Shadaan’s conception of Karsa Orlong

Alright, Cassandra’s busy so we’re trading days again.  She’ll be posting on Saturday.  Sorry about all the switching around, but unfortunately that’s what happens when lives become hectic.  Hopefully things will calm down and the schedule will get back to normal eventually.

So, last Saturday I discussed the most basic element of character development: knowing where your characters are going.  However, as another author once told me, ‘knowing the beginning and the end doesn’t make for a story, the story comes in getting from one to the other.’  The same is true in character development.  You have to know where your character starts, and where the character is going, but if that’s all you know, then you don’t have a developing character.  You have a character that makes sudden, massive jumps in emotion, and your readers are going to notice that.

The character of Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger is one of the best examples of character development that I’ve ever seen.  Shed develops subtlely over the course of the novel, so subtlely sometimes that you don’t even realize he’s changing until he does something that is completely congruous with his character, but would have been absolutely antithetical to his character a few chapters before.  Shed does not leap from one point of maturity to another, but develops into a completely different person over the course of the novel.  A couple other great examples of character development, that I’ve probably mentioned before, are Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Father Aillil in Lars Walker’s Year of the Warrior.  All of these are characters that develop slowly, realistically, and wind up becoming completely different people from who they started as.

Father Aillil

So, how does your character get from here to there? That is the million dollar question (sometimes literally), and it’s not an easy question to answer simply because it’s different for every character.  For instance, Marron Shed’s character begins as a coward and develops into a noble man.  However, he does so by first finding his courage in doing some very wicked things, and then finding his virtue.  Karsa Orlong, however, is never a coward.  He begins as a rash, brazen, foolish warrior who develops wisdom, strength, and true confidence through being forced into slavery and servitude.  Where Shed learns courage, Orlong learns loyalty and submission to a greater cause.  Only once he has learned these lessons does he become the man who can lead.

You are the only one who can decide how your characters should and will develop, and what they will develop into.  However, there are some things you can avoid:

Remember that your characters need to develop like real people. That’s usually not a straight path.

1) Don’t force your character.  Remember that characters need to behave like real people.  Your job is to gently guide your character towards the goal you want him to achieve through the course of your novel.  Not to force him into the box you want him to fit in.  Fifty Shades of Grey made exactly this mistake.  In the first chapter of the book the main character, Anastasia, is a virgin who’s never had a boyfriend.  She meets Christian Grey and suddenly she must have him.  By the third chapter of the book, still a virgin, she is willing to let him chain her up and beat her, and willing to discuss even more extreme activities.  Somehow, I don’t buy the leaps that are made to achieve this.

2) Don’t rush.  Remember that people develop at their own rate, and the same is true of characters.  You can’t force a 17 year old to act like a 25 year old.  You can’t force an emotionally immature, cowardly guy to man-up and take the initiative.  You can’t force a woman who isn’t ready for a serious relationship to be ready.  You can’t force fool to be wise.  The same is true of your characters.  They need to develop and mature at their own rate, and you have to let them.  In many ways being an author is like being a parent.  You don’t get to tell your characters, “This is what you should be doing, now shape up and do it!” You have to work with them to make them into the characters you want them to be.  Some are going to be more ornery than others.

If you want to write realistic character development, it wouldn’t hurt to study some psychology and examine how people actually develop.

3) Don’t fake it! This is probably the biggest thing to pay attention to.  Be real with your characters.  Don’t tell your characters what you want them to do, instead get inside their heads and figure out what they would do.  Instead of trying to model the character’s reactions to the events of your story, model the events of your story around the reactions you need your characters to have (to a degree, remember it all has to be realistic).  Also remember that not all of your characters will develop.  We all know someone who’s been a selfish sixteen year old for the past twenty years.  They just never matured, never grew up, and they make everyone’s lives miserable.  Those characters will exist in your story as well.  This doesn’t mean that you have to write characters like this, but remember that your characters have to be real, and that means that some of them might not change, even if you want them to.

There has to be a balance between where you want your story to go, and where you want you characters to go.  Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where an event that is necessary for your story drives one of your characters in the wrong direction.  That happens, so let it happen.  Don’t force the character to be what you want, even when he’s not.  Watch who the character becomes, and if you can guide him back in the direction you want him to go.  If not, then you might have to either change the direction of your character, or change the direction of your story (the former is easier than the latter).

4 thoughts on “From Here to There: The Space In Between

  1. Completely off topic comment: I’ve now read two of Erikson’s books and have discovered he pays no attention to one fundamental fact; people have to eat. Armies cannot exist until there is exess food in the environment. This requires successful, long term agriculture and fertile soil. War destroys agriculture and devistates the population that farms. The seasonal cycle of growing is interrupted. The population starves. Read the history of the Hundred Years War and realize this was fought intermittantly over very fertile ground. Still starvation stalked the land.

    Unless all those people in the massive armies Erikson describes are able to live without eating what he describes is virtually impossible.

  2. Wayne, to some degree you are correct. Although it depends which books you read. He touches on logistics and agriculture in ‘Deadhouse Gates’, ‘Memories of Ice’, and to a lesser degree in ‘Midnight Tides’. However, he largely ignores it in ‘House of Chains’, ‘The Bonehunters’, and to a degree in ‘Reaper’s Gale’. Erikson does a great job with cultural details, and creates a world that is at least as deep as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but through anthropological insights rather than linguistic insights. However, no author is perfect. In my experience the need for foodstuffs is largely ignored throughout the fantasy genre, even by the best authors. George R.R. Martin touches on the mass starvation caused by war, but even there it is at best a minor theme. Which books did you read?

  3. I read the first two. I also thought that he ended the second in a major hurry, way too much magic and impossible timing. I found that one long, confusing, and unbalanced.

  4. ‘Deadhouse Gates’ and ‘Memories of Ice’ are probably the hardest books in the series to read. Also, Erikson definitely writes Russian novels, which means that they are long and confusing. I don’t think that ‘Deadhouse Gates’ was unbalanced though. He builds up and sets the stage for the magical conclusion over the entire course of the novel.

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