This last weekend I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Matt Ryan, aka TV’s Constantine, at the Tampa Bay Comic Con. Given the sheer epic level of unfortunate of events that otherwise occurred (including Ark-worthy flooding that invaded Tampa), suffice it to day this was definitely the high point of the entire experience, at least for me.
Later that day, after getting his autograph and enjoying an enthusiastic discussion with the charming, talented, and altogether lovely Mr. Ryan as well as some of his fans while in line, we also saw his panel talking about what it was like to work on the show (sadly cancelled after just 13 episodes).
In both instances, it was incredibly interesting listening to what he had to say about building a character, especially a well-known character previously misrepresented to some extent in movies, for a mainstream audience. ESPECIALLY especially for a character not, let’s face it, entirely likeable. As Mr. Ryan put it: “He’s a bit of a bastard. He’s a charming bastard, but, yeah–he’s a bastard.”
This got me to thinking about character. Again. (It’s a habit, I know.) Namely, it got me to thinking about the elements–or essentials–of character.
This is pretty self-explanatory. Part of the thrill of writing is figuring out what makes our characters so cool and special. Many beginning writers start by dabbling in Mary Sue fan fiction, where they insert a cooler version of themselves into an existing world. Part of being creative, in general, is to fill a void we have in ourselves by expressing the things we’re trying to figure out or our place in the world. There’s a whole lack of confidence hurdle to deal with a lot of times, when you’re a creative, and so writing cool characters who do cool things can be deeply satisfying.
But, along with strengths, characters should also have:
Acacia, my heroine in the first Blood & Steam book, is intelligent and courageous and things like math and navigation come easy to her. She does things, and shoots things, and deals with the occasional kraken with aplomb. Also, banter.
However, she’s extremely prideful and not a little arrogant. She is very clear about who she is, and where she comes from. She doesn’t give a good gorram what other people think of her, or their expectations of her. Her tunnel vision creates problems for other members of her family, who are left at home to deal with the consequences of her unthinking actions. It takes an airship explosion and resulting casualties for her to reassess her point of view.
She does NOT deal well with inactivity, or situations that require patience.
Acacia is on the hunt for her missing brother, and is determined to bring the antagonist, a member of the peerage with a respectable reputation despite his behavior, to justice. He’s responsible for not only her brother’s disappearance, holding him hostage, but for that of her father as well.
Acacia loves her family more than anything. She wants them back and whole once more. She is therefore driven to exceptional limits of determination and fortitude to get them back.
When I was a wee Writer Monkey, in my Mary Sue fan fiction days (hey–we all have to start SOMEWHERE, right?) I had a fantastic English teacher. She was young, and hip, and did more to teach me about story craft than any other teachers combined, barring my theatre director in high school. Even my better teachers just expected us to good at things, or not. But Miss Richardson actually broke down character and conflict in such a way that I still remember and use to this day. Plot Mountain (aka the Plot Incline or Plot Sketch) is one of them. The other was Character Conflict.
Character versus Character: Protagonist versus Antagonist (conflicting wants and/or agendas). A really good example of this is Netflix’s Daredevil, where the protagonist and antagonist essentially want the same thing, they both think of themselves as heroes, but they go about it from opposite ends of the alignment scale. Both–and this is important–are sympathetic, admirable, and easy to root for.
Character versus Self: This is the internal conflict a character has when they doubt themselves, or fight their own natures. One of my favorite examples of this is Riddick, from Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. Riddick is, in every sense of the word, a badass. He starts out as a sociopathic predator, but something about the people he’s fighting for survival with, and, in Chronicles, the extreme measures he takes to protect Jack from the inclinations of her own nature and his influence on her, changes him.
This internal monologue of self-conflict permeates the fantasy novel I wrote and am working to get published, THE MINTREL’S DAUGHTER. My protagonist, seeking for redemption, constantly questions his worth as a fallen knight and failing his family’s legacy of honorable conduct. It takes the titular character, the story’s catalyst, to change his perspective. It’s the internal challenges we must overcome to mature and become who we need to be.
Character versus Nature:
The example most of us studied in Character versus Nature was most probably Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Another good example is the movie Castaway, or the Jurassic Park films. However, I take it this conflict to be the key of making setting a character in its own right. In Acacia’s Blood & Steam adventure, she has to contend with not only a kraken, but the fickle nature of the science and technology of her steampunk world. The High Winds are a thing, as is swearing by the Skies and the Earth. There was a lot of exploration and the rapidly expanding British Empire during this time period.
Pretty much everyone has something, some belief or ideology they hold dear. For characters, this influences the decisions they make and the actions they take. Acacia absolutely believes Baron Lindsey must be brought to justice, that her family needs her to save them. She believes people ought to be able to do precisely what they like regardless of race, religion, sex, or class, provided they aren’t hurting anyone else. This is enforced when other people think she should be doing other things that are more suitable. This means she makes a point of doing the unexpected.
She is also absolutely loyal to her family. She is a Carlisle, and this means something–everything–to her. Swanning off to rescue to her missing brother is the only possible action she can take, as far as she’s concerned.
People, from time immemorial, get attached to things. It must come from the habit we have of sticking teddy bears and special blankies into our children’s cribs from a young age or something. Cars, jewelry, musical instruments (I named my violin, y’all, just to give you an idea). There’s a comfort bordering on the superstitious with these things.
In Daredevil, Fisk wears his horrible father’s cuff links every day. The One Ring is the obvious example, of course. Sometimes, however, it can be as simple a thing as a paperclip bracelet a character might fidget with like worry beads, or the hat their father wore when they were growing up, or the classic car they restored together.
Acacia wears a gentleman’s overcoat tailored to her size, and a wide-brimmed hat on her adventures. She has a favorite rifle she takes with her. But her most sacred object isn’t an object at all, but her family’s name.
Aine, in THE MINSTREL’S DAUGHTER, carries her father’s lute–her talisman to him and her past. It keeps her grounded, even through the tough decisions, like giving herself up to the enemy in order to save her adopted town.
I think that’s about everything I’ve got on character, guys. Happy writing!