Anthony Ryan is the acclaimed author of Blood Song, a self-published sensation that was picked up by Ace and expanded into the Raven’s Shadow trilogy. His new series, Draconis Memoria, is a mix of politics, dragons, and swashbuckling adventure, and the second book, The Legion of Flame, is available now. Today he joins us to talk about how to write well-rounded epic fantasy characters.
Novice writers have a tendency to think of plot and character as two separate things, and view the writing process as a kind of balancing act between the two. In fact, plot and character are intrinsically linked—your characters shape the plot, and the plot shapes the characters. However, there are important elements unique to characterization that need to be addressed in order to produce a compelling story.
The first questions to answer when conceiving a character are fairly obvious: who exactly are they? What is their name? Where do they come from? Who were their parents? I find it helps to establish the answers to all of these questions in advance.
That being said, in some cases when I start writing I don’t know the answer to every question, and won’t answer it until it comes up in the course of writing. For example, in my first novel, Blood Song, (mild spoiler alert if you haven’t read it), I had no idea Dentos didn’t really have any uncles until I came to write the scene where he reminisces about his less-than-pleasant childhood. While it’s usually beneficial to establish a backstory for your characters before you start writing, it’s also a good idea to leave room for a few surprises along the way.
The most important question to answer about your characters is: what role do they play in the story? You need to decide if they’re a major player or a bit-part extra. You also need to ascertain if the story be greatly altered by their absence. Take a hard look at your cast of characters and ask yourself if they all really need to be in this book. Do you have two or more characters doing essentially the same thing? If so, either kill one of them off or combine them into a single character. Alternatively, has a character hung around for more pages than necessary just because you liked them too much to do what needed doing? If so, bite the bullet, cook them a final meal and slip some belladonna into their wine when they’re not looking. The writer must be a murderous parent.
A common mistake in writing character is depicting them as essentially the same, or only slightly different variations of the same person. There are a number of ways to differentiate characters—not just in terms of signposting their personality traits, but also physical characteristics. To use an obvious example, a man with an eye-patch is easily distinguished from a man without one. What is more interesting, of course, is the question of how he lost his eye. Characters are, by the time we meet them, the culmination of everything that has happened to them up until that point. A perennially angry young woman is angry because her life experience made her that way. It is our stories that define us. So to distinguish your characters you have to know where they came from as well as where they’re going.
I suggest establishing a short biography for each of the principal characters covering the period up until they enter your story, either in your head or a written paragraph or two, it doesn’t have to be a whole book in itself. The main thing is to identify the principal events that shaped their lives. If your characters tend to sound the same in dialogue scenes, it could be that they’re essentially the same person and perform the same function in your story. If that’s the case, it’s time to reach for the belladonna bottle once more. It’s probably a good idea to identify things your characters would never say or do, except in the most extreme circumstances. For example, someone who is deeply religious is unlikely to use blasphemous language, but maybe they’ll slip in times of stress. Also, as with personality, dialogue is informed by life experience. Someone who is poorly educated will have a different speech pattern to someone who spent years at university.
One question I get asked a lot is how I come up with my character names. Names for fantasy characters are always tricky, you have to produce something that differs from real world norms without sounding silly. For Blood Song I basically played around with various syllables until I had something that sounded right. Although, as the series progressed I was forced to develop naming conventions for each of the principal nations in order to make them distinct from one another. The Alpirans have a lot of soft vowels while Volarian names have a lot of hard ‘k’s and ‘v’s.
It’s also important to remember that language is a reflection of the society, history and culture that produces it. In the Unified Realm of the Raven’s Shadow series, ‘Al’ is used to distinguish nobility from commoners, reflecting the strictly stratified nature of that society. For my new series, the Draconis Memoria, the world has reached a mid-19th century level of development and the names have a more Victorian / Dickensian flavor.
Before I started writing The Waking Fire, I wrote out a long list of names because I didn’t want to come to a grinding halt in the midst of writing while trying to dream up a new character name. One approach for fantasy writers is to generate names using a foreign or ancient language root, e.g. Latin or Russian, then play around with the results until you come up with something that works. If you’re using Scrivener you’ll find it has a ‘name generator’ tool which can be very useful if you get stuck. It generates names based on gender or language origin. If you don’t have Scrivener there’s a free online name-generating tool here.
While it’s important for your characters to be individuals, if your character is reminiscent of others in the same genre it may not be a bad thing, just as long as they’re not a carbon copy. Over the years fantasy books have featured many a surrogate Gandalf, Frodo or Aragorn, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. Pay close attention to your character’s backstory, abilities and dialogue to ensure they don’t come across as just another archetype. If you have a formidable warrior does he have to be a grizzled veteran of numerous battles with a dead family in need of avenging? If you have a wizard, does it have to be an old man with a long beard and a pointy hat? If you have an evil queen does she have to look like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty? Change things up, experiment, see what works and what doesn’t.
The main thing to remember is that characters need to be consistent but, for your story to have an impact, they also need to change. We are all the product of our experiences. If my characters are the same people on page 600 as they were on page 1 then I consider I’ve done a bad job. People change and, if you want readers to connect with your characters, they need to change too.