We talk about character a lot here at Magical Words. And I mean A LOT. I’ve written about the ABCs of character, befriending characters, character development, creating minor characters, and character descriptions. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about characters we love and hate. That’s half a dozen character posts, and those are just from me.
There’s a reason for this, of course. Character, as any professional fiction writer will tell you, is the key to good storytelling. A story with poorly drawn characters is simply doomed to fail; a story with weak plotting or worldbuilding can often be rescued, at least partially, by stellar character work. Character development is an author’s bread and butter.
The problem with all of the stuff I’ve written about character is that it fails to take the next step, and that’s what I want to write about today. This may seem so fundamental that it doesn’t even need to be said, but characters do not exist in isolation. Having great characters is one thing, but what makes them work, what makes them truly come alive, is the way our characters interact with each other. Books, it turns out, are not so much about characters, as about the dynamic interactions among characters. Our characters might be the most fascinating people ever imagined, but if their relationships with one another fall flat, so will our stories. Think about the Harry Potter books. Harry is a fairly interesting character with an intriguing past. But in terms of his emotions, his angst, his alienation from the authority figures in his life (the Dursleys), and his feelings about his studies, he’s actually a fairly typical teenaged boy. What makes him come alive, though, is his friendship with Ron and Hermione. That is the fundamental relationship dynamic for the entire series. It provides humor, emotion, tension, a host of key plot points. More than that, though, it also makes the three characters far more interesting than they could possibly be on their own. This is truly a case of the total being far, far more than the sum of its parts.
On several occasions I have mentioned that while my second book, The Outlanders, is not my best book (not nearly), it remains one of my very favorites. The reason I love the book so much, is that the relationship I set up among three lead characters was so complex, so interesting to write, that it made the entire book electric. Briefly, the dynamic involves Orris, a mage from Tobyn-Ser, who has come to the technologically advanced land of Lon-Ser to confront those who attacked his land. He is totally unfamiliar with technology, and he does not speak the language of Lon-Ser. He meets a man named Gwilym, a distant descendent of mages who came to Lon-Ser centuries ago. He dreams of Orris’s approach, and he leaves his home in order to help the mage. Because he and his people live as exiles up in the mountains, he is also unfamiliar with technology. He does not speak Orris’s language, but the two men are natural allies. They find themselves traveling with Melyor, a woman who helped with the assault on Orris’s land, and who lives a life fully immersed in technology. She is (at least at first) Orris’s enemy. But she speaks both languages, and so becomes the interpreter for nearly all of Orris and Gwilym’s interactions. Each character was interesting in his or her own right, but together they became such an unlikely and unconventional team, that their part of the narrative became the driving force behind the entire novel. Chronicling the slow building of trust and friendship among the three of them was one of the hardest things I have ever done as a writer, and also one of the most rewarding.
Such dynamics are often the key factor in a story’s success or failure. Darwen Arkwright is a likeable character, but his story becomes truly compelling when he teams up with Alexandra and Rich to form the Peregrine Pact. Jane Yellowrock kicks ass, but it is her relationship with Beast that makes her such a fascinating character. Ethan Kaille, my lead character for the Thieftaker books, has a complicated personal history and is one of the richest characters I’ve written. But it is not until I introduce his rivalry with Sephira Pryce that he really comes alive as a character.
Friendship, rivalry, uneasy alliance, hatred, romance — the working dynamics among characters don’t all have to be Harry-Ron-Hermione in order to work. Not by a long shot. My point is that for all the important work we do creating and developing our characters, the most important thing we can do for our characters and our narratives is to put the people we’ve created in the same room and allow them to interact. This is where dialogue and point of view influence our writing. They are the tools we use to introduce characters to one another and to our readers. We can plan ahead of time to create certain patterns in the relationships among characters. I knew, for instance, that Ethan and Sephira were going to be rivals. But until I actually started to write, I didn’t know how that rivalry would manifest itself. I didn’t anticipate the sexual tension between them; I didn’t know just how much fun their hostile and at times deadly banter would be. Sometimes there is simply no substitute for just sitting down and writing — and I say this as a committed plotter. I can outline a book in great detail, but still so much of what I do happens organically, in the moment. And none is more important than character interaction.
Still, while this post may make it seem that character dynamics are something that “just happen” when we write, there are ways to work on them ahead of time, to play with them and test them and see if they’re going to work. I often encourage aspiring writers to work on short fiction as a way to improve their longer projects; I do this because it works. And I even sometimes follow my own advice. It took me longer than it should have to get around to it, but not too long ago I wrote a short story about Ethan and Sephira’s very first encounter. The story is one of the best I’ve written, but more important, I know more about them now, and knowing what I do will make the next scenes I write for them that much more effective. You should try doing the same. Write some short scenes in which you throw together key characters from your WIP. Maybe put together two characters who haven’t met yet, or even two characters who might never meet anywhere but in this tale. You’ll still learn something about both of them. If you’re really feeling adventurous, write a story using characters from two (or more) completely unrelated projects. Have fun with it.
And in the meantime, tell me about an interesting dynamic among characters in your current work. Or (and?) tell me about a character interaction that you read and loved.David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net