A few years back I read a book and had a revelation. Sounds like a religious experience, doesn’t it? No, not that book. Funny thing is, I don’t even remember the name of the book. It was one of the Harlequin/Silhouette suspense lines, with Navajo characters. I don’t even have the book anymore. But the villain did something called SKINWALKING, where they shape-shifted for evil purposes.
And my AHA! moment was born. In MY mind, SKINWALKING became putting on your character like a shroud. When you write in that character, you ARE that character, at almost a microscopic level. You find out everything about that character, like someone in witness protection or an undercover cop. You know that person so well, you ARE that person. 24/7/365. Almost to the point when a phone call comes in at work you answer “Good morning, this is Maleta, your avenging assassin nun. How may I help you today?”
(No I’ve never done that.)
People are a product of their world – part genetics, part environment. We are born blank slates, with equal potential. Then we are molded into what we ultimately become. By people, circumstance, experience, training, and choices. Our viewpoints, how we see the world around us, is colored by who and what we are. Children see the world differently than adults. A kindergarten teacher is going to view the world very differently than a soldier of fortune.
The best characters are as three-dimensional as real people, with the triviality stripped away. They are the best and the worst of the human race – sometimes in the same package. They have their own viewpoints, their own voice, that reflects who and what they are. For me characterization is interdependent on world-building, because they reader can only understand the characters if they can view the world around them.
- Culture (Art/Music/Literature)
- Education & Training
- Society & Family Placement/Position
- Rewards & Punishments
Your character is a product of her world. Once you’ve built it, once you’ve established her history parameters, you are locked in. You have to stay consistent. It’s unrelenting. You can never step out of character for a single second or you’ll lose your reader. The minute your health-nut stops at McDonald’s for a Big Mac or your nun blows her stack and cusses, you’re done for. But it’s more subtle than that. Every profession has its own vocabulary – and way of looking at things. A spelunker (caver) knows the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite. Military personnel using the word amphibious are not referring to frogs. Horse people referring to frogs are not talking about small amphibians that hop. Horse people tend to verbalize everything in equestrian terms, as demonstrated in Duality:
In Duality, when Pari & Cedric discusses letting Dara join the family as Loren’s wife, they speak as horsemen. The elven warrior culture partners up with sentient war mares, and it colors how they view someone who upsets the order of things:
“The spirited mares throw the best foals.”
“They also throw the best riders along the way.”
In Duality I got called out on naming a dance. I originally used the word “waltz” which has a very definitive Earth-history beginning. Since my world was pure fantasy, I had both editors tell me to rename my dance. I renamed it “arelle” and they were happy. “Waltz” would have taken the reader right out of the fantasy. Not good. Easy fix. Then I made Dara unable to dance and have to learn. She was raised a peasant, a healer – they had no time for frivolity. When she learned Loren was a PRINCE, she worried about gowns, dances, what fork to use at dinner. Royalty and peasantry do not move in the same circles or use the same trappings. (Things never brought up in Cinderella.) Things that WERE brought up in Princess Diaries. Because if your character wouldn’t know – don’t have them know. Have them learn. Have them make mistakes. Let the reader relate to the humanity of your character.
“A maid told me babies were found under cabbages, and I tore up the entire garden looking for one.” She shook her head. “The housekeeper was pregnant with twins, and I tried so hard to figure out how the babies got from her stomach to the cabbages. She used to sit in the rocking chair in the evenings—her husband always had to haul her out of it or she’d sit there flapping her arms like a bird trying to get airborne.”
He laughed outright, his face settled into a tender look. “And those walls shall hear the laughter of children again, elingrena. Six years of sadness cannot undo decades of warmth and happiness.” His eyes twinkled. “Although I hate to break the news to you—babies do not come from cabbages.”
Maleta sputtered on her mead. “Cianan, I was four!”
Since kids go through the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause, this is feasible. Children believe in magic to explain the mysterious. You wouldn’t tell a four-year-old the truth of childbirth – they’re too young. So storks and cabbages come into play. The poor maid never thought Maleta would tear up the whole garden looking!
Part character history, part child POV. I also wanted to contrast what Maleta use to be vs what she was now. This is so at odds with what Maleta BECAME:
When Maleta enters an inn for supper, she can’t just walk in and park her butt in a chair. She’s a warrior, an assassin nun. She’s also a rape survivor and distrusts men. So her entry reads as follows:
She sat in a corner, her back to the soot-stained wall so she could see both exits. She tested the sticky wooden table. It wobbled. With effort, she could tip it over if someone attempted to trap her, but it was sturdy enough to shield her should she need cover.
And when she meets her contact, a man, a traitor:
The door opened, and an unremarkable man in Wolf gear strode in. Blinking away the tears to clear her eyes, Maleta tensed at his approach, felt for the reassuring weight of the double-edged dirk strapped to her right thigh. Her gaze wanted to slide away from him, dismiss him as unimportant. That made her edgy and she focused on him all the more. He scanned the room. His gaze came to rest on Maleta for a long moment. He made his way to the bar, grabbed a tankard from the barkeep and walked over to her.
The barmaid intercepted him halfway across the floor. He murmured something to her and sent her off with a scattering of copper coins on her tray and a slap to her hip. He closed the distance to Maleta’s table.
“’Ow’s th’ chicken?” he asked.
She shrugged. Her heartbeat quickened as she only just remembered to use her much-practiced lower-class accent. “’Ad worse.”
He held out a hand. “Name’s Lucan.”
Sure it was. “Sonja.” Killed during their first rescue mission, Sonja would understand the tribute. Maleta took his hand in hers, ignoring how it made her skin crawl.
She noted the scribe’s callus on his forefinger. If she faced the Wolf’s clerk, her bribes were well spent. “Ye’ve info?”
“Aye.” He sat across from her, both hands on the table. They waited while the barmaid served him roast chicken and brown bread, remaining silent until the woman went away. “Th’ Wolf’s comin’ here, t’ Soto. ’E’ll be travelin’ alone, cross-country through th’ woods ’tween Delph an’ Lann.” He tore into his chicken like he’d not eaten in a week. “Ye ’ave my money?”
Nasty little rat. “Under th’ table.” She handed him a leather bag with the agreed-upon amount and took another sip of her mead, running the Shamari map betwixt Delph and Lann through her mind’s eye. Rocky wooded coulees and kettle moraines, with a thousand places to hide. Perfect for ambush.
It’s a mixture of observations, actions/reactions, and direct thought & commentary
Maleta herself recognized the change in herself:
Maleta sighed. What would it be like, to go home? To stand once more on the parapets? Would she see her father coming over the hill, or Sunniva’s soldiers? Would she ever be able to tolerate the smell of apples? To walk through the orchard without seeing the blood?
Duality’s Dara, like Maleta, is a woman vowing never to be helpless again:
“She didn’t even let me keep one blade.”
“Do you always go to dinner armed?”
“I’m armed even in my sleep, warrior. I’ll never be helpless again.”
Trystan’s eyes locked on the white face of little Toby, the cabin boy. Those big green eyes were wide with fright, and Toby gripped a cook’s knife in his thin hand. Trystan frowned, shaking his grizzled head at the concept of an armed eight-year-old, more dangerous to himself than anyone else. “Stay with him,” he ordered Niadh. “With yer claws ye’re safer belowdecks. If’n they make it this far, he’ll be needin’ ye.”
“I’ve no burnin’ desire t’ feed the fishes,” Niadh agreed.
When his ship is attacked by pirates, even in his own battle Trystan’s thoughts return to Toby:
Thinking of little Toby below, Trystan hoped so.
“I’ve got Toby,” Niadh rebuked. “Focus – an’ be careful.”
The truest, easiest conflicts between characters are a lack of empathy/understanding for others with a different POV. “I’m right, you’re crazy.” Why Patrick Swayze’s character in “City of Joy” is so compelling. Jaded, disillusioned pediatric surgeon Max Lowe trying to wrap his brain around the pacifist mentality of the locals, teaching them to stand up for themselves as they teach him to find peace and joy in everyday living.
The hardest to write are the conflicts WITHIN the character. Pull the unexpected. Make your soldier of fortune a philosopher. Make your kindergarten teacher hate dogs. Take Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon’s character Sgt. Martin Riggs. Hard-core killer of bad guys. But s softie w/dogs. Not only did he befriend the Rottweiler in the warehouse, he got it out of the bad situation and adopted it. It actually showed up in the next movie as the family pet. I made one of my air mages an avid, albeit terrible, gardener. Because air and earth are polar opposites, she wasn’t very successful, but still she enjoyed it.
We’ve all heard “Showing vs Telling.” The seven deadly sins (words) in fiction writing are:
Anytime you use the above words, or similar ones, you’re taking a step back and TELLING the reader what the character is doing instead of SHOWING him actually doing it:
He wondered what had happened to her.
How much stronger/more active is it to say: What had happened to her? More direct thought, closer POV, but still passive. Okay if character is alone, or on the shy side.
Even closer POV to have him ask: What happened to you? You can flavor the question as gently or directly as you want, depending on the character. But it’s characters interacting with each other. A question like that demands a response, or not. What the answer is or isn’t tells a lot about both characters.
He knew something was wrong.
Something was wrong.
What was wrong?
Question or statement, either way works, but can you see how it pulls the reader deeper into the character’s head? Gets stronger?
Put a sentence in first person, then switch the “I” to “he” or “she.”
She felt the cold rain kiss her skin, and the wind caress her skin. Goosebumps rose, and she shivered.
Cold rain soaked my clothing, and a shocking tingle skittered along my nerves as the wind caressed the cool damp of my skin. I shivered as my skin pebbled in reaction, and I rubbed my hands up and down my arms trying to smooth away the goosebumps.
Cold rain soaked her clothing, and a shocking tingle skittered along her nerves as the wind caressed the cool damp of her skin. She shivered as her skin pebbled in reaction, and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms trying to smooth away the goosebumps.
Again, it’s unrelenting. You have to BE the character, every single moment. Now you know why multiple POVs can be so tricky. You have to totally change yourself, your background, your way of thinking, moving, reacting. Watch Viggo Mortenson first as a Navy SEAL instructor in G.I. Jane, then as a humble cowboy in Hidalgo and finally as a reluctant king but able warrior in LOTR. Same actor, three different characters & worlds.
Say you have your soldier of fortune fall in love with your kindergarten teacher. Your publishing house allows both POVs, your readers practically demand it. But how different those POVs would be. They would even look at the red in a sunset differently. The teacher might think of the roses in her garden, the soldier would probably think “blood.” Or maybe not. Maybe the soldier thinks of the roses in his grandmother’s garden, and how much he misses her. Would she be proud of him or disappointed in him? Unexpected twists like this add depth to your character, make him less stock cutout and more real-person.
So, where to start? Start with your world. Modern, historical or fantasy. Establish the politics and religion. Select your heritage and culture. Choose your character. Give her a family, an education, a job, and hobbies. Give her a name. Is she rich or poor? From a big family or an only child? Is she the oldest or the youngest? Is she doing what she loves or something she hates “for now” until she can find something better? All these will color how she interacts with the world around her. Is she an optimist or a pessimist? Cautious or up front?
I started w/”Guardians of Light.” Guardians. Protectors. Whether a healer like Dara, a king like Loren, an assassin nun like Maleta, warriors like Cianan and Trystan, or single moms like Finora – they protect and defend the weak and helpless. The Light. The good guys – always working to make their world a better place for everyone. That’s the core I built on. Different countries, traditions, beliefs and backgrounds – but always Guardians on the side of the Light. Once you have the core, the boiled-down version, you can put on the trapping and not worry about straying from the essence of who and what your character is.
I’ve got three books on characterization I swear by:
45 MASTER CHARACTERS: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for BUILDING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS by Marc McCutcheon
WHAT WOULD YOUR CHARACTER DO? Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters by Eric Maisel, Ph.D. & Ann Maisel
I also recommend the RANDOM HOUSE WORD MENU (ISBN 0435414411) for getting various vocabulary and terminology right.
Once you’ve filled in the blanks of whatever questionnaire you use for character development, study it carefully. Pick one word that describes what your character IS. If whatever god they worship calls them on it at the end of days, how would your character define himself? ONE WORD ONLY. Then put that word on when you write. NEVER take it off. Everything your character says and does, every thought and reaction, stays true to that inner core. You’ll never lose their way if you do that.
Think of Liam Neeson’s character Robert Roy MacGregor in Rob Roy, explaining “honor” to his sons. “Honor” was what he lived and (almost) died by. He expected others to live by the same code he did, and thus was hugely disappointed. But he was as straight and true a character as ever existed on screen. Because that single word, “honor” was soul-deep, ever-present.
That’s what SKINWALKING is, involves. That’s what takes a stock character and makes her memorable. And memorable characters turn a good book into a GREAT book.