I love having guest authors on my site and today is an author I’ve recently met through talking in a room for the Forsaken Imprint of Booktrope. He’s funny, ultra talented and a new friend. I’m proud to present…
Unreal Realities and the Characters from Which They’re Made
When you’re writing fantasy, as I do, there’s a question that must be addressed early on; what kind of reality am I aiming for? Fantasy is the Unreal, but that makes no difference. Readers expect a world and its people to be consistent unto themselves. This doesn’t mean that all fantasy fiction should be spun from the cloth of G.R.R. Martin’s gritty, historically-sourced tapestry. There’s more to realising a world than filling it with shit, blood and atrocity (though that certainly works).
A written world can be surreal whilst still being utterly consistent, like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman graphic novels, or parodic yet truthful, like the Discworld series by the sainted Sir Terry Pratchett. They can be as insane as George Miller’s Mad Max movies, as long as that insanity permeates the fabric of the world thoroughly; as long as it becomes a natural fact of the space and culture it describes.
I could blather on for days about world-building. The topography, the systems of magic, the cultures, languages and religions. And that’s all great. It’s the mashed potato and gravy of fantasy world-building. But the meat, the chicken-fried steak, or say, the British bangers, is in the characters themselves. They’re beasts of their environment, proofs that all the rest has been well founded. And if they don’t fit that environment, if their dialogue is misplaced or ill-chosen (or just crap) then you’ve lost. Lost the reader, lost the palette and texture of the whole damn thing, never mind how pretty your coastlines look or how many cities you’ve named.
Caption: Bangers and Mash: Britain on a plate [recommend cropping the bottom out slightly]
Building your characters out of the clay of their world is complex, and there are too many factors to consider here. One thing you can do though is discover their flaws. Following are some suggested options, rated according to their potential impact on character and plot, and for riskiness. Don’t take these too seriously, eh?
Alcoholism—High impact, low risk
A classic. Overly employed to flesh out detectives and police officers in the crime genre, this vice still has the means to impact a character heavily. In fact, if it doesn’t have serious effects, it’s being misused as a character flaw. Real people lose family members, livelihoods and even their lives to this kind of addiction. If your character doesn’t struggle similarly, you’re wasting the trait. If you’re playing the flaw for laughs, you should probably fuck off and have a rethink. Not because of the offence you might cause, but because it’s lazy, shitty writing.
Misogyny/Racism—High impact, high risk
This can be brilliant as an indicator of a character’s independent existence. Various constructions of prejudice seem to be a common thing for people; even the ones who are mindful and willing to fight unfairness. So the same should be true in fantasy. The risk is that whether or not readers are fully conscious of the issues, these days they are very conscious of the outrage that follows overt racism or misogyny. This means that you could alienate your reader from the character who holds such views. However, it’s a challenge worth accepting. Racists and misogynists are not pure evil. They’re the result of inculcated societal values and ignorance. If your written society features these kinds of bigotry, then there’s a good chance that your characters will exhibit that bigotry too. Even the protagonists. Resolving this kind of flaw is a challenge, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
Pride/Arrogance—Variable impact, low risk
We’re used to prideful and arrogant antagonists, so I’d beware employing this flaw as a cliché. Certainly don’t make it their downfall, if you do apply it to a bad guy, because that’s really boring. Protagonists with overwhelming egos can be fun, if not overplayed. Unlikeable arrogance can be a great way to balance the traits of a character who might otherwise be too goody-goody. But beware the trap of hubris. Not all protagonists need to be Greek heroes.
Mental Illness—High impact, variable risk
Be careful, be respectful, assume your own ignorance at all times. That being said, there are very few characters in fantasy fiction who suffer from mental disorders or illnesses (being generically “mad” doesn’t count) so this is potentially a brilliant flaw to burden a character with, especially a protagonist. Carelessly applying this trait to antagonists would be lazier, and risks reinforcing stigma, but it’s not impossible, and could be humanising if done in the right way. If you’re going for a fictional mental illness of your own making, just be sure to root it in credible psychology.
Murderer—Moderate impact, low risk
Violence and murder don’t have as much moral judgement attached to them as they used to. In fantasy, they’re more or less expected elements. As a result, readers can pretty readily shrug off a terrible murder in the past of a character, even if they’re the hero. Therefore, if you’re going with this as backstory or as a recurring trait, don’t let them. Properly confront the reader with the reality of a character that is capable of taking another person’s life outside the context of combat or survival. Drive those consequences so hard into the reader that they bleed. Oh, and by the way, antagonists that don’t murder people are more unusual and interesting.
Paedophilia—High impact, extreme risk
Woah. What? This got dark all of a sudden. So, to be very, very clear, I’m talking about the serious psychosexual disorder, not crimes against children that may happen as a result of said disorder. This flaw would give a character an unpreventable attraction towards pre-pubescent children, but it does not need to mean that the character has ever acted on their impulses. This is an extreme exercise in putting yourself in the mind of a character, and a pretty nightmarish one at that. However, if handled sensitively and fearlessly, this type of character trait could break ground in the genre. Don’t just use this flaw to monsterise your antagonist—this is a problem that occurs in human beings. If your antagonist has this flaw, make it a part of his or her humanity. How do they approach the situation? Do they struggle, fail, succeed?
If you give this flaw to a protagonist, congratulations, you’ve set yourself one hell of a challenge. I wish you luck. If you succeed, you might win awards. If you misjudge their characterisation, you’re going to get hate. Lots of hate.
Cowardice—Moderate impact, moderate risk
It’s been done, but there are still ways to explore this. Again, this is a flaw that’s probably more interesting in a protagonist than in a villain. Theirs some wriggle-room here as well, cowardice could mean that a character is easily overwhelmed by their fear, or it could mean that when presented with threat, they take the most self-serving route to ensure their survival—at the cost of other characters. A trait that, like others listed here, could be interesting as part of a character arc, where the flaw is eventually overcome.
Well, I hope this got some conversations going. If you’d like to discuss these ideas or vociferously argue with me, get in the comments section. I’m also available at my website and blog www.MichaelIsraelJarvis.com, where I post weekly. A big thank you to Cassandre Dayne for giving me this opportunity.
Power to your art.
Thank you so much for being here!
Kisses and Spanks…