The Art of Character.

28 Dec

An admission about my tastes: I’ll excuse a lackluster plot for a character I can fall in love with. This is how I justified reading Anita Blake books for years. I had a soft spot for one of her vampire characters (Asher) and would pretty much read any steaming horse pile Hamilton shoveled at me just to get snippets of my scarred love dumpling. To this day when I think about his angsty vampy self I sigh and my eyes glaze over, because Asher was and is one of my favorite characters.

There’s a handful of characters that stick out that much for me, and fortunately, not all of them are forced to keep their heads above a tide of fictional dribble like poor Asher. Julian from Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour comes to mind, as does Shadow from American Gods. I’ll never fall out of love with Gus McCrae from Lonesome Dove, and Morgause from Mists of Avalon remains my all time favorite bitch. Pocket from Chris Moore’s Fool is far too lovable, and Death from Good Omens is just spectacular (and he has the added bonus of making appearances in a bunch of other Discworld novels). There’s more, of course, so many more, but those are a few examples of characters that ran away with my imagination. They came, they saw, they conquered, they linger.

The goal of any writer is to create characters that memorable, I think. Trying to pinpoint the magical recipe of awesome is difficult, though. Sometime back I issued myself a challenge: to see if there’s a formula to crafting a lovable character. Was there a checklist that’d help me construct something spectacular, and if so, could I mimic it? I pawed through my list of favorites and tried to pick out any common traits. Did they all have strong personalities? Were they funny? Were they smart? Did they smell good? WHY IN GOD’S NAME DID I LIKE THESE CHARACTERS ENOUGH THAT I CAN READ THE BOOK FORTY TIMES? The problem, of course, was that each one was so different, I could see no pattern at all. Sometimes the character was witty, sometimes tough, sometimes clever. Not all of them were even particularly likable people, as in if I met them in real life I’d probably want to punch them, but on the page they worked and without them the story would fall epically short.

Conclusion: there is no cheat sheet way of making a “Character Keeper”. Dang it.

So I’m left wondering how to make something stick with a reader. I know it’ll be different for everyone because it’s a taste thing. Some people will want “cool”, some people will want funny or hyper intelligent and socially awkward. As a writer looking at a 35,000 word work in progress, though, I’d be curious to know who sticks with you and why? What was it that drew you into a character and kept you, or was it the amalgam of the character’s parts? I know when I write I tend to adopt a character here and there, essentially choosing them as my favorite and I think it shows when I do, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to everyone else loving them as much as I do.

So, help a writer out and get a nerdy character discussion going. What characters do you love/love to hate? Which ones will always be on your shelf, and which ones will you always champion? Share with the class, folks!


4 Responses to “The Art of Character.”

  1. Joe December 28, 2010 at 4:52 am #

    This is one of those reasons why I keep reading those ridiculously cheesy R.A. Salvatore Forgotten Realms Drizzt novels. Jarlaxle, the smug bastardly dark elf who inevitably shows up in roles of minor villainy/dubious assistance in all his Three-Musketeers-crashed-into-a-Broadway-revue-dressed glory, does it for me. I can’t explain why in a way that “sells” it, I don’t think, but I just love that character.

    Also, he occasionally pulls a dinosaur-bird out of his hat and throws it at his opponents. And that’s wonderful.

  2. Reuben December 28, 2010 at 10:00 am #

    I’m a confirmed Arthurian geek, the kind of schmuck who’ll read what is effectively the same story twenty or thirty times looking for changes in perspective, events, and characterization. There’s a lot that goes into a good retelling of the Matter of Britain, but one of my regular litmus tests is the story’s treatment of Gawaine. The portrait of him you can assemble through source material both medieval and mythical and a variety of modern novels is the most fascinating of the Knights of the Round Table – a worldly and sinful man among monks and saints, as torn by conflicting passions as Lancelot* but more active in going to face them. He’s the son, nephew, or half-brother of the three generally great villains, and yet historically speaking, one of the most notable heroes of the whole cycle. It makes for a really compelling character.

    Sadly, I am often disappointed in modern retellings. Thanks to Gawaine getting shoved off into a smelly Gaelic corner by Chretien de Troyes and bankrutped of his strengths by Malory, Gawaine has become a go-to whipping boy for Arthurian authors, second only to poor Kay. Sometimes he’s presented as a good-natured yob (Mists of Avalon, or The Pendragon by Catherine Christian), sometimes as an surly jerkass (The Once And Future King, The Wicked Day), and sometimes I don’t know what in the hell is going on (anything by Stephen Lawhead.) Usually, he’s not just very interesting, and that’s a goddamn shame. Probably the best inspection of Gawaine is Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, which is a somewhat bizarre but eminently readable “high style” semi-comic retelling. Once & Future King would come in second; T.H. White’s Gawaine might be murderous and slightly dim, but the author does an amazing job of capturing the inevitable conflicts and challenges.

    But I think if I want a really good composite Gawaine, I’ll have to write my own.

    (*Also, they’re more interesting passions, cause Lancelot is kind of a French wanker.)

  3. Tami December 28, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    *fist bump for Anita Blake* I know EXACTLY what you mean. I did, finally, break ties with the series, but Asher kept me going for a long, LONG time.

    I’m the same way – give me a character to LOVE and I will forgive any number of atrocities. Give me a plot or world to care about, but a character that makes my eyebrows draw together every time they appear on the page, and you’ve lost me.

    Hamilton has a gift for great characters, regardless of what else may be said about her books.

    Dragonsong and Dragonsinger will always be on my shelves, even though they’re the only Pern books I own. Menolly cries out to me.

    Mercedes Lackey occupies nearly an entire shelf all by herself and has such consistently amazing characters that I couldn’t point out a single one for fear of the others thinking I don’t love them.

    In Tanya Huff’s Enter the Keeper book, the cat and the schizophrenic Hell in the basement firmly cement a spot on my shelf.

    The characters in Spider Robinson’s Callahan series will always soothe my soul, and the rabbits in Watership Down have been with me since childhood. ❤

  4. Kel February 1, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    *Gasp* Another Mercedes Lackey fan? YAY!
    I mostly agree about her characters, but there are a couple that stand out for me. Namely, Vanyel, Kerowyn, and especially Talia. Talia is one of the characters that I will read an entire book for, just to catch one reference of her. If we are including non-humans, Skandranon and Kelvren would be added to the list.

    Drizzt was my first fictional hero, and still one of my favorites. Also, Raistlin from the Dragonlance series made a pretty big impression on me. He may have been nasty at some points, but he was still one of the best characters IMO.

    And I could probably think of more if it wasn’t way past my bedtime right now. :\

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