Character building

Back when I was a gossoon, and the world was yet young and unformed in places, whenever your parents, teachers etc wanted you to do a spot of septic-tank diving or eating earthworm-spaghetti in the ante-chamber of hell, or to take a long swim in water that could freeze impure thoughts solid and leave you singing falsetto for six months, they’d tell you it was ‘character building’. I don’t know if this is an expression elsewhere, but in Darkest Africa, it was used often. Let me assure you all that if I had to get post-facto planning permission for my character, it would make several major national bureaucracies explode. It’s almost worth it. I have a character, as a result of their well-meaning efforts, slightly larger than Pangea, and incorporating architectural styles from Aztec to Zorasteran, and all possible intermediates.

In their generous fashion the Army, South Africa, migration, and the publishing world have done their very best to continue this good work. I only have something to do with the last part now, and really, I appreciated your efforts, but you can stop now. Let’s try doing things the easy, pleasant, highly rewarding way… just so I can experience that too.

Being possibly slightly biased, I think this has made me into an interesting (if confused and confusing) character, except when I have had three glasses of wine and start droning on about fisheries management, stats and the philosophical underpinnings of politics, at which point I can put hyperactive two-year olds to sleep and wildly cast nasturtiums (or whatever other delicate blossom comes to hand, like cauliflower) about the ancestry of politicians and fisheries scientists. Do not give me wine.

And from this I wanted to extend the would-be writer’s thoughts into that job some of us do, and some of us just make as we go along. Being fluent liars – that’s what fiction is, after all – we’ll probably deceive you about how we slaved over the hot keyboard to do this, even if we didn’t. But it is worth thinking about. We read about a character, and not, in most instances, a plot, or the gifted beauty of the prose (well, yes, but look at the fact that most modern literary fiction sells 3 copies to people who aren’t pretentious enema-orifices, and there is a fairly limited supply of the latter, as the sequential disease-vectors for this unpleasant complaint are the soy-latte, Voltaire and the vegan leather leather boot, and most people are sensible enough to avoid at least one of those.) We read about character… because: 1)We can identify with them. 2)They are amusing, different, interesting.

You simply can’t always do the first. My politically incorrect hero PI Bolg,
is difficult for anyone to identify with. Well, perhaps aspects of him. I am sure there are some of you who are 4’7″. I am sure some of you are blue. I know for a clearly established fact that some of you are contrarian, and have enough attitude to stop a herd of charging buffalo in their tracks. But my point is Bolg is an easy character to make interesting. He’s had many lifetimes of character building. Most of the time we simply don’t have that luxury. And if we’re to follow that excellent piece of advice – write about something you know about (or at least something about) – one’s characters can end up well, like us. Which is tough (and rather obvious) if you’ve lived a sheltered life and are a young writer (or even an older writer who has a great imagination and yet has a fairly safe, comfortable life. You’re a cubicle geek from the software industry and the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you is a FEMA official looking at you funny (Yes, there is a real author rather like this).) You can write characters other cubicle geeks love, and there are a lot of them to buy your books. You can make my eyes glaze over. Or you can step out of your known.

Of course, the joy – or trial – of being an author is that you don’t have to restrict yourself to experience. No, I cannot be female and give birth. I cannot be a skin color I am not, or an orientation I not. Trust me, most female fantasy writers couldn’t possibly deal with the life-threatening, often acrobatic and deadly adrenalin fueled hell-scenes they write either. Most male ones or sky-blue pink and polka-dot skinned ones cannot write about medieval torture and the emotions of crusaders or harlots from experience either. What they, and you, can do is to build that character – and if they do it well, build it with foundations of your experience and observation of real people, re-enforcing of research, bricks of building it up gradually (that interesting character does not arrive fully formed and deep without this. You get cardboard cutouts, all very well for demonizing political opponents, but useless for enveloping readers). He wasn’t always the finest swordsman outside France. Once he was the finest boxing champion of kindergarten, for three years. And before that he was the kid they laughed at for wetting his pants. This shapes and forms that building. And then there is mortar. And the author only has one kind of mortar, and that is imagination and real empathy, the ability to see himself, standing there with a dark stain spreading from his crotch down his pale blue trouser legs while the other kids giggle and point. To burn from the scolding and to cringe with the embarrassment that shaped that brick.

And then finally… there is the plaster-work. And that is confidence and panache. Cough. Many is the author who has hidden lousy character structure under this. You can get away with it too.


Until you don’t and the whole book collapses like streets of cheap clapboard or dominoes when the reader jars on one of those weak characters.

The other route – which is particularly favored for coming of age novels is of course to write those bricks and mortar. It’s easier. But the books still usually call for the same things.

So: Okay. your turn. Let’s talk about characters where, although you did not see the building, you were sure the author had built them, not just taken prefab units for their book?

cross-posted at Coal-Fired Cuttlefish

7 thoughts on “Character building

  1. You just HAD to throw down the gauntlet, didn’t you?

    As a young reader, I was merely bowled over the first time I ran into Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in the final two novels, Gaudy Night (which I had a very hard time following at the time) and Busman’s Honeymoon. Along with millions of women worldwide who thought we were mystery readers, I fell in love with the way Sayers humanized and romanticized the little English detective.

    Older now, and a writer, I ask myself two questions: How did she do that? And how can I do the same thing?

    I wonder if the characters of Peter and Harriet (without her, he would never have gotten moony) were parts of Sayers, parts which were kept apart by circumstances. I am thankful she put all that down on paper so I can read it whenever I want. And now, when I read, I mark my copies, study the structure and character, bend down the battered corners so I can find the good parts easily, and aim to produce that kind of pleasure in a reader. Amazingly, buried in the detective story, there are fewer than 20 per book, to achieve the effect.

    I haven’t dared go study Dorothy, lest I find something NECESSARY that I can’t duplicate. But I can easily go back to the emotional place, to feel the effect and to ponder duplicating it. And learn from her.

    1. Gauntlet throwing is my metier ;-). Yes, studying those role models is so valuable. Unfortunately I now find it impossible to read without doing that!

  2. Anne McCaffrey’s Nerilka and F’nor come to mind. Although he’s a secondary character in the first Dragonriders book, the reader can tell that there are depths to F’nor that the later books explore in detail. Simon Tregarth in Andre Norton’s Witchworld books is another character with a lot of flesh built on his bones.

  3. I know who that writer is. He can glaze my eyes in ten seconds.
    And I’ll have to count on panache, since I’m not sure of the brick work (Though I can do REAL brickwork. I followed the mason who was repairing Grandma’s garden wall and the wine cellar stairs and a whole bunch of other things around for a whole summer and talked his ear off. The only way to shut me up — I was nine — was to teach me and make me apprentice. If you’re a young female of a curious disposition, be warned this works with ALMOST every workman. As an older woman it’s harder to manage. They might think you’re coming onto them or something.) and the confidence is iffy…

    1. Ah your panache was always better than mine. Actually the eye-glazer is a constant lesson to me. He does well and has real fans not just readers who do merely exist as artifact of distribution and being very sweet with his publishers. I just get rapidly bored. And every time I see his work, I realize afresh: he is the mainstream. I am the odd one out. Shrug.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: