Sunday, 14 February 2010

Character Examples Two

For the second in this short series on character building, I thought I'd focus on the slightly chaotic process that can produce my characters. To demonstrate, I'll be using an example from one of the comic-fantasy novels I've got lying around, in the form of my character Grave, who is variously a henchman, the formost hunter of the fey, and comic relief whenever I've got nothing better to do. The trick is going to be doing this without giving away too much about the novel, but that sounds like a fun challenge. As always, I'm using these examples because they're the ones that best explain my own thinking, and I don't have anyone else's thinking to hand. So this is how I put Grave together:

It started with a plot function. Because the novel in question involves a journey through an especially silly magical kingdom, with at least one character being chased over most of it, I obviously needed someone to do the chasing.

I then thought about all the other chasing types you find in fiction. This is something people don't always admit to themselves that they do, perhaps because they like to feel that everything is utterly without any influence from what has gone before. But how realistic is that really? Having re-read Neverwhere, obviously Neil Gaiman's creations Croup and Vandemar were going to have an effect. The thing with finding an easy influence like that is to then find ways of going as far from it as possible, so cue thoughts about the hunter in the sleeping beauty story, various horror movie types, and ideas about the traditional Wild Hunt (who don't give up, are practically impossible to stop, and frankly seem a bit obsessive about the whole thing)

I found myself giving him a physical appearance before I got a name. I wanted someone big and blundering, simply because it felt funniest. It also fit with the 'Hard to Stop' element above. Then, it occurred to me that this also made him look a tiny bit like Hagrid out of the Harry Potter series, which seemed nicely incongruous. That in turn made me think about caretakers, and particularly about those big brown coats they sometimes wear. It fit with the idea of him tidying up messes in that nicely euphemistic sense. Suddenly, I've got the most distinctive aspect of the character's appearance.

I also happen to own a brown jacket with eleven (count them if you like) pockets, full of all the rubbish you always find in pockets, and it occurred to me that this provides lots of comic potential, particularly if the character isn't always particularly good at finding what he needs. But... does an absent minded hunter work? Aren't the fey supposed to be clever? Then I thought 'well, if he's been around for hundreds of years, he'd have a lot to remember'.

It's probably at about that point that he got a subplot, partly because the novel was feeling a bit one stranded and thin, but partly because I realised that the idea of someone who has been doing the same job for millenia fit with broader themes about responsibility. What would it be like to have the same job that long? You'd have to be obsessed, obviously, but you'd also have all those attitudes people get when they've been doing a craft all their life: professional pride, a certain solidarity with other hard working types, maybe a certain dislike of being told what to do by management. You'd also spend a lot of time thinking a lot about the old days, and possibly about how much better things were. It occurred to me that, if this weren't one of his usual jobs, it would provide a lot of potential for annoyance.

Finally, there was the name. I knew it had to be a one word name, because it had to be menancing, and because I found myself wanting to make fun just a little of those Laurell K Hamilton characters with one descriptive name like Darkness. I also wanted something suitably serious, without being overly villainous. I needed something with gravity, something suitably... oh, right.

There were a couple of additions after that. I put in a bit connecting him more strongly to the past I'd invented, and incidentally making a reference to a certain David Gemmell hero he reminded me of a little. I also put in various other bits as the plot needed them, because with minor characters particularly, you have to be ready to change them to fit. But broadly, that's Grave, and now I've made him, I can't imagine the novel being half as funny without him. Now all I've got to do is sell it, so you can see what I mean.

1 comment:

Stewart Sternberg said...

Good post. I think too many people ignore building a character and establishing backstory as well. WHen someone asks me where to start writing, I always say with the character. Stories are about people. We care about people, not about plot. Good post.