It isn’t possible to do this for every single character, but the ones who are really important are owed a tangible existence by the author. Characters with no depth may appear to readers as one or two dimensional, and this should only apply to incidental characters who may only appear once or very occasionally. I have read an awful lot of books in which many, if not all of the characters, are nothing more than words on the pages they are written on. Stories are nothing unless they come alive in the mind and stand out with a firm existence on those pages.
It’s no good for an author to introduce their characters simply by name and the words that come out of their mouths; I want to know what they look like, what their body language suggests about them, and I want them to have individual personalities.
There are a few people who have read something of my writing already who have told me that many of my characters represent different sides of my own personality. This is undoubtedly true. Authors who truly care about their writing and their characters will inject some measure of their own life experiences and emotions, and also the experiences and emotions of those they know.
If you’re one of those readers who really engages with a story and its characters on a personal and emotional level, I hope that there will be at least one character of mine that you might relate to. For the record, a few of the aspects of me that display my values, emotions and desires in relation to my characters that have been mentioned by friends who know me well are:
· The desire for order and respect
· The desire to be free
· The carefree, jovial side
· The aloof, brooding and vengeful side
· The desire for justice
· The part that wishes for balance, and a peaceful existence
· The part that harbours deep pain and sorrow.
I find it interesting that I have listed seven, but this is by no means all of them. The point I am trying to make here is that as a reader, I am so often perplexed by the lack of empathy from some authors, and I want to express my desire to bring my characters to life. I can’t promise that every reader will think of my characters as three-dimensional, but I can dream, and hope that many still will. One of my favourite quotes is from the poet, Robert Frost; “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Not every story is going to touch every reader in the same way, but the effort should always be noticeable. Characters should have a very strong, tangible presence on the page, or they will fail to touch hearts and minds, and nobody will be able to see them as anything more than a name.
How often have you read a book that involves topics you’re passionate about? I am not referring to genre, but rather themes and subjects that may be involved. You may have a particular interest in ancient history and mythology, or modern warfare, or in this case, the age of sail.
I have a penchant for wanting to be as accurate as I possibly can be, even with fantasy. If there’s no way an author can explain how his/her world works scientifically or magically, then they may lose their clarity and integrity. My own world typically has a 17th-18th century setting, but also merges with and links to medieval and ancient times, and so I endeavour to research words and inventions linked to those eras. There is always wiggle room in fantasy and science fiction, but whatever you write has to make sense.
If you want to tweak any aspect of a subject for your writing, you need to know enough for those changes to function in your world/story. In historical fiction based here on Earth, there’s no excuse for mistakes. You really need to know your history inside out. In fantasy and science fiction, however, an explanation is necessary. Altering something for your own amusement isn’t the way to go unless you’re intending on writing parodies, which would also need to be made clear. One author I’ve read the work of stated he made changes for his own personal amusement. By all means change something for your own amusement if you’re writing solely for yourself and not for a wider audience, but avoid it in your writing unless you can explain your changes so that readers will understand.
As we get down to discussing all things nautical, do you know how long it takes to sail from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean? Let’s be pedantic and say that your vessel can only set sail if she actually has sails. Modern cruise ships, I’m sorry to say, cannot sail because they have no sails. So what’s the answer? Don’t know? Well, if you average at around 10 knots from the moment you depart Cardiff, you might get there in about two weeks; three weeks if you’re doing 7 knots. That’s assuming your characters are on board a 17th century sailing ship and the wind is favourable from start to finish – which is unlikely unless or until you’re hitting prevailing winds in the right direction.
If you have an idea of how far your characters will be sailing, try using this fantastic website I came across – www.sea-distances.org. I had a fair idea of short distances from having sailed on tall ships in real life, such as Cardiff to Southampton. Without stopping off at a port and with the wind solely in the ship’s favour, that can take about two or three days.
And what about nautical terminology and how sailors generally behaved? Bear in mind that the majority of your readers probably aren’t going to be seafarers, they probably aren’t going to understand what you’re talking about when a ship is preparing to lie-to unless you’re going to explain what that means. The same goes for a tacking order such as, “helm’s a’lee! Ready about!” They mean nothing if you aren’t familiar with the jargon and aren’t given an explanation. Have a look for the Haynes manual on HMS Victory by Peter Goodwin to find out about how to sail an 18th century man-o-war, the Sailor’s Word Book by W. H. Smyth, and Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton. For information specifically about piracy, I recommend Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, and The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little. You’d be surprised at just how much information there is to take on board out there – pardon the pun.
Speaking of puns, and of course phrases, you might want to look up where every day idioms originated. You’ll find a lot of them, such as: three sheets to the wind, showing one’s true colours, and no room to swing a cat, are nautical in origin. And don’t forget the kind of language that was generally spoken by sailors back in the day, and how they sang shanties both at work and at leisure to keep up morale. They tended to use a lot of profanity, and accents/dialects varied considering they all came from a variety of countries, regions and backgrounds. Pirates did not typically wander around shouting “arrrrrgh!” either, though some of them, such as Edward Teach (or Thatch – better known as Blackbeard), were born in the south-west of England, meaning their accent/dialect would sound like your stereotypical pirate.
Don’t, however, be too concerned if your characters have motives or back stories that might seem a little clichéd; the last thing you want to do is change who your character is just because a handful of people might groan and roll their eyes. You won’t be able to please everybody. So, if you have a pirate who’s descended from nobility and has a penchant for being a ladies’ man like I do, don’t worry about it. However, you should be aware of both truths and myths, and apply them to any one individual’s personal circumstances, and build their personalities on that basis.
Ultimately, you must write what works for you, but realism and familiarity are needed for your readers to make the right connections. Research on any given topic is key for authors, and I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on all things nautical, and how you might further your own research. If you should make any changes to how something works, be prepared to explain how and why it works the way it does so your readers can understand.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.”
Sometimes it might be hard to tell which characters fit into these categories – especially if you have a large cast like I do. I’m a deep thinker, so I think about this sort of thing a lot. Villains are usually antagonists (occasionally a villain might happen to be a protagonist though it’s rare), but there are also antagonists who are not necessarily villains. Even some anti-heroes could be considered fit the role of an antagonist, particularly if they are a rival to a more altruistic kind of hero who may or may not be the protagonist. While all three of these terms can be linked, each has a slightly different definition:
Antagonist – a character who is in opposition to someone or something; an adversary; usually to the protagonist.
Anti-Hero/Heroine – a leading character who lacks the usual qualities of a hero (for example: altruism/fortitude/morality/idealism).
Villain – a character who is evil and thrives on malice/wickedness in order to achieve their goal(s).
If we take the typical approach of the ‘good guy’ is the protagonist we’re expected to favour him/her, and hope and expect that he or she will ultimately prevail. I always find myself asking questions related to the antagonist(s), however, such as: what are the reasons for their behaviour? Has something happened to them in their past to make them behave this way? Is this character malicious for a reason? Why do the ‘good guys’ rarely (if ever) wonder what those reasons might be?
Don’t get me wrong, some stories do consider such details from the ‘good guy’s’ point of view, but I find they all too often don’t. Whether it’s in the form of a book, a video-game, an anime or perhaps a film, I feel much more connected if I’m able to see things from the antagonist’s point of view. If a villain does evil deeds merely for the sake of it, then I can’t help but see them as one dimensional.
Most if not all writers use their writing to express their true feelings, and I’m no exception. I wouldn’t want to be. It’s a part of who we are, and admittedly I find myself frequently relating to a lot of characters that bear the mark of the antagonist, anti-hero or villain. If I should find out that there is a very good reason for the antagonist or villain’s behaviour and can relate to it, I actually tend to find myself taking their side over ‘the good guys’.
It’s no different when you have the ‘good guys’ embarking on a quest that turns into a mission to save (for argument’s sake) humanity, without them giving much of a thought to why certain antagonists and villains behave the way do. Too often they’re hell bent on stopping the villain without pausing to consider their adversary’s reasons.
Alright, some villains are just plain evil through and through and all they care about is getting their own way, but there are still many who are driven toward such actions; all via negative and often devastating personal experiences. It all depends on who we want our readers to love, and those we want them to hate with a passion. That goes for any of our characters of course, but as for the focus of this topic, the most obvious way to consider loving or hating these kinds of characters is to think about whether they’re one dimensional or multi-dimensional. Those who are focused on their own selfish gain are the characters we should love to hate, and it’s the multi-dimensional ones who should be making us wonder. Who knows, we may even relate to them in some way.
I have often heard it said that immortal and incredibly powerful characters have no real place in fantasy and science fiction because of what they are capable of. It apparently makes them uninteresting. Perhaps in the past this has been said because it hasn’t been done very well, or perhaps because an author hasn’t written the experiences and emotions of such characters adequately. If you’re one of those people who avoids books involving supremely powerful beings, you may initially feel you’d rather avoid the kind of material I write. I’d like to ask you to indulge me for a moment. Stop reading if you so wish, but I urge you to continue.
Have you ever asked yourself what it might be like to be immortal? Many of you will have an understanding of the immortality of Tolkien’s elves, but they’re still capable of dying. I have elves and other races that have this kind of life as well, but there are also beings in the world of Aeldynn who are truly immortal. Should they become so gravely wounded that death is inevitable, pay attention and know that’s not the end. No matter the severity of their wounds, they will always regenerate, though this does not occur instantly. Can you fathom that kind of existence, whereby your only chance at respite is to enter a long period of sleep?
These characters had a childhood. They were born into a physical existence for a grand purpose, and despite their spiritual supremacy and energy levels, they still experience hunger and the need for regular sleep. They also have emotions and life experiences. They’re not soulless golems. If you will, imagine the toil and heartache of what they must go through.
Authors should always consider these things when writing about immortal characters. If they don’t, they’ll end up with the boring kind of everlasting beings who lack personality and integrity, the kind people don’t want to read about. They can be good, or evil, or neutral, but never should anyone forget to give them individual back stories that tells readers who they are, why they exist, and for what purpose. Beyond mundane normality, there are always greater powers at work that even the most accomplished of heroes or villains will fail to understand. There is always potential for the powerful and the immortal to have a place in a fantasy or science fiction setting, so long as they are given as much consideration as any other major character or race.
The most outrageous claim in the world of literature is that the stories we authors write are nothing but fiction; that they’re only tales derived from figments of our imaginations. I’ve lost clarity in assignments I’ve written for my degree in English Literature because I’ve dared to look upon the characters I am reading about as real people. In one particular assignment I mentioned an occurrence that revealed the ‘truth’ about a character. I received criticism for using that word, truth, because after all, as my tutor said something to the effect of “you shouldn’t be thinking of them as real people, because they’re not real; they’re fictional.”
Really? In every literature course I have studied, one particular point has been reiterated, and that is that the thoughts and experiences of the author are projected into their writing. In literature courses students are expected to analyse the set novels or short stories in order to answer the assignment questions, and it has always been my understanding that fiction isn’t doing its job if the reader does not become immersed in the world or universe they are reading about. We are always tasked with making sense of what the author is trying to say in their writing; what emotions are they trying to convey? What truths are they trying to represent? It doesn’t matter what genre an author writes in, there is always a need to connect with the world to express what otherwise cannot be expressed, and it doesn’t just affect novelists, it also affects all kinds of scriptwriters and songwriters, and even visual artists as well. We all have some kind of message we want the world to know, and Henry James even made the statement that fiction is an author’s “personal impression of life” (in reference to his critical essay on The Art of Fiction).
Alright, so the biggest gripe about this is the belief that it’s only fiction because it “isn’t real”, supposedly. Existence is a funny thing to talk about because everyone has a different idea on what’s real and what isn’t. Does God exist or not? Is magic real or fake? Was the universe as we know it really created by gigantic cosmic explosion? Do you really exist? Do I really exist? Do aliens exist? Maybe we’re all living in some kind of virtual reality world like the Matrix and just don’t know it. Is reality only about what we can literally see, hear, smell, feel and taste? If you look up videos and articles about Earth in comparison to the rest of the universe, you might just be amazed. Maybe fiction is no more than words in a book, or maybe it’s something else entirely. How many literary memes are there on social media that express the feeling that books are effectively portals to other worlds which give us the chance to experience life outside of one’s own ordinary existence? So what if the words I’ve written on my laptop happen to be words on a page!
What is the point in fiction of any kind if we feel nothing for the characters and stories we’re engaging with? What is the point if we don’t actually think of them as real? What is the point in studying literature; analysing not just authorial techniques but character motivations and ambitions, if you’re just going to sit back and criticise it all by saying “it’s just words on a page; none of these people are real”? Whether they are actually standing right in front of us in the flesh or not doesn’t matter. Look up any title with a significant following and you’ll find fans constantly talking about what the characters are doing, what has happened to them, what will or might happen to them, and you’ll even find some people pairing characters up as potential lovers. And then there are the very real killjoys who say “it’s not real, it’s only fiction”.
It’s hypocritical to study and teach literature if your true feelings are that none of it is real in any shape or form. The author is real; and their characters may be facets of their own personalities or they may be based on people they know. All characters, whether human or fantastical in some way, have their own agendas and emotional conflicts that stem from our own real experiences. So irrespective of how you view fiction, reality as we know it always plays a significant part in its construction and the effect it has on readers; because readers identify with the experiences of those they are reading about – and that is a fact.
I was trawling Amazon for fantasy books I might like to read. I look at some of the positive comments and ratings, and some of the negatives. One of the comments someone gave dismissed the book as a romance disguised as a fantasy novel, and that the final insult was that the author had included vampires.
Pray tell, what is the problem with this? I am of the mind that writers write what they feel compelled to write, and that they also write about what they are interested in. It is every author’s hope that others will enjoy their books, but the one plain and bitter truth is that we’re never going to be able to please everybody. And believe me, that stings. I could see that the book I was considering actually had numerous good reviews as well, so the author really doesn’t have too much to worry about. Still, what is it about vampires that this person hates so much?
There are a number of factors to think about: clichés, repetitive myths and legends, they’re apparently undead, and they sometimes…sparkle? Ok, so clearly there’s a lot going on here. People are fed up with stereotypical vampires, and there are those who strongly disapprove of them twinkling like fairies, but let’s go all the way back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and think long and hard about what made vampires so enigmatic in fiction in the first place. If you haven’t read Dracula, I recommend that you do. Let’s get one thing straight though, Dracula, is a nineteenth century novel and it’s not classed as fantasy fiction, nor are the works of Anne Rice. They’re usually found in the horror section, though you might find the occasional book in the romance section includes a vampire or two.
Personally, I don’t connect with all the vampiric stereotypes included in these kinds of novels, and nor do I follow all the clichés that have followed since, but I do try to hold true to what they’ve always been about in the eyes of readers. They invoke fear, power, hostility, and mystery, with supernatural abilities that one might actually call magic. In most stories, they: are undead, sleep in coffins, have no reflection, cannot cross running water (or cannot touch water at all), instantly die in a puff of ash upon being touched by sunlight, heal instantly, cannot enter somebody’s home unless invited, are either ugly or ethereally beautiful, and live off nothing but human blood.
Some stories say you only need to be bitten in order to be infected, and only the death of the vampire who bites you can cure it so you do not become one of them yourself. Some stories say they need to first drink your blood, and subsequently you must then drink theirs in order for the change to take place. In my world, it is the latter that must occur.
In my world, vampires are not undead, they are demons and their legacies are passed on through their DNA, so in essence, a victim who is transformed does not die, but their original genetic makeup is overwritten with that of the demon. In my world, the sun is still deadly to them (just as certain plants are poisonous to humans but not to certain animals, it’s a question of genetic and racial variation) but they don’t die instantly. In my world, they have reflections and water is not harmful unless it is sacred or blessed (how the hell would they wash otherwise?), and in my world, they tend to be beautiful.
Vampires do not have to exist on Earth, they can appear on different worlds. No fictional story about vampires has to take place in our reality, or an alternate version of our reality. A fantasy or science fiction author can choose to include them in the world(s)/universe(s) they create.
Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt with some people. Perhaps vampires have been seen the same way for too long. Perhaps there aren’t enough of them bearing deviations from the stereotypical norm, and perhaps they haven’t yet been utilised in fantasy or science fiction works enough for them to be accepted as having clarity and believability. Vampires will, nevertheless, always be typical at their core. Just as humans aren’t going to change their fundamental characteristics and behaviours, neither are vampires.
If, like me, you enjoy adventurous fantasy, you might have noticed there are those who believe some of the major players of the genre overused. I wonder if anyone has ever considered why those concepts are utilised so much in the first place? Elves, dragons, wizards, fairies, dwarves; you name it, they’ve been done before and they’ve been done a lot, but they haven’t disappeared and not should they ever – well at least that’s what I think.
What has largely replaced adventurous fantasy works of the calibre of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms is a low-key sub-genre of fantasy that focuses its attention on everyday affairs, barely dipping its feet into the waters of adventure, and I hereby dub it tame fantasy. Now before anyone considers ranting, the word ‘tame’ is not derogatory; it just means “not wild”. These books are often set largely in one or very few locations, and have a tendency not to venture too far beyond the city walls, typically revolving around the inner workings of a criminal underworld or perhaps some kind of magi-academy. For example, you just can’t place Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the same category of fantasy as Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy. The idea of tame fantasy is by no means a bad idea because, after a long hair-raising adventure you might feel the need to settle down to rest with something a bit more relaxing. As such, races other than humans are almost unheard of in these kinds of settings. I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone other than myself has considered humanity to be overused in any capacity? I did choose to include humans in the world of Aeldynn, but none of my stories will be intended to revolve entirely around them and/or their affairs. Perhaps involving humans allows people to better connect with other fantastical elements of fantasy? Whether or not they serve that kind of purpose, the truth is, they’re used far more often than even elves, dwarves and dragons.
If I am completely honest, I’ve personally seen too much tame fantasy in recent years. I’ve been working on the world of Aeldynn for about 16 years, and over that time fantasy has gradually become less and less adventurous. Do you know why the physical world in which humans dwell is often referred to as the “mundane” world? It means the world/Earth in contrast with otherworldly places such as heaven, but it also means common, or ordinary, and sometimes even unimaginative. You’ll probably find areas in which you don’t live more interesting than the area you actually do live in, because it’s something new and unfamiliar; What we see typically every day is often banal to our senses. It’s far more invigorating travelling to new places; being stuck in one place too much eventually becomes mundane.
Some authors have returned to the wild side of fantasy, such as John Gwynne; a respected author whose The Faithful and the Fallen saga has concepts derived from the history and mythologies of ancient and medieval European civilisations, including: Celtic, Roman and Scandinavian. I’m interested in bringing back the wild and adventurous side of fantasy that made Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms so good. I would like to hope I have achieved that in the creation or development of Aeldynn, but I can at least say honesty that I’ve worked hard at trying! The vast world of Aeldynn includes: dragons (greater and lesser), wyverns and leviathans; the winged Drahknyr (who may be likened to incarnated angels); a few different elven races; several varieties of fey; and various demonic species, including vampires (in Aeldynn they are demonic and not undead). There are numerous planes of existence, a complex magic system, and a prophecy – central to the plot of the Scions of Balance saga – that could come to pass in more ways than one, depending on choices made.
You might think I’m using too many clichéd or overused ideas, but remember I began this discussion aware that’s what some of you may be thinking. Trust me, I know how many times those kinds of ideas have been used, but in a century or two do you think there will be anything left that could be considered a truly original idea? Look on the shelves in the fantasy and science fiction sections of bookstores; I guarantee you are likely to find several or more titles from authors published in the last decade with a fixed focus on criminal underworlds or magi-academies, and I could point out a fair number of fantasy books with a hooded figure dominating the front cover. Are they not becoming the latest aspect of overused ideas in the fantasy genre? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a reclusive hermit with wanderlust who doesn’t get the chance to travel very often (yet).
Who hasn’t had the desire to revisit books, games, or TV series/films they haven’t looked at in months if not years? Last year I re-read the Shadowleague trilogy by Maggie Furey because I hadn’t read it since my college days, and then I bought her first saga, The Artefacts of Power. I’ve bought other old fantasy books I’d never read before because they harboured the kind of adventure I was looking for, and in the near future I may read the Dragonlance Chronicles again, and other titles from the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms series for the same reasons. I’m of the firm mind that history repeats itself, and that it does so in many different ways. I believe wild or perhaps untamed fantasy should make a significant comeback, and I’m one of those determined souls keen on making that happen. Fantasy and Science Fiction aren’t all about earthly realisms. They’re about the infinite possibilities that exist beyond our narrow scope of the universe at large.
What are our expectations of the fantasy genre? Of course, Tolkien set the benchmark for a lot of what we saw in the 80s and 90s, but more recent fantasy has taken a turn toward normality. Is that what we really want? I’ve picked up numerous books by different fantasy authors over the last few years, and while I’ve managed to appreciate some of them, I’ve found the majority to be lacklustre in comparison to earlier works, particularly by means of adventure.
I’ve browsed the shelves of Waterstones in recent times and found so many thief-related or magician books (some of which I have enjoyed, don’t get me wrong), which have held little in the way of true adventure. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong authors, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’m now starting to set most of my sights on books written before the 2000s or by authors who were established pre millennium for this reason.
Way back when I read a bit of Dragonlance, and a bit of Forgotten Realms, and other authors like Maggie Furey. I’ve found myself re-reading her Shadowleague trilogy after having read her more recent books, the Chronicles of the Xandim, because they have the adventure I need, along with fantastical races and creatures. Some species I’m not a fan of, admittedly, but I’m very much about what they represent. Furey has, at least, remained true to her designs.
I enjoy vast worlds, dragons, elves, ancient civilisations and deities, swords and sorcery, and above all, adventure. It grates ob me when a fantasy book doesn’t have at least one map inside the cover before the story begins. I often look back at maps during the course of a book I am reading to figure out exactly where each group of characters are in the world. Very few books I have read recently have come remotely close to achieving the sense of adventure the genre is so well known for.
I freely admit that I often have a few qualms with books, and that does include authors whose books I enjoy, but we can’t expect perfection across the board. Some of my issues might be down to style, or the fact characters aren’t adequately introduced or described, perhaps there’s little to no description of what the world looks like, or it’s too slow, but if the story and characters are compelling enough, I can usually forgive some of those things.
My own world, Aeldynn, is a big world and after all the years I have spent developing it, I still have a lot of work to do. Like John Gwynne, Maggie Furey and the worlds of older fantasies like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, I write the kind of fantasy I crave. I’m all for localised stories, but there just isn’t enough adventure out there these days, or at least, from what I’ve experienced. Correct me if I’m wrong, and feel free to throw as many titles as you can in my direction from at least the last five years that fit my reading desires, and if I’ve read any of them already, I’ll write another post detailing my thoughts.