Recently Tarran Jones ask how do you manage to make your characters harder without being too hard? I immediately thought of three things—truth, goals and flaws.
Truth: If you want a character to be edgy, capable, ingenious, impervious AND believable, you have to start with a grain of truth and that means knowing their history. A good question for the writer to ask is how did they become thus? A strong or hard-edged character gets that way because of something—a combination of things usually—both in and out of their control. The reader needs to able to at least speculate on what that ‘something’ was. They need to know the why.
In my Quantum Enchantment series, Kreshkali is tough as titanium. She’s completely engaged in her cause but seems for a long time to be disconnected when it comes to love, particularly when that love is in the shape of a young man named Teg. The reader knows why she has such thick skin—she’s been whoring for water since she was fifteen and it’s taken the shine off her romantic notions. Kreshkali’s history makes her actions believable, and that is the place to begin.
Sometimes the ‘hardness’ of a character is developmental. It plays out before the reader’s eyes. This is the case with KJ Taylor’s Arren. (he) doesn’t actually start out as a particularly strong character. He’s immature – a characteristic he never really loses – deeply insecure, and a bit too proud for his own good. But he is brave and resilient, enough to survive things that would have destroyed a lesser man. He becomes hardened by what happens to him. He survives, but loses his heart. I think that’s the real tragedy of his story, and it’s what always kept me fascinated by him.
Whether it’s back story or current events, the why of a character becomes their truth and that gives them soul. Tracey O’Hara’s Antoinette has a lot of edge—physical skill, strategic intelligence and street smarts, yet most of her life has been in the single minded pursuit of the enemy . . . she’s had little time to actually form relationships, making her rather emotionally naive and vulnerable . . . We think of single-minded focus as an attribute until we see what Antoinette had to sacrificed to achieve it. It’s almost as if her goals are the driving force that moves her, and the story, forward.
Goals: The character’s goals are the next ingredient in writing ultra strong personalities. Kreshkali’s trying to save Earth from a totalitarian regime and keep the magical lands of Gaela from becoming contaminated in the process. Antoinette is out for justice. Arren’s just trying to survive in a world that’s done him wrong. When Nicole Murphy wrote Maggie, she had this character’s goals firmly in mind.
I wanted to show a woman who was prepared to make her own choices and wear the consequences … Maggie has little concern about what others think . . . she also doesn’t have a lot of respect for authority … she’ll do things just to ‘stick it to the man’, so to speak, rather than because it’s the right thing to do. Giving characters a history and making their goals clear shows the reader the why. No exposition is necessary because it’s implicit in everything they say or do.
Special thanks to K J Taylor, Tracey O’Hara and Nicole Murphy for their input and contributions to this topic.
What part does a character’s history and goals play for you as readers, writers and editors? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Part II explores the complexity of strengths, weaknesses and flaws with thoughts from Traci Harding, Stacia Kane, Kylie Chan, Mary Victoria, Duncan Lay and Satima Flavell.
Kim Falconer is the author of the Quantum Enchantment and Quantum Encryption trilogies, set in the worlds of Gaela and Earth. The first book in the Quantam Encryption, Path of the Stray, is out now and the sequel, Road to the Soul, will be out in March 2011. Kim is also an astrologer and runs Falcon Astrology. She is based in Byron Bay in Northern NSW, Australia