Balance the Party—Guide to Creating Legendary Characters
For the past couple of weeks, we have been talking about antagonists, and how vital it is to create an antagonistic force capable of sustaining literary momentum over the course of 60-100,000 words. I worked as freelance editor for almost a decade, and have run critique groups for seven years. I have read literally hundreds of manuscripts. The single largest factor that will keep many new writers from ever being successfully published is they do not understand the antagonist.
A “novel” comprised of one bad situation after the next with no core problem and no clear antagonist is not a novel. It is a series of vignettes. Novels must have genuine conflict that progressively escalates until the reader can’t stand it anymore and MUST finish our book if he ever hopes to get to sleep. Read this earlier post for more.
Agents and editors are not out to get us. Really. They are there to keep us from embarassing ourselves by publishing something that ticked off readers and reviewers will publicly shred.
I left my old writers’ group and created WWBC to fill a glaring hole in the world of critique by blending the insight of a beta reader with the world of the critique group. It has been an effort to steer writers away from the comfort of line-edit, and stretch their skills in innovative ways that develop great storytellers.
One of the greatest goals of WWBC is to help writers create multi-dimensional characters–and especially multi-layered antagonists. One-dimensional antagonists (particularly villains) are mustache-twirling caricatitures. In my critique group, participants are asked to create their story’s antagonist first.
Because the antagonist is the impetus for disrupting the protagonist’s happy-happy-joy-joy life. If Sauron never created a Ring of Power designed with the sole purpose for ruling Middle Earth, Frodo would have just continued goofing off with his buddies and being bored with Hobbit life. If Wild Bill didn’t have a fetish for size 14 Chick Skin Couture then Clarice Starling wouldn’t have a job very long at the FBI. If the Wicked Witch of the West….
…you get the idea, :).
Yet in my years of being an editor and running critique groups, there is one character that makes an appearance in virtually every new writer’s manuscript…the Born Evil Bad Guy (Antagonist).
Of course, along with Born Evil Bad Guy, I tend to see the Born Noble Hero, and the Born Loyal Minions and the Born Wise Mentors—all in the same book. And these characters can be interesting, but they are only one part of a highly complex and dynamic psychological gamut. That’s like using only two colors of the entire spectrum to create art.
WWBC helps writers get away from the cardboard caricatures by exploring the entire psychological continuum then mining it for attributes that breathe life into any character. How? We do this using a most unique resource from my painfully awkward youth.
Dungeons and Dragons.
For the benefit of those who were not social outcasts, a quick overview.
Before any game play, one is requires to basically build a character using a D&D Compendium. Everything is included—race (Moon Elf), class (assassin), physical attributes, skills, gods, feats, weapons, etc. I often ask the WWBC participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc. breaks down character alignments into the following:
|Lawful Good||Neutral Good||Chaotic Good|
|Lawful Neutral||Neutral||Chaotic Neutral|
|Lawful Evil||Neutral Evil||Chaotic Evil|
These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.
***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me 🙂.
We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing creatures. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”
Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.
As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.
As authors, our task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context. Once we understand their moral compasses, we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations.
One quick example…
If I am creating a character that is Lawful Good in alignment, I now know that character’s strengths (noble & just) as well as his weaknesses (inflexible & unwilling to break laws even if it is for the greater good). By knowing my character’s alignment, it is now far easier to see stressors (other characters of a more neutral disposition who are eager and willing to bend and break rules and laws). It is also far easier to see how the antagonist can make his life miserable (force protagonist into situations where he cannot escape unless he breaks society’s laws).
I could go on, but I have promised to work on brevity. I hope you can see how knowing a character’s alignment immediately helps us as writers see him or her in a 3-dimensional way.
For more ways to create amazing, multi-dimensional characters, I highly, highly recommend Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.
What are some of your favorite characters and why? What makes them stand out to you and live on in your memory? What qualities do they possess? What resources would you guys recommend for learning about character creation? Please, share!
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Stay tuned for March’s winners. Will post soon.
Until next time….
In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.