Today I’m pleased to have a guest post from one of my very favorite fantasy authors, Carol Berg! Her Rai-kirah trilogy is among my favorite fantasy series, and I am a huge fan of her other books I’ve read as well (Song of the Beast and the Lighthouse Duet). The Daemon Prism, her most recent book and the final Novel of the Collegia Magia, was just released earlier this year.
While I love her stories and worlds, I think she is particularly wonderful at writing realistic characters – flawed people who come alive because they are not flat or one dimensional. So I am very excited that Carol is discussing her approach to characterization and how the characters in the Books of the Rai-kirah evolved. Reading her thoughts on characters made me realize just why her characters resonate with me so much. I just love the way she thinks about writing them, and I hope you enjoy reading her post as much as I did!
Kristen asked me to talk a bit about how my epic fantasy series, The Books of the Rai-kirah (Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration) evolved, and in particular, how I approach creating characters. How could I resist that invitation? Character development, and how it intertwines with an unfolding story, is one of my favorite writing topics.
Epic fantasies are big stories, not just in the number of books it takes to tell the whole thing, but in the complexity, scope, and scale of events. They are grand adventures that dabble about those fascinating borderlines between nature, magic, myth, and the divine. But if the adventure gets too grand, the events too large scale, readers can get left back on the ground. The reading experience can become more like reading mythology than reading a human story. Experiencing epic events through the personal lens of vivid, compelling characters enables me, as a reader, to connect to a grand adventure – to feel that I’m right there.
My projects usually stem from an idea of an interesting person in an odd – usually uncomfortable! – situation: maybe broken visionary musician who has suffered a brutal imprisonment for 17 years and doesn’t know why (Aidan in Song of the Beast) or a tall renegade sorcerer lying prostrate on the floor of an abbey church as if he’s taking holy orders, while mumbling, “What the hell am I doing here?” (Valen in Flesh and Spirit.)
Transformation originated with the fleeting image of a young, arrogant, highborn man, riding his horse across the steppes of central Asia – an image of beauty and nobility and the energies of life. He was the epitome of a confidant, arrogant young warrior whose future was laid out in front of him like the landscape. I decided that he would make a great fantasy hero – different – but he would require some fundamental reorientation first. And his destiny was certainly not going to be the one he expected. I had no idea what that destiny might be, at that point, but I did know his name. Aleksander.
So this was the shape of the story – the downfall and transformation of a cruel prince into someone worthy of confronting epic events. But arrogant princes are not introspective. I needed someone else to narrate the tale. I wanted someone who had to be around Aleksander all the time so he could witness the change, and the journey would certainly be more fun if the two had every reason to dislike each other. Ah, a slave, and someone who had been a slave long enough to have lost hope of escape and rebellion. I wanted him to be able to focus on my hero!
The logical place for the story to begin was at the slave market. I wanted it cold and miserable for my poor slave, so I decided that my opening locale was the summer capital of a desert empire – perhaps an empire that had grown beyond its boundaries. Of course I had to come up with a reason for the prince to be buying a new slave at that time.
Literally from this point, knowing little more than I’ve written here, I started writing. The opening paragraph goes like this:
Ezzarian prophets say that the gods fight their battles within the souls of men, and that if the deities mislike the battleground, they reshape it according to their will. I believe it. I have seen such a battle and such a reshaping as could only come about with the gods devising. It was not my own soul involved – thank Verdonne and Valdis and any other god who might eavesdrop on this telling – but I did not remain unchanged.
Characters that grow and change in response to great events are more likely to feel real and compelling. So as I worked on the story, I began to think carefully about my two principals. Aleksander had to be a product of his upbringing. As the heir to an empire founded on war and dominion, he had rarely been told no. And he had never been forced to view the consequences of his actions through anyone else’s eyes. I could not make him some kind of sensitive new-age guy! So I had to walk the line between make him true and making him unredeemable. That was a challenge.
Plus, I didn’t want to burden the story with too much of Seyonne’s past. I wanted the focus on Aleksander. And so I decided that Seyonne could not bear to remember a past he believed irrevocably lost. (I didn’t know what his past was at that point.) And so I decided that the greatest lesson of his captivity had been to live in the moment. No past. No future. Not an easy life.
But that first paragraph already on the page nagged at me. When speaking of the battles fought within the souls of men, of course I meant the metaphorical battle that would have to occur within Aleksander’s soul before he could be worthy of true heroism. But I got to thinking…what if such a battle was a physical battle, and could actually occur within the landscape of a human soul? And thereby evolved Ezzarian magic, the clues to Seyonne’s past, and the central events of a standalone book that grew into three. By the end of the first chapter, I realized that Seyonne the slave narrator was perhaps a more important character than the man who had inspired the story. Such is the truest delight of storytelling.
But back to character: The simple impressions I had of these two men at the beginning were certainly not enough to carry the story. There’s nothing more boring than a one-note character, someone who is defined by anger and can’t express anything else, or someone who is forever rebellious or forever snarky. Epic fantasy heroes and heroines get involved in larger than life difficulties, and it usually takes some combination of larger than life strength, endurance, and power, whether magical, spiritual, or intellectual to get them through. But that doesn’t mean every hero has to be godlike. Flawed, human people, with likes and dislikes, prejudices, vulnerabilities, doubts, fears, vices, and every other trait that we see in real life, make great protagonists. Sometimes they’re not even very nice people all the time. Heroes who question, who vacillate, who change, are much more interesting than all-powerful, one-dimensional players. Flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities that have to be overcome add tension and conflict to the story, and help avoid the deus ex machina (instant magical solutions) that make readers throw a book across the room yelling “cheat!” They also leave room for character growth and ultimately satisfying resolutions.
Of course, the cast of an epic adventure is not just two people. In this case, Seyonne and Aleksander came first. The people around them developed as they were needed and as I discovered what role they were to play in the story. Secondary characters, those who carry speaking parts, but aren’t the main actors, and minor characters, those who have walk-on roles to fill out the untidy jobs in the world, are just as important to making the story seem real.
I like to think of every secondary and minor character as an individual who had a life before walking into the frame of the story and who will have a life when he or she (or it!) walks out again. Which does not mean that every innkeeper must be fully fitted out with dysfunctional family, political secrets, and interesting hobbies, but only that he or she shouldn’t devolve into the “fat innkeeper in a white apron” so familiar in lists of fantasy cliches.
Good character development always comes down to treating any character, major or minor, male or female, as a real person, an individual who wants things, who has a particular view of the world, who makes choices based on personal history, instinct, and intellect. What drives them? What do they value? How does their environment affect their beliefs, their customs, their clothing, their religion? I can’t make any of them do something just because I want them to. So I throw events in their faces and think hard about how each particular person at that particular time would react.
I hope this gives a bit of insight into my development process. Every one of my thirteen books has evolved in somewhat the same way. Get enough to start with. Get going, and let the ideas, the characters, and the events develop along the way. Hard thinking. Hard choices. That’s what it’s all about.
About Carol Berg:
Former software engineer Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author. But her thirteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She’s taught writing in the US, Canada, Scotland, and Israel, and received reader mail from the slopes of Denali to beneath the Mediterranean. All amazing for one who majored in math and computer science to avoid writing papers. Her novels of the Collegia Magica have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, using words like compelling and superbly realized.