Order without chaos is entropy, and entropy is death.
I was a Trekie for many years, and one of my early Star Trek memories (original Star Trek) was the episode where Captain Kirk was spilt into two parts by the transporter malfunction. (No one ever mentioned where the extra mass came from to make another whole human. Maybe from the stuff that the replicator used to create piping hot coffee and fudge and uniforms and spare parts, though I never thought the two were connected in any way. But I digress. Back to the episode – The Enemy Within.) The enemy was Chaos.
Kirk was split into two parts, the good Kirk and the bad Kirk, or the creative, passionate, selfish, violent Kirk, and the boring, compassionate, kind Kirk. The evil Kirk went about trying to take over the ship, and the good Kirk huddled in the corner whimpering, unable to make a decision. Split apart, one was a moustache twirling Snidely Whiplash, and the other was a screaming Pollyanna tied to the rails. (How’s that for mixing my literary character references?) Spilt apart, the two sides of Kirk were useless.
I’m not trying to say that readers need evil in their good guys. Not exactly. But they do need to see and believe that the characters have weaknesses and lacks and social ills, in order to believe in the characters, to let the characters live and grow in the reader’s minds as real people. And perhaps in fantasy—all forms of fantasy—we need those weaknesses most.
Our characters can do magic. Cast a spell and become invisible. Wave a magic wand and summon a fire-breathing dragon. Speak a command and raise a corpse to life. (That last one was always kind icky to me. Just sayin’.) Anyway, they are supermen, and every superman needs his kryptonite.
I am loving David B Coe’s (DB Jackson’s) character Ethan Kaille. He can do magic but it didn’t keep him out of prison, keep him from losing his toes, or make him rich or happy. He’s broken. Yet, he keeps on fighting the good fight.
As I look back over my characters for the last 20 something years, I understand why some were such successes and some were mostly so-so. I’ve said this before here at MW, often enough that you can shout it with me. The best characters are broken. I can add, the best characters have at least some chaos in their souls.
I think my best three characters were Gwen’s Rhea Lynch, MD, and Faith’s Thorn St. Croix and Jane Yellowrock. All were broken in some fundamental way, and to be honest, I didn’t know just how broken until I finished writing the books. That brokenness was the chaos in their lives (in their characters) and that chaos made them interesting, exciting, and worth reading. That chaos kept them from achieving entropy, kept them challenging themselves and other characters in the stories, and kept them fighting the plot-problem-conflict long after normal people would have given up.
I’ve had people ask me how to do that, how to create broken characters, and I … I can give ideas. I can give my starting place. There is always an inciting incident or causative factor in my characters’ lives that initially broke them. But once I get the inciting incident or causative factor down and clear in my head, well, after that, I mostly just pants it.
Yeah. Me. I just pants the character’s brokenness. Plotting is an exercise in outlining, an occasion for order and linearity and causal circumstances and effects. Sometimes my books are heavily outlined. But writing a character in the midst of the plot is a discovery process for me. I get to discover how the inciting event or causative factor broke my characters, and continues to break them long after the event itself is done. That discovery process is so joyful for me I can barely express it. For me, it is the truly creative part of writing.
So: inciting incidents / causative factors for my character’s brokenness.
Rhea Lynch, MD had two. Her mother was a toilet hugging alcoholic. In the midst of her horror of a life, she met a girl who became her friend, and that friendship gave her hope in the midst of the misery. In book one, that friend is diagnosed with a massive stroke that puts her in a vegetative state. Rhea is broken back to the little girl, alone and with no one to depend on.
Thorn St. Croix had three. At a young age, she witnessed her parents die at the hands of a Major Darkness, and was taken to cave where she was held captive and tortured. She was saved, but was raised an orphan in an Enclave with other mages like her, and when she turned 14, her mind opened to all the minds around her. The psychic noise nearly drove her insane. To save her, she was smuggled out of her home to hide among humans, who would kill her in an instant if they discovered what she was. In the first book, her ex-husband is kidnapped by Darkness, and Thorn has to face her earliest memories and fears to save him, and must risk discovery at the hands of humans for the same reason.
Jane Yellowrock had several. At age five, she watched as her father was murdered and her mother raped, then was put on the Trail of Tears with the others of her Cherokee tribe. As a child, to save her life, she accidently did black magic and pulled the soul of mountain lion into her as she stole the lion’s body. She lived the next 100 or so years, mostly in the shape of a mountain lion, before an act of violence forced her into human form and out into the modern world of the white man.
Each of these characters had a cult-like following. Frankly, all the books are still selling. Rhea Lynch, MD is suddenly selling like wildfire, out in e-books. I am amazed. And yet, not amazed. Life broke her and she is still fighting back.
There is chaos in the souls and pasts of all the best characters and heroes. Without chaos, there is entropy and entropy can easily mean death—to a book and a series. Pick one of your own characters. What is the chaos in him or her? Feel free to share.