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:
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?
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.