Please join me in welcoming fellow 47North author Richard Ellis Preston Jr, who is visiting the blog as part of our monthly author swap. Today, Richard is sharing his thoughts on character development. Got questions? Post them in the comments and Richard will reply.
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Hi everyone. It is an honor to be here with you on Roberta’s blog. Roberta has asked me to do a feature piece on how I approach character development—and how my steampunk action-adventure hero, Romulus Buckle, came to be. My apologies in advance for the perhaps unfocused nature of this piece—it’s a bit stream-of-consciousness— but I wanted to have a conversation with you here today. Even if you disagree with some of my points, I hope the discussion provides both of us with food for thought. Let’s chat about character development.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. Somerset Maugham)
Like all writers, my methods for building characters are a mix of mishmash and melting pot. Some methods are drawn from personal experience but more have been assembled from many hours of reading books by writers and academics on the art of writing. Great observers of the writing craft are able to gather up and crystallize the nuts and bolts of the machine. They make them easy to digest. I offer a short bibliography at the end of this article of some of my favorite books on character building and the writing process. My methods of character building vary from book to book—I don’t have a well-defined system, but it does involve an intense attack during the creation phase and an active pursuit throughout the life the novel. Below is a short list of the ideas I’d like to cover.
- A Character Who Refuses to Die
- Know Your Archetype
- The Great Man/Woman Theory
- What MUST the Character Do (and What Does the Character Think He/She Must Do?)
A Character Who Refuses to Die
“We care about what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are” (Henry James)
With any book I write, I usually start with a character. I start with a character whom has often lived with me for years, even decades. The character is a shadow, perhaps invited, perhaps not, inhabiting a mysterious vault in the mind, but he/she sticks. He/she won’t let go. Somehow, I already know that person in an intimate yet blind and undefined way. That ‘sticking-power’ is a kind of litmus test for me; my subconscious is fascinated by the character and I can assume that this proto-person will prove a bountiful subject to explore. Be wary of the infatuation with newly invented characters offering fiery but brief affairs before the spark dies out. Seek a long term relationship with your characters and make them your friends for life. Nothing is worse (for a writer) than stalling in the middle of a novel because you realize that your main character is a fraud. Nothing.
Romulus Buckle, the hero captain of my steampunk adventure tale, has been with me since I was a boy. I didn’t yet know his name or his story but the young swashbuckler lived inside of me, in tales where I imagined myself to be Robin Hood, Captain Blood or Captain Nemo. I think about him often even when I am not writing, and I am deeply invested in his life. I worry about him. I suffer the pains and joys that he suffers. I am intensely interested his backstory and the experiences that have made him the person he is. I root for him even though I shall allow his own flaws to tear him to pieces.
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” (Kurt Vonnegut)
Know Your Archetype
“Summoned or not, the god will come” (Motto over the door of Carl Jung’s house)
No matter how original you think your character might be, warrior queen or tree frog, he or she will fall into one of a limited category of character archetypes. I recommend, once you have a sense of who your character is, that you seek out the similar character type in literature and film and study how other artists have tackled it. Stand on the shoulders of giants. Stealing, you say? I say not. The archetypes are as old as the art of storytelling itself. Your character shall be original in the sense that he/she will be someone we’ve all never met before, but don’t deny yourself the rich brain-fodder you can feed on studying how the masters of your craft explored the archetype. If you are creating a fantasy king, read E.B. White’s The Once and Future King about King Arthur; if you are creating a French-Canadian Second World War nurse, read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Don’t ignore non-fiction either: biographies of real people who lived lives similar to your character are wonderful studies as well. If you are creating a woman pilot, read about Amelia Earhart.
The hero of my steampunk action-adventure series is Romulus Buckle. I knew that I wanted him to be larger-than-life and a swashbuckler of immense confidence, similar to Robin Hood or Captain Blood (both movies starring Errol Flynn) but with a darkness beneath like Captain Nemo I looked to the great fictional sea captains of the 18th century like Horatio Hornblower and Richard Aubrey, who are both brilliant but aggravatingly (and often amusingly) flawed. I drew on my love of adventure heroes such as Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Romulus Buckle has pieces real historical figures in him, such as the young Winston Churchill and Stanley Livingstone. Knowing your archetype doesn’t box you in; it frees you, showing you the endless avenues you can explore without being untrue to the basic essence of your character.
“The concept of Archetypes is an indispensable tool for understanding the purpose or function of the characters in a story” (Christopher Vogler)
The Great Man/Woman Theory
“…some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
Gak, you say—the pretentious scribbler is quoting the great Bard now? Yes, yes I am. Which one of Shakespeare’s descriptions in the quote above best fits your character? All of them? None of them? I find that using this mirror to study my character helps illuminate my entire story. Who am I building and how does he/she react to the obstacles in the way? Remember that ‘greatness’ is a relative term. The courage of a door mouse defending her litter from a rat is a form of greatness, is it not? Greatness can be either good or evil. Achilles was born great. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood achieves greatness (albeit a twisted version of it). Harry Potter has greatness thrust upon him (or does he? You could argue that he is born great, and you can argue he achieves greatness as well, but I personally think ‘thrust upon’ is the most fitting formula in his case). Some characters don’t seem to fit into any ‘greatness’ category at first glance; look at Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon. But wait; I would suggest that you look again.
For me, Romulus Buckle is not born great. He does possess many abilities and virtues but he is plagued by far too many flaws to occupy the near demi-god status that ‘born great’ demands. But the warts are what the make a character real and fascinating, aren’t they? Personal flaws shall bring your hero to his/her knees and force him/her to prove their constitution and courage on the rebound. The Gods of literature, in The Iliad and Percy Jackson and on and on, are interesting because of their glitches, not their thunderbolts.
As my Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series progresses, Romulus Buckle shall run the gauntlets of defeat and despair and in the process he shall both achieve greatness and have greatness thrust upon him.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point…” (C.S. Lewis)
What MUST your character do (and what does your Character think he/she must do?)
“Every man has three characters: the one he shows, the one he has, and the one he thinks he has” (Alphonse Karr)
This one is huge. Characters can of course be multi-layered and complicated in their motivations—often consciously misrepresenting their true selves and intentions, but, generally speaking, they have to be driven by something specific and singular at their core. You can break this driving force down into two categories: one, what the character must do; and two, what the character thinks he/she must do. Human beings often do not understand the real issues which compel them to act and neither should many fictional characters. For example, in the beginning of the film Casablanca, Rick Blaine is a disillusioned Spanish Civil War veteran who rejects heroism and thinks that he must regain the love of Ilsa above all things; but by the end of the film, Rick realizes that he must return to the fight, and rejecting Ilsa’s love is a part of the sacrifice he must make to help win the war. Knowing the difference between what your character must do and what he/she thinks they must do is a brilliant way to discover and exploit their desires and contradictions.
I’m going to bail out on this one as far as my book is concerned. I can’t speak to what Romulus Buckle must do in the Pneumatic Zeppelin series because it would give too much away, but I can assure you that it is different from what he thinks he must do.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank you for your attention if you managed to hang on all of the way through this guest post. Even if you disagree with my ideas I do hope that they got your brain chewing on the subject; this was a wonderfully constructive exercise for me. Just keep on spilling the ink, which often seems to be the same color as blood. Writing is difficult but writing is life—and life is difficult.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller.
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A Select Bibliography—a few good books for writers:
Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer
How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One) by Stanley Fish
The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler
Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders is the first installment in his new steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. Richard has also written for film and television. He currently resides in California.
Want to connect with Richard? Visit him online:
Facebook: Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.