I had another topic lined up for today, but my publisher texted to suggest a journal on character development, specifically the difference between history and character. I guess someone requested it, because he yammers on about it often enough, I doubt he needs more. I’ve talked about building likable characters as a means of engaging the reader before, but this is a little different.
Character development is the literary process by which an author establishes her character, displaying a fictional or real person in such a way as to make it both believable and interest worthy.
One of the major parts of Sajani’s character is the death of her mother. Anyone that’s read the books can tell you that’s a defining moment in her life and a lot of things she says and does are a reflection of that one tragedy. There’s a part at the end of Wolf’s Pawn that brings that into focus. Benayle tells her, “You really are your mother’s daughter.” It’s huge compliment. It means she’s established herself as a national hero and that he knows people look up to her, just as much as they do to her mother. Sajani doesn’t, however, want to be just the progeny of her mother. She wants to establish herself as something that is shared with her mother, other than just the relation, so she says, “No, I am the copper wolf!” You find out later that the moniker is something that is generations old. Sajani is saying in essence, I’ve established myself. I’m more than just my mother’s daughter.
One more example of a character’s history being used to establish character and then I’ll get into some other suggestions on it. In Fugitive’s Trust Sajani has a dream. In it, the Aspects of Governance ask her, “Do you know who you are?” Her first response is, “I’m Sajani Adida,” to which they respond, “Adida is your mother’s name. If you take that away, do you know who you are?” The story of the prequel trilogy is the quest for her to find out who she is. In the end, when she’s told that her mother left her a huge pawprint to fill, she responds, “I make my own prints sir. I don’t walk in anyone else’s.”
A character’s history can be a great way to help you determine her response to events or conflicts. Sajani was a paladin at one point. She has a hard time taking on the name of “pirate.” When she does acquire money or equipment, she feels a need to share it out. She also went without a mother as she was growing up, so does what she can to prevent that from happening to others. Her time in the military and in the paladin order give her constant desire to have structure and to plan things out. Something else that a few people have caught and mentioned, she has ADHD, inattentive type. (ADD to those of us that grew up with it). The adult adaptation to that is she often gets hyper focused.
When you do use history as part of character development, it’s a good idea to ask yourself how that will affect the character in the current timeline. I’ve shown a few examples of that in my own writing. The longest (and too far) drawn out example I can think of is with the Star Wars prequels. With how dark Darth Vader’s character is portrayed, it was important to George Lucas to establish the history that created such corruption. It can be a fun mental exercise. Like a lot of literary tools, it can also be overdone.
An important element to remember when using history as part of your character development: a person is more than her history. That’s actually a central theme in Faux Scent. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can reference from there without spoilers. Many things that make us who we are come from an innate personality. Anyone that’s raised kids can tell you that it’s not all genetic or all environment. Some kids are born tricksters and some born angels. Even identical twins have differences there.
Some of these personality quirks are subtle. Sajani likes puns. Benayle doesn’t like tea. Gregor has a tendency to say, “huh” randomly and stutters when relationships are mentioned or implied. Jackel drops the first word of each sentence. Blade can’t pronounce “th.” In the original Sajani story, there’s a sergeant that blurts out “dah” all the time. These are all examples of characterization that is not based in history, but rather is just a part of the person.
Quite a few of these examples have to do with dialogue, so let me touch a little on that. One of those “don’t do” rules that annoy me says to never use accents. Horse poop. And probably some hamster poop to go with it. If Samuel Clemens was around, I’d like to see those people say that to his face. Break out the popcorn!. If they’d rather debate it with someone famous that’s alive, they can talk to Phil and Kaja Foglio, the authors of the Girl Genius webcomic. Both are amazingly successful and both use accents frequently.
When using indicators in dialogue, it is important to ensure it’s not so over the top that your reader is going to have to stop and have someone say the lines to her. Another important consideration is the reading level of your audience. Accents in books for second graders? Not a great idea.
Other parts of your character that don’t have to do with dialogue are small things that you should avoid mentioning directly but that come up in other ways. Sajani’s sense of humor comes up often, but there’s only a couple of places where it’s directly mentioned. My personal favorite is in Faux Scent where she encounters an elf with a similar sense of humor. “Great, someone with a sense of humor like hers. How inconvenient.” Benayle’s dislike of tea is a little harder to hide, but it comes up a few times.
Along that line, an important part of personality is in likes and dislikes. I enjoy using these to establish a sense of connection with the reader. I personally don’t mind my middle name at all, but there’re some that don’t like theirs. That led to this short conversation between Gregor and Sajani in Fugitive’s Trust:
“Okay,” he said, “but before I begin, how do you pronounce your middle name? I’d hate to…”
“I don’t pronounce my middle name,” she said curtly, “and neither do you.”
That got a deep chuckle from her friend. “I… can almost understand that,” he said with amusement.
I’ve seen some writers that meticulously write down all this stuff and that’s great. I try to more engrain it directly into the character. If I have to look it up, then I haven’t been consistently using it.
Well, that’s about my word limit. I hope you find this helpful, whoever it was that asked for it. I try to avoid the authoritarian and angsty approach I see too much in writing advice. I also try to stay upbeat and encouraging. As always, thank you so much to my few followers. You make this worthwhile.
If you have any suggestions on future journals, let me know through a direct message or in the comments. You can also contact the publisher through fb or twitter or parler. I’ll pick on getting your reader emotionally involved in the story using conflict next week, like I originally planned this week.
May you keep on running and never look back.