fresh word doc and start writing down ever name, sound and spelling that comes to mind. I start with existing names and words to build my new name out of, like Elisette, Odvid and the Uldritch Pit Lords. Maelator, my chief antagonist, I got from chopping a bunch of different words up and mashing them together. I was going for a name that sounded like the big bad from a Saturday morning cartoon and I think I nailed it.

Once I created one new name, it led to others. It make sense that people from the same group would sound have similar sounding names. The chief god of my orcs is named ‘Kor’ so there’s a lot of ‘kors’ and ‘or’s in their naming scheme (maybe too many) there’s the fortress of Korragorra, and Kaikor Reez and her brother Kalighor.

My biggest stumbling block to name creation turned out to be Google. I would come up with the perfect name only to google it and find out it was already the name of a small village in India or the last name of some guy in Uruguay or was in use on the World of Warcraft forums (or all three).

It got to the point where I would spend my writing time for that day playing with different names or tweaking the spelling to create something un-google-able. Finally, I had enough. When I came to a person, place or thing that needed a proper name I just wrote ‘BLANK’ in all caps. It was a revolution.

I was back to writing, back to creating. My writing flow was coursing again uninterrupted. The Angular fish people of the Dark Sea were the BLANK, as were the lizard-like citizens of the Underraod who they fought and raided with the help of the BLANK pit lords. Markus’s magic sword BLANK clashed against Maelator’s magic sword the Jaws of BLANK. And then there was the time BLANK grabbed BLANK’s BLANK and bashed BLANK into the walls of BLANK cathedral.

After I finished Draft II I reread the novel and realized that it was unreadable to anyone, but myself. By some miracle I had remembered what all the BLANKs referred too, but it was a mess. I spent several days creating random fantasy names and waded back into the novel replacing BLANKS with names from my list or giving them more generic ones. I’m still at it even now. I have a hundred pages still to go, hunting down the BLANKs.

But I don’t regret the decision to BLANK myself. When creating drafts, especially rough ones, nothing is more important than just writing. What I do regret is not going with a name more often, no matter how bad or just using one that’s already taken. Everything is already a name, it’s not like Jose Duomarco from Uruguay is every going to read my novel and realize that I used his last name for a port city.

Readers will forgive a good character with a bad name. Besides, it’s only draft II, names can change! And speaking off, anyone have ideas on how to make really good fantasy names? I still have more BLANKS to fill.