Keeping it Fresh Part 5: Characters


July 3, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Welcome to today’s installment of Keeping it Fresh, where we’ve spent the last week or so discussing ways to make our fiction writing different, with a special focus on Urban Fantasy. In past posts we’ve covered Setting, Systems of Magic, Supernatural Beings, and Plot. Today we’re going to tackle the one that I and many of the commenters on earlier posts believe to be the most important:

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

The Characters in Our Story.

Here’s the thing, no matter how awesome of a premise we have, no matter how intriguing a plot, no matter how unique the system of magic we’ve developed, if we have crappy characters the book is gonna bomb and badly. It’s our characters that tie readers into the story and that give it significance.

Now, I could start a rant here about how every frickin’ main character in Urban Fantasy seems to be an investigator of some sort: official law enforcement detective, PI, consultant to law enforcement, enforcer for the Pack/Coven/Kiss/Order of Ninja Squirrels, etcetera, but I won’t for two reasons:

1. The investigator character opens up all kinds of possibilities for conflict in a series and  necessitates a strong and savvy MC.

2. No matter how many versions of this character I have read, I’ve only found a couple I  didn’t like.

Of the investigator characters I didn’t like, the problem with those stories was not that I was thinking, “Jeez, another detective. Bo-ring!” It was that I either outright disliked the characters or thought their personalities were flat and boring.

The players in any novel need to be real people with real emotions, real motives, real problems, and real relationships. We have to make it realistic to the reader. But how?

write-what-you-knowWrite who you know.

Yeah, you’ve heard this piece of advice before phrased a bit differently. It’s the most common piece of advice bandied about to new writers and has its share of controversy from people who say it’s BS. When applied to any fantasy or supernatural genre, it almost seems laughable because how many of us actually know vampires, werewolves, elves or how to sling magic? But, if we look at that piece of advice that way, we’re missing the point. What I think it really applies to is characters.

You can’t write a character you don’t know and understand.

It’s not enough to choose a character archetype and have only the most basic understanding of how that character behaves and makes decisions. You have to be in their head, fully understanding their psychology to make them real to the reader. That probably leaves those of us who are psychologists or highly empathic with a huge advantage in creating characters, but I say not necessarily. We can still write who we know.

Now, I’m not saying take people you know and write them into your books. What I’m saying is use the inspiration of real people who you know and understand for your characters. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

To quote Kevin Smith on how his early movies (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Clerks) came about:

“I hate every movie that’s out there. Nothing speaks to me. I want to make something I recognize myself and my friends in.”

What I think this boils down to is that Smith created stories that showed the world as he understood it, characters that were real to him and that he understood. His characters aren’t even necessarily all that three-dimensional, but they still come across as real and relatable to the right audience.

And I think that’s the key to creating powerful characters to draw our readers into our stories: tell the truth as you see it by creating characters that you really understand and your readers will buy in.




18 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 5: Characters

  1. Your posts inspire me to write! Thank you for that 🙂

  2. kokkieh says:

    I’m not sure I agree with “write who you know”. It again falls to imagination and, I think, empathy along with good observation. Watch people, listen to them, get to know their mannerisms and eccentricities. Then imagine a character. Place yourself in his/her shoes and think like they would think. I don’t know any detectives, but this way I can imagine a pretty good version of one. It might not fit your view of a detective, but the character will be believable nonetheless.

    Think of it a method-writing (you know, like method-acting). A friend of mine takes it so far that when he wants to practice the female voice he actually adopts a female persona and writes as her. It’s actually quite amazing how his entire style changes as soon as he starts using her voice. He doesn’t actually write in drag, but I think that’s only because no one has suggested it to him yet. Hang on. I gotta go see if he’s on Facebook now…

  3. MishaBurnett says:

    I base my characters on people that I have known, which probably says something about the weird string of jobs I’ve had in my life. They do drift from the source material (particularly if the character is other than human in some way) so I don’t think I could point to any one character of mine and say that she or he is “just like” any one person from my past.

  4. B. Patterson says:

    I’ve noticed the investigator trend, too. The mystery/thriller plot is common in urban fantasy. And if you want a character who’s proactive/not a whimp, then you want an investigator. It’s difficult to have a hero’s journey story set in modern day times with a bunch of mythical creatures. Mine is somewhat of a coming of age story.

    So, I’d say as long as we see urban fantasy stories that are mostly mystery/thrillers, we’ll be seeing investigators a lot. But, like you said, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    • You took that thought a step further than I’d allowed myself to go, but it makes sense. In traditional fantasy, the protagonists are almost always warriors of some sort. In modern fantasy, I think the investigator/law enforcement official is the closest we can come to a warrior without putting the character directly into the military.

      Which would raise the question of why we don’t make our protagonists members of the armed forces, but… well, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to broach that topic of discussion further than this.

  5. I find I write who I know by unconsciously putting pieces of myself into each of my characters. It’s kind of cool and spooky at the same time. With the villains it weirds me out a little bit!

    • kokkieh says:

      Embrace the Dark Side, my child!

      But seriously, how does one not do that? With any character that you give thoughts and feelings I think it will be yours. And you are the person the reader empathises with, even if we don’t know it. Could one go as far as saying that the more of yourself you reveal in your characters, the more believable they’ll be as people? The role of the character then simply becomes detail.

  6. phaerygurl says:

    Very well put and thoughtful…I like it

  7. Well said. Actually I’ve come up against that problem in my own writing sometimes – who IS this person really?

  8. L. Marie says:

    Great advice, Kira. (And I hadn’t realized how many main characters in urban fantasy were investigators until you pointed that out. Sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees.) I didn’t give much thought to creating character-driven fiction until a couple of years ago when my advisors pointed out my penchant toward plotting rather than getting to know my characters and letting them drive the plot. So, I had to ask myself the question you asked, “Who is this person really? Why is he or she the best person to tell this story?” I started “listening” to the characters as I told the story in my head. The hardest part of writing from their perspective was actually thinking about what how they would act, rather than how I would act in a situation.

  9. My solution has always been to roleplay my characters, but that might be too nerdy for some people. I’ll go back to EverQuest now….

  10. So many investigators, so many warriors! There are so many other kinds of people to populate a story! For me, an investigator’s point of view exists to reveal a pre-existing created world with unique ins and outs, a guide. What about growing that world with the audience? Alongside the audience? Then your characters don’t need to be investigators or warriors, they can be you and them, whatever that may be. Just a thought. P

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