Friday, February 22, 2013

Character Building - A Short Study

Why do we gravitate to certain stories?

Is it the plot, which are often reiterations of other stories we have read, watched, or listened to in the past? Is it the richness of the setting, which can be as beautiful or as grotesque as a writer's imagination makes them? Or is it because we are drawn in by the actors, the participants whose fates are often decided by the obstacles we place in their way, forcing them to rise and discover the grandest light of their souls or the darkest depravities of their minds?

Characters, above all other things, are essential to great storytelling. Now while this is a weighty statement, we know well enough that not all characters are great, nor are they all as three-dimensional as the next. What sets good characters apart from bad characters is depth, and while it is easy enough to say that, it is much harder to instill such life into what is essentially a person constructed out of our very minds.

I am going to take you through my own method of creating characters, which I hope will demonstrate my thoughts on construction as well as highlight two characters I absolutely adore. These characters were integral to helping me construct the character I will be presenting. They are two stalwarts of the fantasy genre: Conan the Cimmerian (Robert E. Howard) and Drizzt Do'Urden (RA Salvatore)!

(For some reason Blogger is refusing to let me place these two images beside each other, so they are stacked... sorry folks.)

These two are among my three favorite male characters in fantasy. The other is Lukien the Bronze Knight by John Marco, but we'll get to him on another day ;)

Conan is larger than life, a blood-and-guts warrior who strides onto a battlefield as easily as he walks into a haunted tomb, ready to face any enemy or monster that steps in his way. At the same time he possesses passion, having been enthralled and disgusted (maybe even saddened) by the world he wants to explore, experience, and one day, rule. Conan is intense in his outlook on life, both marveling at the grand accomplishment of civilization while at the same time being disenchanted with the petty intrigue and corruption it breeds. In that disenchantment he actually finds strength, as he never deviates from what he is-- a "barbarian" from the snowy hills of Cimmeria, bred to live by his wits and will alone, at home at the side of campfires whipped by the ceaseless wind.

Drizzt, on the other hand, is in many ways the exact opposite of Conan. The drow ranger is not like the others of his underground race, having been born of a father who had forsaken a culture built on intrigue and abuse. Skilled in warfare, Drizzt is constantly in crisis when it comes to his identity, not knowing how an elf from beneath the crust is supposed to live above it. Also unlike Conan, he is met with challenges that cannot be met with the hard swing of a sword--racism, loneliness, feeling like an "other"--which often forces him to think beyond simplicity and examine the complication of the world before him. In this way Drizzt is forever changing and growing as he tries to fit in, while Conan remains rather static. Both are stoic in accepting the brunt of misfortune, and while both are courageous, Drizzt fights for goodness simple because he is good, not because of ambition. In many ways, Salvatore's creation is unique because he stands against the world and chooses not become what it wishes him to be, but instead seeks to define himself. If there is a better example of Joseph Campell's idea of a hero and their journey, I am hard pressed to find one who fits as well as Drizzt.

Hey look, I rhymed. "Fits"... "Drizzt"... ah, just forget it.

These two characters held the greatest influences of my own character, Jishnu the Srijati, a Vedic-inspired sellsword who appears in a novel I am working on, as well as a few short stories that are currently making their way out to markets. Let me take you on a short journey of how I constructed him.

When I first came up with the character, I wanted to create a Conan-like figure who fought dragons and dealt with gods. Not the most original idea, but since everything that can be written already has been written, I wanted to do my own iteration of this type of character. Originally Jishnu was named Getorix, and came from a culture based on both Insular and Continental Celts instead of the Hindu-inspired world he would later reside in. I also wanted him to be a mercenary, because after reading the truly amazing "Black Company" series by Glen Cook and doing more research on the history of soldiers of fortune, I thought there were a lot of places that kind of character could go and do within a setting. Added to that, Howard's Conan had also been a mercenary at one point, affording that character certain skills that I do not think you could have in a typical "farmboy" character (Sorry, Luke.) I wanted a real person, someone who had already gone through "the shit" and had been affected by it. I don't like characters who have never killed before, and then suddenly cut the head off of their first enemy and walk away like everything is fine. That doesn't happen in real life.

So what do I have so far? I have a muscle-bound warrior like Conan, who is an experienced fighter from his days as a mercenary and is well-traveled. Okay, so where did I go next?

I originally was going to have a very typical fantasy hero-- meaning he was going to be white and European. But then I read an article that I believe was written by Rene Sears (the current slush master at Pyr.) Mrs. (or Ms., if I am incorrect in that aspect) Sears argued in her piece for SF Signal that for decades the genre had been dominated by European heroes and European culture, rarely ever stepping outside those borders to tell good stories with a new flavor. This coupled with a conversation I had with Gail Z. Martin at her Charlotte writing group further compounded a need to do something different. With that, I decided to take my story of Getorix and make the leap from a early medieval Celt to an Iron Age warrior from a land that is heavily influenced by India, Hinduism, and the culture born from a truly magnificent body of mythology. Overnight my hero went from being white to having a very beautiful shade of caramel brown skin. The blue eyes were traded for pair of dark grass-green iris, and his hair went from blond to black.

Getorix became Jishnu.

And I loved him (in a "he's mine"-sort of way.) It felt like I was writing outside of my comfort zone with this character, yet treading on the same ground that Howard and Salvatore walked before me. They were humming the first two parts of a really great song, and I feel like I am composing the final piece.

This did mean that I needed to go back and completely immerse myself in a new culture, one that I will admit I only had a token grasp of. I read everything from cookbooks, gender/clothing/ecologic/economic studies, the social and political history of India, Sanskrit, warfare all the way up to the British Raj, and braved the very difficult process of understanding Hinduism as a lifestyle and religion through volumes of sutras, upanishads, and the Mahabharata, India's wellspring of origination and identity. It was in the very latter that I discovered the Bhagavad Gita, which not only transformed my life, but provided me a framework for Jishnu's motivations as a character which lead to its own story arc that mirrors the spiritual journey of Arjun, the hero of the Gita.

So physically I now had a northern Indian warrior who had the physical essence of both Conan and the introspective nature of Drizzt. This leads us to my first method of character building:

Conglomerate - Characters need to have aspects of characters that you, the writer, enjoy. With Jishnu I have four: I have Conan's physicality, Drizzt's introspection, aspects of the Black Company's mentality, and a culture and way of thinking I can shape all of those things around. This is important, because for the readers I give these stories to, I need to create a level of comfort so they can easily access the story. Characters are the key to the plot and the resolution, and that key opens the door that lets you tell that story. That key, which is the character, needs to be easily held and grasped by the reader.

This leads to my second method of character building:

Deviate - This is an interesting process, because it forces me to look at the characters I love and search for flaws I don't want to recreate in my character. For example: Conan, in my opinion, is best defined by his willingness to charge into battle without question, and sometimes, without real motivation beyond "oh, there's a fight." Drizzt does this as well, as Salvatore uses "The Hunter" device with grand effect to often illustrate this facet of the drow's subconscious need to throw himself into danger. I want Jishnu to have that as well to an extent, but with respect to the plots I place him in, I want him to really inspect and question the reason for it. It has to be a bit more than "Oh, I like to fight" and more "I have no problem fighting, but what does it mean? What does it get me?" The latter question is very much in the mindset of a sellsword.

Admittingly, this forces me to strike the very difficult balance between introspection and not getting in the way of the narrative progression of the story. I also dislike Drizzt's sometimes-annoying propensity to try to find the good in everyone, even though it is a noble trait to possess. Jishnu thinks some people are good, and he thinks some people are complete bastards, and he acts according to that.

At the same time, he is not as a perfect warrior like Conan seems to be, as the Cimmerian often walks out of every battle unscathed (for the most part.) Jishnu's arms and chest are covered in scars--not enough to be grotesque, but enough for a guy to know the physical price of failure in his profession. I wanted a human warrior who has suffered for his skills in battle, and perhaps, which later led me to add bad knees to his list of "injuries from experience." Drizzt and Conan never seem to deal with the real reality of life, which drives some of us sometimes to consider suicide, which while not a stupid thing (you shouldn't ever tell anyone that feeling is stupid), is still a very inappropriate thing to do. Jishnu dwells on the existential questions of his who and what he is supposed to be, which somewhat hearkens back to Kull, another character of Robert E. Howard.

So where are we now? I have a character that is strong physically and skilled in combat, but emotionally is willing to look within and see things he doesn't like, leading him to question everything (no offense to Salvatore, but the last few books have been a little bit tokenish in this area.) Jishnu feels completely alone in a group of friends, but still has the ability to rise to his full strength both externally and when it matters internally. It sounds like a classical character, but has enough deviation to make himself new in my mind.

Finally, I implement my final method:

Differentiate - This is where I get to have fun, and I think you will as well. This is where I add details to the character that are distinctive beyond eye, hair, skin color, height, etc. For example, unlike the red pupils of his native drow race, Drizzt has a set of lavender eyes, which sets him apart from his own people at the very beginning of his life. Conan is remembered for having a square cut mane and blue eyes and being much taller than most everyone else in Hyboria. Being from Cimmeria carries its own burden,  as this sets him apart in every nation south of his homeland. As previously mentioned, Jishnu is covered in many scars he has received from his years as a sellsword (a mercenary for those uninitiated in the realms of fantasy terminology), some that are more apparent than others which may have faded into softer lines, but they are the kind of scars that might make it into their own plot lines. There is also the issue of Jishnu's third thumb:

These aren't Jishnu's actual hands... just in case you were wondering :P
I wanted to give Jishnu a supernumerary finger, and to my knowledge, I know of no characters that feature such a characteristic (which is not to say that it isn't out there: I just haven't read of it yet.) In Hindu culture, having a supernumerary finger or toe is not seen as a deformity like in western culture, but a sign of power for the individual, which makes sense in a world featuring gods and goddesses with additional limbs. However, Jishnu will come in contact with people who do not consider that, or perhaps, his own culture has not come to yet think of an extra digit as a sign of power--I can build a bit of the plot around that. Differentiation is not only essential in building a great character, but a great character influences the plot you create for them to play with.

Conglomerate, Deviate, and Differentiate are three methods I hope you can bring to your own writing, as they have helped me create some very good characters of my own. It is a simple method I came up with, but feel free to use it. Tell me what you think! Critiques and responses are always great, not only because it lets me know that I gave you something to think about, but I use your responses to really gauge how well some of these ideas really work in terms of practical application.

If you like what you have read, please press the Google +1 button in the upper right corner of the blog page, share this article on your social media, or just leave me a comment with ideas, scorns, or suggestions. I will be back next week with an article on BEER.

You can also follow me on Twitter @Jay Requard

Stay safe!


  1. Jay, like the post and will give your method a shot the next time I create a character. Meant to talk to you after Gail's meeting, but there were so many people and so much going on. Anyway, check out Stone Green Writer, If you like my sight shoot me an e-mail. I'd like you to do a guest post.

  2. Hey Rocky,

    I will definitely give your site a look! Let me know how my method works out for you.