A few more thoughts on characters


There’s nothing like creating and getting to know your characters.  It’s exciting and confusing and generally great fun.  Yesterday Diana Pharaoh Francis posted briefly on her LiveJournal about her characters suddenly kissing.   “I’m the author,” she said.  “Shouldn’t I know there’s going to be kissing?”  Sure, we should.  Doesn’t mean we always do. But knowing one’s characters inside and out can help a little.

Last week I talked about using character sheets from role-playing games as tools to help create and flesh out characters.  I had hoped to post a character sheet for my own Kestrel.  Alas, she pitched a hissy*.  “That’s like letting them look at me undressed!”  I tried to explain to her that it was really more like a resume, but she was having none of it. *sigh*… pirates.

Anyway, I found an assortment of excellent character sheets to share. If you’re working on a medieval-style fantasy, for example, the Basic D&D Sheets are just the thing. But what if you’re writing the next steampunk classic? The Call of Cthulhu 1890’s sheet is for you. Urban fantasy? Call of Cthulhu 1990’s. The best thing about using the sheets for creating a novel’s characters is that you don’t have to follow game rules. The game has limits on what certain kinds of characters can do, while a novel’s only limitation is the writer’s imagination.

Characters are as deep or as shallow as we make them. I like using the sheets because they help me think of traits and aspects that might not have popped in my head on their own. But there’s one thing every writer must pay attention to in regards to his characters. On the character sheets, it’s called “alignment”. Alignment refers to a character’s real motivations and feelings, regardless of what he says or does in front of anyone. In gaming, alignment is determined by combining either law or chaos with good or evil (or neutrality.) Darth Vader would be lawful evil, for example, and Jamie Fraser would be chaotic good. It’s not important that you classify your novel’s characters in this very concrete way, but it is necessary that you set up certain boundaries for your character. Readers want to connect to the characters you bring them. That means their behavior has to make sense in terms of who they are. If your character is killing innocent passersby in one chapter then clamoring for justice for all in another, your reader is going to scratch his head and go for another book. You’ll hear writers talking about their characters going off and doing something unexpected, and I think that’s largely our subconscious recognizing when we’ve taken a character in a direction that doesn’t work for him or her. Even when it seems that jumping off a roof would make an exciting scene, an acrophobic character would never be up there in the first place. It just doesn’t make sense. Trust me, you want to know going in whether your character is chaotic or lawful, good or evil or neutral. Makes things a lot simpler later on.

In a game, there’s a game master keeping an eye on how you play. He’ll tell you when your chaotic evil character saving a kitten from drowning has fallen away from his alignment. For novelists, it’s the readers who will tell us. Boy, will they tell us! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not get those emails.

Don’t forget to come by tomorrow for our first special guest of the new year…Jia Gayles, of the Knight Agency!

Misty Massey

*For those of you born south of the Mason-Dixon, a hissy is kind of like a tantrum, but without the kicking.


7 comments to A few more thoughts on characters

  • Misty,
    My AKA, Gwen Hunter, wrote a medical mystery series for a while, and in book four, my main character got into a hot and heavy clinch with a new character. I loved the secne. *Totally loved* it! My editor, however, said it was not in keeping with the character. She insisted I cut it waaaaaay down to a single kiss. Which I hated. But she was right. Sigh…

  • I totally agree, Misty. One aspect that we as newbie writers forget is character motivation. If we actively thought about our characters alignment, it would keep them more constant in the story. Take Lord Vineteri in the Discworld books. Is he bad or good? I think he is ultimately a good guy but has bad methods sometimes in order to achieve the greater good. Looking at alignment can definately keep characters consistant in their actions (or else provide a logic to them).

    Thanks for the advice!

  • Beatriz

    Alas, she pitched a hissy

    I fell out of the chair laughing when I read this, mostly because I could see/hear what that would sound like in my head.

  • I like the idea of alignments because it seems to give a character plenty of opportunity to live in the gray areas between “Good” and “Evil”. I love drawing my characters in shades of gray. Nice post, Misty!

  • Liz

    Clever idea about using character sheets and one I try and use – it gives you a lot of insight into who/what your characters are and their abilities. I also plunder and adapt skills from players’ handbooks to create other items of interest.

    Also, I’m thinking you’ll love this turn of phrase – there is a shop close to where I live here in London called Tantrums and Tiaras…they are a wedding shop!

  • mikaela

    …. How do you figure out alignment for a god/ immortal? Oh well. That’s a later head ache. Thanks for the link 🙂

  • Liz, I do the same thing! I’m plotting a novel right now that was born when I was hunting through a Dungeon Master’s Guide and ran across something neat. 😀

    Mikaela, deities have alignments, absolutely. Is your deity capricious and playful? Cruelly lawful? Perhaps it demands balance no matter what the cost? Is it the kind of god that watches over some particular location, breed of animal or race of people? I’d suggest making a list of all the behaviors you’ve written for the deity thus far. Seeing them all together, you might be able to work it out. (Or you can always send me more details, and I’ll help. *smile*)