Sunday, August 1, 2010

All About the Characters

It's now August 2, so the giveaway draw has closed, the "sorting hat" has sorted and the results are:

The Heir of Night ARE
(US/Canada Posters Only):

Sharon S
Patricia Lynne

Thornspell (Signed Copies) (International)


Please contact me on with your postal address so I can get the books to you.

Thank you again to everyone, for participating and see you back here again next month--or you can come visit me at Helen Lowe on Anything, Really any time you like.


Last month, when I blogged about why I love Fantasy, I talked about possibility and wonder, the excitement of new ways of looking at the world, and the flexibility to play with those possibilities. I also talked about world building—but what Nicholas Johnson said in his comment also resonated with me, both as a reader and a writer:

“For me, it's the characters that make fantasy great. People who have all of the normal challenges and problems of just being human, but then have the additional challenges that come about from the world they live in.”

I love world building, and in some cases I believe the world itself can be so vividly realized that it becomes a “character” in its own right. This is certainly true of both China Mieville's overlapping cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City and Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest (both of which are finalists in the Best Novel category of this year’s Hugo Awards.) Ursula Le Guin’s Winter (in The Left Hand of Darkness), and PC Hodgell’s thieves’ city of Tai-tastigon are all examples of worlds that aspire to the status of character in their own right.

But New Zealand Maori, the indigenous first people of this country, have a whakatauki or proverb:

“He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!”

For me, this is very true of reading and writing fiction, although I would substitute “characters” for “people”, as not all great characters in Fantasy-SciFi are people: e.g. the ent, Treebeard, in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; the dragon Morkeleb in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane; or the daemon Pantalaimon in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

As a reader, the characters are almost always what makes the difference between my liking a book and loving it. I enjoy interesting and quirky ideas, and worlds that stretch my imagination, but if I don’t care about the characters, then it’s very hard to really care about the book. Whether I love them or hate them, I want to be engaged by the characters. I want to laugh and cry with them through the action of the book, to hold by breath when scary stuff is happening, and breath a sigh of relief when the protagonist wins through—or feel devastated when that's not the case, e.g. with Ned Stark in GRR Martin’s A Game of Thrones or Roger at the end of The Golden Compass. (I apologize if these are spoilers for some blog readers, but hope these books have been around long enough that this is not the case.)

But I’m also a writer and creating character is an essential part of the process. I still want to be engaged by them—after all, if I’m the author and not engaged by my characters, then it’s unlikely anyone else will be!—but not necessarily to like them. And sometimes, it’s when someone tells you that they don’t like a character that you think: “A-ha, my work here is done!” This happened with my novel due out in October, The Heir of Night, when an early reader said: “… but I just hate the Earl of Night. He’s such an anal retentive @#%*$&!.” He couldn’t quite understand why I immediately punched the air, but in fact I was over the moon, because I had worked really hard on that particular character and the reader’s response was exactly right.

And sometimes it is the characters you have to work hardest on that are the most rewarding—not because they are likeable necessarily, but because they are human. So the Earl of Night is an anal retentive @#%*$&!, but that is not all he is. Working to achieve that fine shading as the story unfolds is very rewarding for me as a writer.

Yet writing character can also (I imagine, since I’ve never actually done it myself) be a little like quarrying for gemstones. Some characters you have to chip away at patiently until the shape of the personality reveals itself; with others it’s just a single tap and the perfect jewel falls into your hand. The character of Sigismund, the prince in Thornspell, was like that. (As you may recall from last month, Thornspell is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince.) One moment I was sitting in a darkened theater watching the ballet of Sleeping Beauty—the next I was bolt upright in my seat, thinking: “What about the prince? What’s his story?” In that moment, the character of Sigismund was just there.

I had a similar experience with a character in the Heir of Night, as well. She was just a minor character, until the moment I changed her name—when she suddenly put her hands on her hips, stepped forward, and said: “I’m here and I’m important. So you’d better listen up and pay attention!” The character’s new name was Asantir and she is an important part of the Heir story—but you will have to decide for yourselves whether I was right to listen up and pay attention. [Grins.]

Where do characters come from? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Some, like Sigismund and Asantir, seem to spring fully formed from the air. Others, like the Earl of Night, evolve through the telling of the story and with much patient and delicate chipping away from the author. But in the end, however they arrive, each character has to be real and alive once they step onto the page. They all have to have their backstory and reasons for being who they are, even if it is not important to the telling of this story. Even bit characters, I believe, have to be important to themselves; otherwise they won’t be real enough to keep a reader absorbed in the world on the page.

That’s what I think, anyway.

But what about you? Is it the characters that make or break a story for you? Do you have any all-time favorite characters—and why? (And remember, this is Fantasy-SciFi, so they don’t have to be people.) Or is your best loved character really a place or a world?

And Yes: there are give-aways! My editor, Kate Nintzel, is putting up another two AREs of The Heir of Night (but for USA/Canada readers only, I’m sorry) and once again, I’m also adding in two signed copies of Thornspell for readers anywhere in the world.

You can earn points (i.e. the number of times your name goes into the draw) by:

+1 Posting in the comments section
+1 Linking to this post on Twitter
+1 Linking to this post on Facebook
+1 Linking to the Supernatural Underground blog on your own blog/website

Just post the total number of points that you’ve earned in your comment (and say whether you’re from the USA/Canada for the Heir AREs. You name will be entered in the draw again for every point you earn. Eligibility will close at midnight today, July 1, EST. (Do remember to check back, or to post your email with your comment so that I can get in touch.)

And as for last month, if you visit me on my blog: Helen Lowe on Anything, Really you can also go in the draw to win one of two further copies of Thornspell, once again for readers anywhere in the world.


Sullivan McPig said...

for me it's characters for the most part that make a story, but the writing, story and setting certainly count too. A book can have great characters, but if the story sucks I will toss the book aside.
That being said:
Some of my favourite characters:
Shadow (American Gods - Neil Gaiman)
Daemon Sadi (Black Jewels series - Anne Bishop
Mercy Thompson (Mercy Thompson series - Patricia Briggs)
Talia (Heralds of Valdemar - Mercedes Lackey)

+1 Posting in the comments section
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Helen Lowe said...

Sullivan McPig:

Thanks for posting! I'm with you on Shadow, Daemon and Talia--they're all great characters. Sadly though, I have yet to read the Mercy Thompson books (so many books, so little time!), but they are definitely recommended by many.

Violet said...

Compelling characters are definitely key to my enjoyment of a novel. The characters don't have to be 100% likable, but they do need to have have unique voices & something that sets them apart from the four thousand generic characters I've read about before. It helps if they are at least slightly relatable and if they remain consistent to themselves throughout the story (having a believable character arc is great, but they should not suddenly begin making totally inexplicable choices that seem way out of line with their individual personalities & back-stories halfway through the book or series). Excellent dialogue can also go a long way toward building awesome characters. If the characters and their relationships with one another are compelling, I will follow them through any type of story or setting.

I gravitate toward YA fantasy/sci-fi books with moderate to heavy romantic subplots, and a few characters that I would follow through any adventure include: Katsa from Graceling, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Aly Cooper from Trickster's Choice, and Rose Hathaway from Vampire Academy.

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Helen Lowe said...

Violet: I agree with you 100% about characters needing to be consistent. And Katniss and Katsa are two of my favorite contemporary heroines, although if I had to choose one I would pick Katniss--'The Hunger Games" was one of my 'top reads' for last year. :-)

Jessica @ a GREAT read said...

It's the characters that make a story great for me! I like a variety of them too. Some that are quick witted and snarky or some that may be the complete opposite. And they come from different worlds as well. I like modern urban fantasy heroines like Faythe from Rachel Vincent's Shifter series. Then at the same time I love Yelena from Maria Snyder's Study trilogy.

Really there hasn't been a character that I didn't really like. I stick with the books that I like and I might have only tossed 2 or 3 books ever to the side after finishing them. And it didn't really have anything to do with the character.

Sullivan McPig said...

Katniss is one of those characters I really like, but where the story makes me lose interest in her. I loved The Hunger Games (not a big surprise as I also loved Battle Royal), but then came the second book and that book totally flunked in my opinion. The plot was shaky at best and there was much pulling rabbits out of hats to keep it going.
So even though Katniss is a great character I'm not so sure I will read the last book.

Anonymous said...

Characters definitely make the story, but on the flip side, I feel that there is no story without the all-powerful G-M-C: Goal, motivation and conflict.

It doesn't matter how engaging a character is, I find that if he or she lacks motivation, I lose interest. This is likely a personal thing, as I tend to feel the same way about the mancandy when he's being lazy. ;)

One of my all-time favorite characters is Sam Vimes -- of Terry Pratchett's Discworld fame -- but it would be absolutely true to say that it was the conflict that turned him into who and what he was. When we meet him, after all, he's a listless drunk.

Then again, it's exceedingly fair to say that even the best plot has to have good characters to live it, else it becomes "that thing that happened to that one person", and that's all we remember, right?

Thanks for the fun post, Helen!

Sharon S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giada M. said...

Great post! For me characters are really important, but the world in which they live is very important too. An example? Harry Potter! I love the setting! But I can continue to read a story with interesting characters even if I don't like the world. On the contrary a story with weak characters and great world is one of that book I wouldn't continue to read. >_<
One of my favorite character? Morgana in the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Thank you for this awesome giveaway!
I'm an international reader.

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Giada M.

fabgiada (at) gmail (dot) com

Sharon S. said...

I prefer great characters to a great story I think. The author's ability to spin the tale is most important to me. I've read books that were just so well written I couldn't care less about what was actually happening, only that it was (Shirley Damsgaard and Charlaine Harris). If that makes sense . I really love Kate Daniels as character for some reason.

3 points for me

Patricia Lynne said...

I love connecting with characters. I've really gotten into Heather Brewer's Vlad series and the one character Joss, the last book ended with it looking like he was a horrible person, but I completely connected with his situation and that made me understand the decision he made and why it doesn't make him a horrible person. other readers have posted how they can't stand the character and I'm just like 'you're not putting yourself in his shoes and seeing the world through his eyes, you're only looking thru vlads.' (which also makes me excited that she's writing a series just for Joss!)

for me connecting with characters just pulls me deeper into the story, has me mentally arguing what I thought the character should do, sympathies with even the bad guys and keeps me reading. if the first few sentences of a book doesn't endear me to the characters, i tend to put it down.

felinewyvern said...

To me the essence of any book is like a jigsaw - characters, location and storyline. One without either of the other two is just no good for the overall picture (book).

That said characters are a major part of why I like certain books above some others :D

Helen Lowe said...

I've been having a few ISP problems, so apologies if I seem to have been ignoring your comments. But here goes ...

Jessica: I do agree that you need a variety of characters to make the story interesting, otherwise it's can be too bland. And as has been discussed other times on this blog, sometimes the Han Solo lovable rogue type character, or the antihero like Elric of Melnibone can be what 'makes' a story.

Sullivan McPig: Hmmm, I know what you mean, and it's a good example of where even a character you love may not be enough to keep a story compelling reading ...

Karina: My work here is definitely not done if I managed to suggest that a story does not need plot :-) I quite agree that if there is no conflict, nothing at all to resolve then here is no story--but I suppose the point of view I was coming from is those books you pick up where the idea is great, fabulous even, and the world fascinating, but you don't feel engaged by the characters and so everything else falls flat. The total package of course is great ideas, great world, great plot and great characters!

Helen Lowe said...

Giada M: 'The Mists of Avalon' is one of my all time favorite books. I love both the characters and Bradley's 'take' on the Arthurian legends, which was very 'fresh' when the book first came out.

Sharon S: You're making perfect sense! There was a discussion on about "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and although a lot of readers clearly love the book, just as many felt that the beautiful writing could not compensate for the (they felt) slow pace and unlikeable characters. Different strokes, I guess, but characters that engage are very important for me.

Patricia Lynne: I think developing understanding of why even difficult characters are the way they are is one of the really rewarding aspects of writing, and that 'difficult' is not necessarily the same as 'bad'. It makes both writing and reading more authentic for me, especially when there's fun characters who are easy to like--and write!--thrown into the mix.

Ilona: And I like stories where I have to fit the jigsaw pieces together as well, i.e. where there's layers and complexity to the plot!

Crystal @ RBtWBC said...

For me it's the characters.
I love when you can find a character that you can get so in tune to that the rest of the world just falls away. You forget about what country/city/state/world they are suppose to be in at the time because you are just so engrossed in what the character is going through emotional, physically, ect. If that makes sense.
Oh, example. I read Wait for Dusk last week and in her books Jocelynn Drake takes you to Savannah, Venice, Budapest, Vienna, beautiful places like that. And she does a fantastic job describing the locations but I was so into what was happening with Mira & Danaus (and a fave Valerio) that Budapest dropped away and they could of been here in Florida for all I was paying attention to it.

Characters that make me laugh out loud while reading (so my husband looks at me like I'm crazy), make me cry with them, make my chest tight like my heart is breaking too, or *ahem* Ch32 for those of you in the know ;), are my fave and what I applaud the author for.

If any of that made sense. =)
Thanks for the great post!
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cheesecake.thief59 said...

Characters always always always make or break a story for me. If the plot line is kind of "bleh" but the characters are fanstic then I read until the very end. But if the characters suck then I drop the book like a hot potato.

Which just happened for me actually - I was reading A Girl's Guide to Vampires by Katie MacAllister. And the two best friends, Joy and Roxy, reminded me of Twilight-crazed fans. (You know, those girls who run around screaming "Edward I love you and I want your babie!!!") Yeah, that kind of crazy. So I stopped reading it.

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And I live in the USA

Helen Lowe said...

Crystal, Jocelyn Drake is a great writer and it's fun when you're so engrossed with the characters and the story that you don't notice time passing--entirely the way it should be when you pick up a book!

c4casey: I haven't read that particular book but I know what you mean, although I am very 'dutiful' so almost always read to the end. But there's still a few books I've ended throwing across the room in total exasperation (sorry, not telling ... :-) )

nymfaux said...

congrats to the winners!!!

nymfaux said...

Yea!!!!!! I just realized that I won on your other blog, so I wanted to say thank you again!!!!!!! I love your posts, can't wait to get my hands on Thornspell!!!!!! :) and congrats again to all the winners!!!

Helen Lowe said...

Hey Nymfaux--I'm glad you enjoy the posts & congrats to you on being a winner on my "Helen Lowe" blog.