Lynette Noni (who I introduced here) participated in a quite a few of the panel conversations at Supanova 2015, so you’ll be seeing a bit from her over the next little while.
Here, in the Kick Ass Characters panel, she joined Sarah J. Maas, Melanie Casey, and Kimberley Clark in talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly of creating characters that readers love (or love to hate).
Creating Kick Ass Characters
Find a way to relate to them [your characters]. Show the progression of their humanity. We’re growing as they grow.
We grow and learn alongside the characters we read.
Even if you’re writing a villain, it’s a good idea to make sure you care about, and can relate to, their plight. If every villain is the hero of their life story, that means that they’re on a journey of growth and discovery, just like the hero.
This is also one of the problems with ‘perfect’ characters. They’re the ones who get the girl/guy easily, are strong enough to save the day and humble enough not to brag about it. They’re sexy, kind, a genius… the list of their perfections is a long and tedious one. But no one is that perfect, and we can’t relate to the journey of a perfect human being.
People need flaws to feel real.
Remember, though: those traits they think of as flaws might not be what those around them think of as bad. Dumbledore believed it was love that gave Harry power, but Voldemort saw it as a weakness rather than a strength. People see things differently, and it can be fun to play around with that.
Humanity is a spectrum that we all move across throughout our lives. Sometimes, we’re good people. Sometimes, we’re really not. Sometimes bad people find redemption, and sometimes good people turn to the dark side. No one is all good all the time, or all evil.
We all have a potential to learn things. Show characters learning the skills, rather than just having them.
Since the era of David and Goliath, we’ve held a soft spot for the underdog character. They’re not perfect, they’re possibly not even adept. But they’re fighting on regardless.
We tend to give more value to the things we’ve worked to achieve, and watching a character learn and grow can be more inspiring and engaging that having them start off as a master of whatever skill they need to survive.
This doesn’t have to be shown in chronological order, though. Katniss learned to hunt because her choices were learning or watching her family starve. Though we didn’t see that progression in its chronological order, it still had a massive impact on our understanding of Katniss, and just how far she’d go to protect her baby sister.
We all have gifts. It’s how we use them that makes us powerful.
This is true in fiction and in life. Everyone has talents, even if we value some talents over others. On their own, they don’t make us good or bad, in the same way that knives or electricity aren’t inherently good or bad.
Most gifts and talents are neutral: they’re neither good or bad, they just are. It’s the way people use them that determine not just how those traits are seen, but the type of person that they really are. If you’re using art to cheer up sick kids, that’s awesome. If you’re using it to terrorise your ex, that’s really not okay. Both tell readers (and those around you) a lot about the artist.
This is one of the things that bugged me about Harry Potter: the idea that ambition and cunning were seen as such horrible traits to have. Ambition keeps you moving towards your goals, and cunning helps you find other ways to make things happen when plan A fails. Neither are inherently negative traits, unless someone chooses to use them to harm others. But when you think about it, Voldemort used intelligence (Ravenclaw) to meet his goals. He used bravery (Gryffindor) to meet those goals. And he used loyalty (Hufflepuff) as a way to keep his followers in line. It’s all about perspective as to whether something is good or bad.
Frozen is also a great example of this. How different would the story have been if the King and Queen had let the trolls teach Elsa how to control her powers? How would her life have changed if she wasn’t raised to fear that part of herself? I’ll take it a step further: what would have happened if her parents had told their kingdom about her powers, so that they weren’t scared of her? Her powers were chaotic and negative because she didn’t know how to use them, feared them, and so feared herself. But once she knew how to use them, and realised they weren’t evil (and neither was she) then there really wasn’t a problem. It’s how we use our gifts as well as how we see them, and ourselves, that makes us powerful or vulnerable.
When you read a lot, you tend to learn what works and what doesn’t.
This is why so many authors remind people that you need to read to be a writer. It’s through reading inside and out of your genres that you learn what works and what doesn’t. You can see what tropes are overdone, or could be subverted.
When you finish a book, take a moment and think about what you liked and what you hated, and what you can learn from it. You don’t have to analyse everything in depth, but taking a few moments to contemplate what you read is really, really useful.
What we watch is two dimensional. When you read, you have five senses to explore.
Language can evoke the senses in a way that visual storytelling can’t. It’s easy to fall into the habit of trying to write a novel as though you’re writing a movie, but you can strengthen your writing by making it more sensory.
Sometimes I’ll do the really detailed research about character names. Other times, I’ll watch the credits of films and Google them.
Baby name books and websites are helpful, but looking at credits can be a great way to find a range of names from multiple cultures. Another writer (I can’t remember who, or when I heard it) spoke about getting names by wandering through old cemeteries, because you’ll get a range of names that aren’t necessarily popular now.
Our characters are sometimes who we don’t want to be, and what we do want to be. They’re what we fear, and aspire to be, and dream of.
Authors sometimes get accused of creating wish fulfillment characters: creating the sorts of heroes they wish they could be. But characters can be a way of exploring the darker sides of our personalities, all the while exploring the darker elements of humanity as a whole.
Oftentimes, in movies and in books, the villains that scare us the most are the ones that resonate with us on a personal level. They’re the ones that take our fleeting wish for vengeance to an extreme, and whose struggles in some way mirror our own.
The scariest villain is a human one.