People fascinate me.
During my teenage years, I dealt with my peers in a very simple, direct way: I ignored them. I don’t think I said more than two words to anyone until I became a high school senior, and to this day I can barely remember the names or even the faces of most of my fellows. But even if I didn’t interact with anyone, and became famous for spending all my time tapping away on a laptop in the corner of the common room, that didn’t mean I was completely shut away from people. No, I watched. For a while, in the full grip of teenage angst, people were objects of study to me. They had never made much sense as far as I was concerned, but over time I became more and more interested in trying to understand how they worked and why. I think it had an interesting effect on me, because, honestly, most people don’t bother to do that. They don’t have to.
I did, and like most people with a disability I overcompensated somewhat.
When I got older and more mature I finally learned that I could, in fact, relate to people properly and have real relationships with them. Or maybe I relearned it; I think everyone forgets that it’s possible to like other people while they’re a teenager! Not surprising; when you’re a teenager you spend waaay too much time around other teenagers, and nobody likes doing that. Nobody likes being a teenager much either, come to that.
However, to this day I haven’t lost my fascination with people and what makes them tick, and for myself I think this is my greatest strength when it comes to what I write. I analyse my characters. With some of them I don’t even have a complete picture of what they look like in my head, but ask me about the psychological makeup of any one of them and I can tell you everything. I know what their formative influences were, how their environment and parents shaped them through childhood. I know their secret fears and insecurities, and their desires.
I don’t look upon myself as a puppet master, or a neurotic servant swayed this way and that by the whims of imaginary people who seem more in charge of my destiny than I do. I don’t even really think of myself as an artist. I think of myself as a psychologist, asking them “how do you feel about that?” for every situation I put them into.
Back-story is what fascinates me. People’s lives, their hopes and their fears and their relationships with each other – that is what excites me. Not magic, or battles, or giant griffins roaming the skies. Those are pretty neat, but ultimately they’re just trappings. Character is what matters most, whether human or griffin. This is what I believe, and have done for a long time.
I’ve said what I set out to say, so I’m technically done here. But, to prove my point – and because I just plain love doing it – I’ll give you a demonstration and analyse a character right here for you. My protagonist is probably the most complex, but I can’t do him for fear of spoilers, so here’s another more minor character who has yet to be introduced.
Her father died when she was young, and she spent most of her early childhood without a proper home, forced to move constantly and often in physical danger. Her only constant source of security was her mother, and so she grew very dependant on her, looking on her as the support that held her world up. However, she never had a proper home until her childhood was over. Her mother was a strong-willed, stubborn and fierce woman who expected her daughter to be the same and constantly taught her to be tough-hearted and to trust no-one. The mother was also a leader of other people, greatly respected and loved by those around her. Her daughter grew up influenced by this as well, surrounded by others who reinforced the mother’s influence. Because of this she became a loyal supporter in her own right, and because she believed absolutely in her mother’s cause she never considered rebelling and instead strove to please her at every turn. Others admired her for this, and placed their own expectations on her in the process.
The daughter reached young womanhood, and her mother forced her to go and live away from her – still able to contact her, but otherwise thrown on her own resources. The daughter became respected like her mother, and took on a leadership role in her new home without complaint. But because she had never had the chance to grow close to anyone but her mother, she remained distant and unemotional, disliking overt shows of friendship or love. As she reached sexual maturity, her mother forbade her to become involved with any man without her approval. So the daughter remained chaste and when she was attracted to someone she would never show it and would punish herself mentally for wanting to stray.
She spent many long years this way, completely obedient to her mother and completely unable to recognise her own resentment toward her. Over time, discipline from a parent becomes habit and by this time the daughter was no longer able to change herself and would always fit into the mould her mother had made for her.
The result of all this was that the daughter treated the men in her life with unforgiving hardness and rigid self-control. She loved them fiercely, since her mother had raised her to be fierce, but was incapable of ever showing her heart to anyone no matter how much she felt for them. Ultimately, with her mother long dead, she grew to be very much like her – and even treated her own children in just the same way as she herself had been treated. Our parents teach us how to be parents ourselves when our own time comes, and it was the same for her.
In the end, now an old woman, the daughter looks at herself and realises that she has become her mother and has made some of the same mistakes – mistakes which have made her lonely. But there is nothing she can do about it.
And there you go. That may have seemed comprehensive, but that’s not even a complete profile! I simplified it somewhat, and didn’t even go into the effect that her religion had on her, or her cultural heritage, or her political beliefs, or… well, let’s just say the list goes on, and I’m leaving it at that because of spoilers and because I don’t want to bore you take up too much space. That was this one character’s framework. She was shaped especially by her upbringing, which was very rigid. It puts her in contrast with my protagonist, who more or less raised himself and has the same obsessive drive to achieve his goals as I do. It makes him rather intriguing, and also rather immature. But that’s a story for another time.
And the psychology of griffins is another story altogether, though I went into it a bit in my post about them.
I think that to write characters, it’s important to have some level of understanding as to what makes them tick. You don’t have to go into it in as much insane detail as I do, but it does help. And more than that, it’s just plain interesting.
KJ Taylor lives in Canberra, Australia, where she is continuing work on The Fallen Moon trilogy. The Dark Griffin, book one of the Fallen Moon trilogy, is her first novel published with Voyager – she also wrote The Land of Bad Fantasy (Scholastic).