Recently, I’ve been blown away by some of the casts of the fantasy books I’ve been reading. Two in particular don’t just have a realistic protagonist. Many of the mid-tier characters also seemed capable of just hopping off of the page. I know I don’t do many character-related blog posts, but today we’re going to see if we can’t unravel the secret to their liveliness.
Today I’m going to be focusing on Roseanne Brown’s A Song of Wraiths & Ruin, but I would also like to do a character study of Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series, so keep an eye out for that in the future. There will be some discussion of character arcs, so warning: spoilers abound.
Want some tips for specific topics? See the following header below if you’re trying to create:
- A protagonist with a mental illness OR a protagonist that is not defined only by their motivations/goals: Committing to Character Traits.
- A protagonist whose character traits might be defined with the help of your setting: Character Definition Through Setting Interaction.
- A minor character whose realism does not rely solely on his motivations/goals: Relatability Through Shared Experiences.
- A minor character who has one defining moment that helps establish their motivations/goals, but does not require huge amounts of development: Motivations Defined Through a Single, Telling Scene.
- A minor character whose motivations and desires must remain hidden from the protagonist for twist betrayal reasons: A Question of Twists.
Protagonists VS Setting
A few months ago, I wrote a post called Choosing the Opacity of Your World, at which point I talked about how having a rich fantasy setting could allow one’s characters seem faded by comparison. On a rare occasion, it seems, an author can still have a distinctive setting and characters so real they could jump off the page. The purpose of this blog post, unfortunately, is not to gush about the setting, but rather to consider the characters given and to see how they managed to remain separate and distinct despite having a rich setting.
Committing to Character Traits
Malik is an outsider. He comes from the fringes of Ziran, and knows little of how things are done. There are certain cultural beliefs that Ziran and his homeland share, but that is about it. He is also new to the area, but he does not have time to interact with the setting and explore the cultural aspects of the country. Where his character really begins to develop is interaction with other characters.
I once read that one good way to start a book is to give your protagonist a choice, one that doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the overall plot but that allows the reader to get a sense of the character’s morality. That is essentially what Brown did, and Malik makes the same choices in different situations again and again. Beyond his obvious motivations–and often in spite of them–Malik’s character is made concrete in the way that he would help others even at the risk to himself.
His strong sense of morality is paired with a personal setback of his: panic attacks. It is rare to see a mental illness portrayed so consistently in a book, not as a device or a character quirk, but rather as an actual obstacle that the character has to push through. And it’s not just used for dramatic effect or to generate conflict; that Malik finds a way to weaponize it in the end only helps matters.
Character Definition Through Setting Interaction
Much of the above also made Karina a great character example. She had a major phobia of fire and her core identity–being a brash yet self-conscious character–was solid enough to give her some semblance of realism. Some of the conflict surrounding Karina read as melodramatic as she made some rather stupid, illogical decisions that took the brashness a little too far into incredulity.
What the reader gets from Karina that they don’t get from Malik is a better understanding of the setting through the character and the character through the setting. We get that it is a matriarchal setting, and with that fact, we get that Karina is the way she is because she’d grown up under the shadow of a sister that was well-suited for the throne, whose death puts too much pressure on Karina herself. There are songs and epics tied to the history of Ziran, and we learn that Karina loves music. We learn that a sport called wakama is popular in Ziran, that Karina is pretty good at it, and through mentions of it, we learn that she has been coddled recently for fear some accidental injury would leave Ziran without an heir, that she chafes under everyone’s protectiveness and unwillingness to let her be her own person.
The Successes and Stumblings of Mid-Tier Characters
There are three mid-tier characters worth discussing: Karina’s ex-lover, Tunde; the Sun Champion, Driss; and Karina’s friend at court, Farid. The former two work together in the challenges in proper Hunger Games style to ensure the other champions lose, then face each other in the final one. As a result, the reader does get to spend a certain amount of time with the both of them.
Relatability Through Shared Experiences
Tunde provides an excellent example of the depths one can reach into a character without needing to be put in their head. Though a Water Champion, he does not want to win, because winning means marriage to Karina, and they had not broken up in the best of terms. He, like many, strongly dislikes Driss because the Sun Champion is stand-offish and arrogant. It’s not so much desire that gives him definition, because he’s driven more by what he doesn’t want than what he does, at least for most of the book.
What Tunde does have are weaknesses, a certain amount of extroversion, and more compassion than one would expect. He bonds with Malik over their shared experiences with panic attacks, a fact that both humanizes him and makes him relatable in the same vein that Malik was. The badly-ended romance with Karina offers another avenue; soulmates are all well and good, but nothing is more relatable than a bad break-up.
Ultimately, what makes Tunde a successful character is that he has his own motivations. The reader doesn’t necessarily know why he wants Malik to succeed, only that he is not power-hungry and that he is a good judge of character. His actions do not always align with the needs of the protagonists, but when it generates conflict, it does not feel like the conflict was made simply for the sake of conflict.
Motivations Defined Through a Single, Telling Scene
Even with the likes of Driss, however, who is standoffish and sparse with his personal details, there is a certain level of realism in his character. Certainly, not to the same degree as Tunde, and most definitely not to the degree of the protagonists. The reader can accept his character as the arrogant type at least until around the midway point, when his parents express their anger–physically–at his perceived failure, and Driss’s motivations are made clear.
A Question of Twists
Now we get to the point were certain mid-tier characters didn’t fair so well. That Leila, Malik’s older sister, didn’t get listed above is a testament to her lack of substance. Understandably, Leila is driven by the same desire as Malik, but whatever her dreams are post-freeing Nadia (younger sister) is never revealed to the reader.
Farid, basically Karina’s version of Leila (Karina and Farid were relatively close, though they weren’t related), played a much bigger role both in the story and in Karina’s life. The latter is important because, as in Tunde’s case, the more interactions we see with the minor characters, the more that can be revealed about them.
Minor characters thrive on having different goals and desires than the protagonists. It proves they are not just in the story to serve their purpose and be gone. They have their own lives off the page. Farid’s attempts to help Karina come from a good place, and any conflicts they might have never comes across as melodramatic. But the full nature of his character cannot be revealed until the twist at the end, for fear of spoiling the twist. Because of his proximity to Karina, and because of their supposed friendship, it’s jarring that his character should feel so muted.
And here’s the trick. If you’re trying to write a character with a twist betrayal, there’s no reason to make their motivations unknown. The betrayal can be in how far they go, when they go from just spouting words to taking action, especially when that action goes against the protagonist.
In Farid’s case, we did not know he wanted to resurrect someone, same as Karina. We did not know he felt the loss of Karina’s sister so strongly still that he would go to such lengths. Farid wanted to perform the same necromancy spell as Karina; he just wanted to perform it on a different deceased person. He could have worked with Karina to solve the riddles and betrayed her in the swapping of the bodies. Or, barring that, in their various interactions, his dialogue could have hinted his desires–using present tense when talking about Karina’s deceased sister to imply that he planned on resurrecting her, for example, or just stating on at least a few occasions that he wished for nothing more than for Karina’s sister to be alive.
Most of Brown’s characters provide a positive example rather than a negative one, but either way, there are only a bare handful of characters the book would have benefited from exploring more deeply. Hopefully this breakdown offers some enlightenment for some of your own characters, but I do plan on doing other character studies in the future.