Of Chaos and Order


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.

Faith Hunter



31 comments to Of Chaos and Order

  • Someone recently just told me that I have a habit of writing one kind of ‘romantic pairing,’ that of the “Hot, smart, kind of broken and seriously messed up women who hook up with puppy-eyed, sexy but awkward, masochist dorks.” And… it’s true.

    I like the way different people’s pain can both compliment and highlight the other’s. And it’s not very hard to break someone. People are so fragile.
    But… I have been in a bit of a mess on my current WIP, because I’ve managed to lose track of the (always pantsed) brokenness. One MC had her mother go mad, her family keep important secrets from her, and has always been split between desperate to get away, and knowing she ought to stay and not let everything fragment without her. In the end, she chooses to get away, but not to save herself. The other MC grew up desperately trying to be a good kid and not get sent away from her foster homes, but she was never quite human enough to pull it off. When she meets her brother, she will do anything just to be kept, until he wants too much – but there, that’s where it breaks down. Why would she resist? He would make her into someone who would never be sent away. It’s what she’s always wanted. Even if it’s at the cost of, well, herself.

    Hmmm. Maybe that’s the answer.

  • Hi, Faith. nice LCF, it really brings across the point of how the two Kirks really were different.

    In my WIP, Bethany used to see a man following her as a kid, just shrouded in blackness and she told her parents, teachers, friends and no one believed her, that this man used to live under her bed and follow her. As a kid that broke her and caused her to get into the underground scene with drugs and partying. Now she’s different, she doesn’t live like that anymore, she’s even on the soccer team at her school; she’s living a normal life and here comes this man again, bringing out these old feeling. And number two, her relationship with her mother is rocky because of the way she USED to be and her mother still treats Bethany like Bethany’s still fighting back and that breaks her spirit a little. It’s like why try to be good when all the bad stuff is still happening? (It’s the moral dilemma of our generation)

  • We’re all damaged goods of one sort or another with the potential for great good or great evil. It’s how we deal with that darkness within that defines us. And it should be the same for our characters. I think the most broken character I have right now is Deadboy. He’s chaos personified. He’s far too driven to stopping the bad guy, to the point he lost his job for going rogue during a case. He enjoys the drink a little too much, he failed his friends (one an old flame) and now they’ve disappeared, he’s being pushed into the role of vigilante private investigator. Oh yeah, and a masked assassin gave him a bad case of dead and now he has to consume living flesh to keep going so he can stop the villain and save his friends, all the while dealing with his own morals and what his predicament might mean for his very sanity.

  • Ken

    The first causative factor for my MC (Deanna) happened in her back story: Deanna’s only friend (Kallie) was used, impregnated, then dumped by the only son of a rich, influential, and politically powerful family. In a moment of uncertainty (she was a teenager at the time) she takes her mother’s advice (mom is a bit more concerned about social status than most) and, sorta, distances herself from Kallie for a bit, until it all blows over, etc. Kallie kills herself so Deanna is carrying that guilt…

    Second causative factor (Again in her back story): Deanna is blamed for a military fiasco and loss that wasn’t her fault. She’s stripped of her commission, publically humiliated, and dishonorably discharged from the military (which she loves) so she’s carrying that sense of betrayal…and she’s missing the little finger on her right hand which was removed along with her officer’s signet ring when she was discharged.

    Both of these came to light as I was creating Deanna’s character and they stem from the things that she values. Later on, I plan on slamming those values against each other and seeing what happens. I already sort of know what’ll happen from my “But-Therefore” type of outline, but I don’t KNOW what’ll happen or how it’ll look, until I get there.

  • Thanks for the kind words about Ethan, Faith. He is certainly the most complex, conflicted character I’ve ever written. There is also the MC in the contemporary fantasy that you’ve read, but others haven’t. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the magic system, but the upshot is that he is slowly going insane, having watched his father grapple with the same fate over the course of the past twenty years. His mother died when he was a kid, and he lost the one other social connection he ever cared about: he was a cop, but was kicked off the force because of his mental instability. Talk about broken.

    I find it interesting that so many of our broken heroes and heroines — and by “our” I mean our culture, not just yours and mine — are severed from one or both parents. For all the focus on sex and romantic love in our society, the fact is that the parental bond remains the foundational one. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Darwen Arkwright, Jane Yellowrock, Thorn St. Croix, Ender Wiggin, Paul Atreides — all of them lose (through death or exile or some other force) at least one parent.

  • Cara, I hope that’s the answer! And yes, it takes little to break us. And so much to heal us. If we just use that in our writing, our characters will explode with life and vitality.

    WaitForHim, yes, that works quite well. IN real life, we heal through enough of our brokenness to find a normal life (or semblance of it) and then the old terrors or problems return and we are broken all over again as we are forced to face the awfulness of our pasts. When our characters do that too, it is real for the readers.

  • Daniel, you don’t go half-way, do you? Excellent! And I like the name, Deadboy. COOL!

    Ken, Deanna sounds wonderfully broken but still strong. I like! And yes, most of our characters’ brokenness happens in backstory, and is is revealed in bits and pieces and dip and drabs. Good work!

    David, I think the things we suffer as children (or go through emotionally, even if they are not physically painful) are the most shaping, binding, terrifying things in life. And so our characters need to be shaped by their lives and their pain in just that way. Ethan is a wonderful character. 🙂

  • I knew characters needed flaws, but never thought about how the best are broken. It makes sense, though, because many of my favorites include Thorn and Jane and Ethan and the ones David listed (though I prefer Bean to Ender).

    In my WIP, my protag starts out arrogant but basically undamaged. During the course of the story, she looses a parent and someone else she admires as well as trust in the hierarchy of her temple and the gods themselves. Hm. Maybe I did it without realizing it, just thinking it all made for good conflict.

  • sagablessed

    I am having to think about my WIP due to this post, and I thank you for it, Faith.

    My WIP: one character was thrown out of his house by his folks. Two lost their mothers in the same accident. One of those had an old boyfriend’s head blown off…all over her. Another was beaten by his father to the breaking point.

    My issue currently….how much is too much? For a good work (in my opinion) shows much/tells little. But when to show said damage, and how severe? I need to get more into one character’s head more. My suppossed protagonist. Yeah…spoiler there.

  • MaCrae

    By the way, if my story ever gets published this is FULL of spoilers, but ‘ey! who cares! 😛

    My MC’s first tragedy was when she was little and her mother was stolen (I haven’t worked out the details yet) and she and her father thinks she is dead(she’s not!) and my MC is bitter towards her father about it but they never talk about it. Her father has his own reason for not talking (several plot points) and my MC is cagey and defensive about it. Then next thing occurs many, many, many years later when the MC’s castle is attacked and everyone she knows is killed and she thinks her father is dead. What happens to her is the BBU singles her out during the attack and nearly kills her (after killing the MC’s mentor before her eyes by cutting her head off)and “marks” her with a symbol on her face. The MC takes up residence at another castle while recovering from being nearly being dead. And all these events before lead up to what happens now, which is the MC’s “condition”, which has been sleeping quietly, rears it head. My MC’s species has a special kind of energy magic and her condition causes her to be unstable and her magic goes out of control. The MC hurts one of the people she is slowly coming to care about and a “mini BBU” notices it and brings it to everyone’s attention. People with the MC’s condition are thought to be insane and everyone’s afraid of them because of past experiences with them so now another “mini BBU”, the head of her entire race, orders her put to death. SO now her own race is after her along with the BBU and she can’t control her magic which is very important to her huge ego. (Also the symbol on her face causes EXTREME havoc in the second book… it’s wonderful)

    There’s lots more too… my poor MC.

  • EK, it sounds like you got it, to me. 🙂 And yes. Brokenness and chaos mean more conflict.

    Saga, That is a hard one. When it feels overdone, it becomes gratuitous. As you know, I use the lasagna method. Chop everything up into small bits and toss it in together. That keeps you away from dumps and slow spots, and increases the tension as the reader realizes that is an untold, and slowly unfolding, story taking place.

    MaCrae, Yes, we do tend to abuse our characters, don’t we? I like the way your MC is broken, though, and the chaos of the *facial brand* is a grand one!

  • My MC was broken as a child when she was taken from her family and raised to be a military killer. But she never thought of herself as broken since she believed those who told her it was an honor to be selected and that the abuse and isolation made her better and stronger and better able to do the “dirty work” no one else had the courage to do.

    As an adult, just before the story begins, she discovered that the leaders she trusted and followed had been using her and the other killers for their own purposes, not just to protect citizens and bring justice to those who managed to evade the law. For the first time, she has to think of herself as the bad guy instead of the good guy.

    At the beginning of the story, she’s trying to fix herself by finding another leader to follow, someone worthy of her trust, and also by doing good as an Enforcer rather than a Killer. However, she’s not welcomed by her new leader or anyone else, which breaks her a little more as the story progresses.

    My goal is to have her take baby steps toward fixing herself, then have something else happen to break her a little more. One step forward, two steps back at first, but then two steps forward and one step back by the end of the book. She won’t be fixed, but she’ll be better.

  • This is a good post, and makes me think. Most of characters are troubled, but I’m not sure how broken they are. And in my current piece, I have to really consider doing some more breaking.

  • Nathan Elberg

    There is a teaching by the ancient Rabbis about the verses in Genesis: “’Behold, it was very good’ (Gen 1:31) refers to the good inclination; and ‘Behold, it was very good’ refers to the evil inclination. Can then the evil inclination be good? Rather, without the evil inclination no man would build a house, take a wife or beget children.”
    Star Trek clearly got it right.
    Do we have to explain why the characters are broken, or can we just present them as such (skip the psychoanalysis)? Never mind that their mothers were raped or alcoholics, and just show the results? Our characters are not on trial, to explain their misdeeds by presenting them as victims of something or other. Is this tendency to explain a factor of contemporary socio-cultural values? Nothing is really anybody’s fault, or rather, responsibility.
    In my novel Quantum Cannibals, the MC is gang-raped, and her husband eaten. Pretty traumatic stuff, but she has no choice but to get on with her life. She has to heal her brokenness herself.

  • Faith: I try not to. 😉 I was trying to figure out where to go next, after finishing some revisions on an older work and was re-reading that work. Pretty sure I’ll be going back to that one to finish. Especially since I already know one of the final scenes. >;) *wringing hands with evil glee*

  • One of my favorite MCs is (although she doesn’t know it yet) the product of her mother’s rape by one the Khiani, the race her church considers demons.
    The story opens with her being a mostly happy, healthy 15 year old just a week or so from meeting and marrying the man she’s been betrothed to. The only cracks in her perfect life are a touch of claustrophobia, and that weird things happen when she sings. Those things scare her when they happen, and are a little like magic (anathema in the eyes of the church), so she never sings.
    And from there, I proceed to destroy her as she learns the truth of her begetting, discovers the evil and good perpetrated by both sides of her heritage, her inability to fit into either culture because of blood on one side and because Khiani see her as ‘human’ and their culture is alien to her, the loss of family, future and everything familiar, etc.
    While all this is going on, the race war is escalating and one race or the other will be annihilated unless she can figure out a way to end it.

  • It’s interesting that on the same day you post, Talk of the Nation did a story about why we love bad guys as the main characters on TV shows lately. I only got to listen to part of the show, alas, but they were talking about why flawed and broken characters suit us better these days than the glittering perfect heroes of yesteryear.


  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for a very interesting post. And thank you for breaking down how you go about building parts of these characters.

    My first thought when I read your ending question was that my current MCs are somewhat broken but not too much (though one I’ve been trying to chip at fairly steadily). But then I realized that my *actual* main character is entirely broken, she’s just not a primary POV character, largely because, as Nathan pointed out, I didn’t want the story to be presented as about a victim. She is a victim, but the blood on her hands is still her responsibility, so dwelling on the why becomes less interesting (though I dribble out bits) than exploring the craziness that has resulted.

  • Razziecat

    Yay, one of my favorite themes: The broken MC! 😉 In my current WIP, one of the main characters is Erasmus Thorne, who once killed someone he loved (and almost killed another person) through magic; it left him unable to fully tap into his magical abilities, for fear of killing again. Now he has to contend with a plague, the return of a dangerous, dark god, that god’s relentless followers, and his own student’s uncontrolled magic, and he keeps falling short of what he needs to do. Then there is Valerian, the main bad guy. His family was killed and his home destroyed when he was ten, and Valerian was forced into slavery. He managed to escape after several years, and appointed himself as the dark god’s priest, intending to get revenge on the raiders. But as an adult he decided to bring the dark god back to the whole world, and anyone who stands in his way is killed. Valerian really isn’t quite sane; he intends to bring back the god into someone else’s body. The more I explore his mind and motivations, the crazier he seems. He won’t succeed, of course–the good guys will win–but I suspect Valerian will snap further when he fails.

  • quillet

    This post has made me look at my WIP and especially my MC with fresh eyes. He’s not broken enough! Or rather, he is broken and I didn’t see it. He’s the kind of guy who likes to pretend he’s invincible, and stupid me, I believed him! *smacks self on forehead* I’m his creator; I should know better. I’ve been planning for the story to break him down, but I’ve been having trouble with the progression of it. Now I see that it’s because he needs to start out more visibly broken. He certainly has reasons enough. He’s lived through some very violent times and has lost his entire circle of loved ones —and not just once. He’s also faced a lot of failure: failure to accomplish things and failure to protect people. He doesn’t forgive his own failures. And now it’s starting all over again. The cracks have got to show…

    Thanks, Faith. I needed this!

  • SiSi, I love the part where she tries to fix herself and it backfires to make her even more miserable and broken, and bring more chaos to her life. Nice!

    Di, I have to admit that broken characters are more fun for me. I guess that’s kinda pathetic. Hmmm.

    Nathan, there are no rules here. Psychoanalysis isn’t necessary. And yes, it’s much better to show the character’s problems through actions. But trauma doesn’t go away like magic. And not all trauma breaks characters or real life humans into victims. The best character have chaos, not destruction. So I sorta disagree. And I sorta agree.

  • Daniel, good on you!

    Lyn, the *breaking on screen* is harder, and yet probably more fun for the writer, than the breaking off screen by far. Frankly I’ve only tried it a few times, in Gwen’s work.

    Misty, dang. I woulda been perfect on that show! No, wait. They don’t have *genre* writers on. Never mind.

  • Hep, I totally agree that the most broken characters aren’t always the main characters. But broken characters aren’t always victims either. Sometimes that brokenness makes them strong from the get go, just as some humans. A neat part of writing, in my opinion, is the way we each get to make our stories work and break the rules. Errr. What rules?

  • Razzie, I didn’t think about the BBU as broken, but of course, the best ones have good and bad in them too, and brokenness and chaos too. Good point. And it sounds like the brokenness of your protag and your antag meet perfectly to create conflict. And more chaos!

    Quillet, you are welcome. All good characters, like all strong humans, have some element of brokenness in them. And I’ve discovered that when they are challenged, that brokenness can become a strength. 🙂

  • Gee, poor MCs. We do torture them, don’t we? 🙂
    My MC is a mess. His parents have never been close to him and were often absent throughout his early childhood; he virtually raised his own sister, who was the love of his life, but died in his arms when she was seven. She had been bitten by a snake right under his nose, and he’s still blaming himself for that.
    Now he tries to distance himself from everybody else as much as possible, too scared to love in case he loses. His strongly protective streak led him to save the royal family of his country from a group of enemy dragon-riders, but although they all survived, the young Prince was maimed for life. So my MC is beating himself up about that, too.
    The inciting incident of the novel is when the Prince’s father, the King, orders my MC to become the bodyguard for the Prince and Princess, travelling with them across the country to keep them away from the war. (Little does he know that one of his closest friends has turned traitor and is hunting them down with the intent of killing the Prince, who’s become his friend). Now that gets interesting. 🙂
    Thanks for the post!

  • TwilightHero

    Great post, Faith. I like the Kirk analogies 🙂

    The character who fits the bill most has got to be my female protagonist – the MC’s older sister. At nine, her and the MC’s mother was abducted and murdered by the tyrant king’s soldier-mages, the Reavers. At fifteen, when she discovered she could use magic, she too was captured by the Reavers, ostensibly to be trained as one of them. She was raped, tortured and despite her intial resistance – and she did resist – broken down into, essentially, a very dangerous slave. While the Reavers were cleaned up later on, and she regains her humanity with the help of the man who becomes her lover, she is now, at twenty-three, a far harder, more ruthless individual than she once was, still haunted by what was done to her. (I plan to kill the lover later on. Major spoiler. Don’t tell anyone :P)

    Her return home is the inciting incident of the whole story. When she discovers her brother can use magic as well, she becomes conflicted. On one hand, he’s her little brother, and of course she doesn’t want him to be like her; on the other hand, she is a Reaver now, and is obligated to bring him in for training; on the other hand, bringing him in means they’ll be together again, so a part of her is actually glad this happened… Meanwhile, the MC has no idea where she’s been all these years, so her showing up as a Reaver, with a completely different personality, comes as a shock.

    I actually killed off their mother so there would be a maternal aspect to their relationship; after she dies, the sister becomes more protective of the MC, feels responsible for him, etc. But I too have noticed what David mentioned, that a lot of main characters have lost at least one parent. Something to think about.

  • Unicorn, the history of MC fits perfectly with plot line. I love it! And what I like most is that life will not let him free to go an hide form his perceived failures, but forces him to face them day after day. Lovely! Excellent areas for conflict among the chaos here!

    Twilight! A fellow Trekie! Whoot! And yes, great characters lose people. They have nothing to fall back on. I like to point back to the hero motif represented by Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars. He had lost mother, father, home, was being raised by aunt and uncle on a remote farm, and then they were killed and the farm was destroyed. His life was torn apart. His life (rather than he, himself) was broken. He rose from the ashes and overcame. Brokenness in a different way. And I love the way your characters are pulled in so many different directions. Perfect.

  • Really interesting! I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read it yesterday, but I’ll post today anyway. 🙂 My MC Cassie doesn’t start the story particularly broken–or at least not traumatized into being broken. She’s not a very good person. She’s the daughter of a senator (in a Fae world). She wants to inherit the senatorial seat. But she’s not pure faerie. Her father had a fling with a human at the end of a huge battle against a Big Bad. The human mom left the baby with the faerie father. He married, and he and his wife had a son. The one likely to get the seat (because he was pure faerie, not because he was a boy). So, she hires a hit man and has her brother killed. Then she does two favors for the hit man. She then is told, by her father, that he probably won’t give her the senate seat anyway. The novel actually starts with the third favor. Unfortunately, the favors result in the death of her family, her friends’ families, and the release of a great evil called The Grey into her world. So, while she does feel guilt about her brother’s death, it gets much worse when she knows she’s the one who let the destruction her father stopped before she was born back into the world. Now it’s up to her, and a few survivors to try to stop the evil again. Of course none of her friends know it is her fault … yet. What will happen if/when (of course when) they find out. And as the story goes on, she’s changing physically, and starts to wonder if she isn’t half human, but half monster.

  • Pea, this is wonderful. Your protag is an anti-hero? Evil-ish at the outset, and then changing when hit with reality of the results of her evil. I like it. Dark stories are selling now. 🙂

  • Jack’s mother died giving birth to her and her twin brother, but the ability they share to speak with ghosts means the woman remained an influence in their lives. Which is a good thing, given that their dad left the babies with a relative. But it’s also a bad thing, in the sense that she still has abandonment issues, and you can’t exactly introduce your dead mother to friends. Her abilities have gotten her into trouble over the years, making her jaded about them. Something happened between her and her brother that I am still trying to work out, because when he dies on her, too, she doesn’t exactly give him a warm reception. I think she could be more broken, though.

  • Laura, she sounds plenty broken. And it reads as if she becomes more broken as the story evolves, so maybe leave it where it starts, and let the brokenness increase as her relationships with her dead-ones changes. I think that could work well.