Be Your Character

I read “be your character” somewhere, in one of the many articles I devour. It seems a little blasé and unrealistic. How can I be my character when I write pre-Christian Irish historical fantasy? My characters spent their lives chopping off heads, stealing and raping, drinking and debauching. If I took a method acting approach to being my character, I would not last too long this side of high walls with razor wire on top.

But what did the author really mean? I am sure it wasn’t that I had to put on some plaid trouse, get out my broadsword, and head into the hills of Ireland looking for a settlement to rob. So, what? In the end, it comes down to what, I think, is a simple list. Give characters realism; make them relatable; make them individual; give them conflict.

Realism

Characters must be realistic. Readers need to invest in them and believe in them. So how do we writers achieve that? There are several ways to make characters realistic. Not least would be giving them fallibility. Let them make mistakes. There is nothing more real than falling over occasionally. No one goes through life error free. Take Gandalf, he went off and left Frodo alone with the ring, when he should have run for the hills, Frodo in tow, as soon as he suspected. Then he led them into the mines of Moria, knowing there was something dreadful in them, but being too fallible to go against the wishes of the fellowship.

Make them complex. There is nothing less real than a one-dimensional character. There needs to be layers that the reader can discover through the journey the character is making: their arc. Even the villains need the layers. Take Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd; pure villain, but multi-layered, evidenced by his attempted suicide.

Relatable

The reader needs to feel a connection to the characters. Even the bad ones need to garner a little sympathy, or some understanding. The reader needs to be able to say, “yes, that is an understandable reaction”, even when it is not something they would condone. This gives characters their humanity. The old Alexander Pope-ism about erring being a trait of humanity. Angus Thermopyle from Donaldson’s Gap series is a good example. The way he treats Morn Hyland is despicable, evil incarnate, for want of a better cliché. But the reader is given the backstory to Thermopyle’s evil, which, although it doesn’t excuse his actions, it does go some way towards explaining them.

Individuality

Each character needs to be their own person. They need to have their quirks and their habits: a certain nuance in speech; a particular tic; a quaint turn of phrase: something that is unique to them. Henry Treece’s Heracles in Jason is a good example. Treece made Heracles a homosexual eunuch, which was a particularly unique take on the character, giving the story of Jason and the Argonauts another dimension. A slightly less well-known character, at least for now, is Inspector Laconto from the Time to Say Goodnight series: Laconto smokes Gauloises at murder scenes because he can’t stand the smell of death, which is a unique trait for a copper.

Conflict

Characters need to have troubles to overcome to generate interest in them. If they move from scene to scene without defeating any demons, then the story will be flat. It does not matter what those demons are, the inner demons of a character of literary fiction or the fire breathing type from epic fantasy, conflict keeps the interest of the reader and, therefore, the pages turning.

So, what do I think?

Can I be my character? No. As covered earlier, I would end up in lock-up, never mind lockdown. Can I make them real, give them personal traits, put them within touching distance of the reader, give them obstacles to overcome before they reach their goals? Yes and yes again.

Micheál

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