Kimberly Clark is the Australian author behind the Battles In The Dark supernatural fantasy series. Reign of Fury, the third novel of the series, was released last month.
During the ‘Creating Kick Ass Characters’ panel, alongside Sarah J. Maas, Lynette Noni, and Melanie Casey, Kimberly talked about the best ways to create a kick ass character, how to add emotional realism to their experiences, and warned against the dangers of forgetting the different types of strength.
Kick Ass Characters Panel
The ones that are intellectual are just as kick ass as the physical.
We get caught up in the idea of being ‘kick ass’ as a purely physical idea, but characters can be intellectually kick ass, or even spiritually so. Empowerment isn’t always about violence, and it’s important to remember that not every situation can be solved with physical strength or violence.
This is possibly more important with male characters, though, because we prioritise one version of masculinity (the conquering alpha-male type) as the pinnacle of masculinity far too often.
Notice the growing trend of the less muscular, intellectually focused male characters getting the larger female fanbase- Loki in Thor is a perfect example. Thor is gorgeous, but Loki got more female attention, despite being less muscular. It’s not always about physical strength- the emotional and intellectual play a large part in getting female attention, too.
Try new things. There are different things you learn along the way.
Don’t be scared to take a story in a new direction, or to veer away from the traditional storytelling ideas and techniques. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it wont, but trying new things makes you a better writer.
If you write one particular genre, try writing something worlds away from your usual. If you always write male heroes, try writing a female voice.
You can also learn a lot about the way you write by changing your venue, or any rituals you have around writing. How well do you write in a silent space? What about a noisy one? What’s your noise level sweet-spot? We all tend to fall into writing routines, which isn’t a bad thing so long as we know why we do it. But it can be good to switch things around, especially if you’re struggling to write something. Shifting from typing to hand writing can help you to think differently, and can feel novel enough that you’re less inhibited about what you’re writing.
Female characters tend to have two roles as needed: the womanly character switches into BAMF mode because she has to.
Think of Ripley from Alien. She’s not necessarily the girliest of characters, but until she’s in a position where she needs to step up, she’s not running around like she’s the alpha figure in the story.
There’s a joke that gets rehashed in a lot of comedies, where women end up talking about the way you have to make men feel as though your idea was actually theirs. There’s lots of eye rolling and long suffering sighs, but it’s actually something that some women feel like they have to do to get their ideas taken seriously. Oftentimes, women learn that direct confrontation only inflames the situation, and so they have to find other ways to go about getting their needs met until there’s no other option but to take control, and deal with the aftermath later.
This dual nature can also be true for men, though. If you think of Captain America, he’s not constantly the alpha male figure. He’s just a guy until he has to be the leader, and then he’s a BAMF because that’s what’s required.
It helps to put things into your stories to show that male and female characters can work well together, or balance each other out.
The battle of the sexes is a tired trope. Let it go. Unless there is a really, really good reason for it, seeing all the men try and lord it over all the women while the women roll their eyes and go along with it doesn’t work that well in modern fiction, because it immediately distances half of your audience. But on the other hand, it’s just as ineffective having all the women lording it over men, too. One half of the audience gets a laugh, the other gets frustrated at the weak writing of an entire gender.
Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, and watching them work well together to balance out those weaknesses is both engaging and fun. Seeing that the characters respect each other, even if it’s a relationship based on teasing,
There will always be some tense relationships between the genders, for a variety of reasons. But not every male/female friendship is tense or based on one person being treated better than the other. In the same way, not all male/female friendships end in romance. Men and women can just be friends, and can have equal and respectful working relationships.
When it comes to fighting, each character is particular in their set of skills and the weapons they use.
Though Hawkeye is a trained agent capable of working with modern weaponry, his weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. Thor prefers his hammer, Captain America prefers his shield. Black Widow uses guns and widow bites. Her close quarters combat looks a lot different to, say, the Winter Soldier’s.
If every character had the same set of skills and abilities, and the same amount of emotional investment in the fight, it would be boring. It would be equally matched, and the fights would go on forever and end up being about luck more than anything else. Having your characters have different strengths and weaknesses in fighting means that there’s room for unpredictability. There’s room to have a David and Goliath moment now and then.
An addendum, though: if a character has magic, it works best if there’s a limitation or consequence to it. If he conjures food, where does it come from? Does it get taken from the nearest shop (which would make it stealing, and have potentially bad consequences), or is it made from nothingness somehow? If it’s made from nothingness, how nutritious is it really going to be, and how do you digest magic?
With each scene, you want to bring in what’s happening at the time.
Whether the action is big and terrifying, or small and mundane, it’s going to be impacted by external events. A character scared about the quest they’re on isn’t always likely to react calmly when there’s a metallic scraping sound in the darkness. Maybe their best friend has dropped his sword (or frying pan), but in the moments before they know what happened, how suave will a scared character really be?
Let’s go back to the idea of the fight scene again. If your character has just been dumped, then there’s a range of ways that could impact a fight scene. Maybe they’re furious, and ready to vent that anger onto someone else. Maybe they’re devastated or in shock, and not really in a position where they’re at their best and most effective. Or maybe they’ve decided they can’t live without their love, and have decided on suicide-by-fight scene. If they’re really lucky, they can compartmentalise what’s happened to focus on the fight (but really, there’s generally some measure of bleed through below that calm facade).
Characters, like people, have a range of potential ways of reacting to a big change in their lives, and it won’t always be a healthy reaction.
Remember though, you don’t want your character internally contemplating their break up mid fight, unless there’s a really good reason for it. It’s really hard to create a believable reason for that, though. Even a character like RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes, who is able to figure out and orchestrate a plan of attack in a matter of seconds, is prone to getting distracted and stumbling in a fight.
Characters need a purpose to be included. They need to have a reason why you’ve got their point of view there.
POV characters need a reason to get that attention. If they’re not moving the story forward, or adding useful information or narrative tension, then there’s no reason for them to be speaking.
All main and secondary characters need to add something to the story. If they’re not doing anything, or if another character could be doing the same things more convincingly, then it’s time to kill your darling.