The definition of a character is a work of art in itself.
Great characters are often what readers remember the most about fantasy novels. Sure, the world can be richly detailed and evocative, the labyrinthine plot as delicately arranged as the workings of a pocketwatch and the set pieces can be stunning. But a well-drawn protagonist who reacts in a seemingly natural and authentic way as the plot twists and turns will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
There’s a wealth of advice on how to set about crafting a great character. Some of it involves brief exercises, other approaches include writing an exhaustive list of favourite foods, siblings, achievements and shameful secrets. Sometimes the points are too general, other times they feel like overkill.
There is no limit to how far down the rabbit hole authors can go when developing their characters, but there is such a thing as sinking too much time into extraneous detail. I draw the line at writing down my heroine’s favourite colour or holiday destination. I’m just not sure it’s going to elicit any more interest and engagement from the reader. But there are fundamental aspects of character that the writer must define early on.
Novels in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres tend to be dominated by plot. Style and characterisation of course have their place, but the events are of central importance. So when we define our characters, we tend to begin by working out how they will fit into the narrative.
The basic questions we tend to ask are:
1) What does the character want?
2) Why do they want it?
Let’s see some examples of this.
The protagonist wants to become King because he covets power.
The protagonist wants to kill the King because the King killed her brother.
The protagonist wants to escape gaol to rescue his bride from slavery.
The protagonist wants to discover a magical secret to save his village from a curse.
These are practical building blocks for characters and provide us with the bare bones upon which we can drape finer detail. In many straight-up adventure tales, this might be enough (I’ve read plenty of books and seen plenty of movies in which this was as far as characterisation went). However, if we want to craft memorable characters that engage readers on a deeper level, there’s a third question we should always ask:
3) How does this make the character feel and how does this change things?
This is where we define the central conflict of the character, generating more depth and nuance. Let’s look at how this augments the above examples.
The protagonist wants to become King because he covets power. However, he feels nervous that people will not take him seriously so he tends to be more severe and cruel than necessary.
The protagonist wants to kill the King because the King killed her brother. However, she’s afraid of what will happen if she rebels against the Royal Family and this causes her to miss her opportunity, leading to her having to take a great risk to achieve her goal.
The protagonist wants to escape gaol to rescue his bride from slavery. However, his anger at the injustice of his incarceration and his bridge’s predicament causes him to become the very monster his enemies accused him of being.
The protagonist wants to discover a magical secret to save his village from a curse. However, he is afraid of the power he comes to wield and must decide whether to release this power and save the village – but possibly cause wider harm to the world – or bury this power and allow the village to die.
Just with this simple exercise we can see how the characters are becoming more defined. Now, as we slip these characters into the plot, we’ll see that this extra layer of depth might make the writing easier. After all, if we know how the character feels about his or her place in the plot, the writer can better judge how the character might respond to plot developments and the reader will find these responses more natural and authentic.