Today I’m thinking about fantasy and depth, as in long-range vision on characters.
Let’s get straight to the chase:
You, presumably, have a bunch of really awesome characters that you’re working with in a story, or in multiple stories (I have about four worlds revolving in my mind now, with four sets of characters).
Let’s take those characters that you already have, and I’ll show you how to get a lot more (and I mean A LOT more) mileage out of them.
This process is easy, fast, and deeply satisfying. (If you follow the rules! If you don’t follow the rules, it’s maddening … so follow the rules, ‘kay?)
Victor Poole’s Magical Recipe For Depth In Already-Established Characters
- Start with what you have
Don’t add shit. You start, right now, with what you have. What I mean by adding shit:
Example: In one of my fantasy worlds, I have a mature centaur named Albion. With the scenes he’s in so far, I know Albion:
- has three sons
- his wife has been dead for years and years
- he’s very powerful
I also have a general sense of his body carriage, the shape of his torso, and his habitual facial expression. I know these things by my instinctual writer’s sense. You do this for characters you’ve already created; you have a gut sense of what they sort of feel like, as people.
That’s what I have now for Albion; that’s what I can use in keeping this rule.
So, if I broke the rule, I would pressure myself into making Albion “more interesting.” I would add artificial knobs and doodads to his character, or to his story, in an effort to make him have more “depth,” or to make him more “compelling,” or some shit like that.
So I might start daydreaming and showing off by saying to myself that IN ADDITION:
BAD! DON’T DO THIS!
- Albion has a cloak-and-dagger past as a military centaur, and no one knows about it!
- He murdered his wife!
- He wears a lavender harness! (because centaurs)
All that shit would clutter up the core of the original character and lead to me eventually hitting a dead-end in the plot, where it concerns Albion. I would have choked off his ability to become deep in the writing by adding superficial artifice, and ironically, my attempt to force depth would rob Albion of any depth he might otherwise have had.
I know for an absolute fact that you, in your deep writer’s heart, have a sense of what is really part of the character and what is artificially added on to make the character “more interesting.”
- Start with what you have. Don’t show off. Don’t add crap. Don’t TRY. Just start with what you have already.
And Now, Rule Two
2. Start catching snags
Every person who exists (even characters you’ve made up for your book) has hiccups and idiosyncrasies in their dialogue and behavior.
You start with what you have and you start calling attention to snags, and refusing to move on in the story until the snag has been thoroughly addressed.
Here are some examples of snags:
- Henry the bodyguard refuses to shake hands, and doesn’t want to talk about why.
- Albion the centaur is cool and disdainful, and puts on a stiff manner with strangers.
- Lysette the queen is impossibly beautiful, and doesn’t seem to age as much as she ought to.
Here Is How To Call Out A Snag
Let’s start with a new snag, just for our purposes here. I will make a new character named Violet, and write a paragraph containing a snag. Observe:
Violet, a minor witch, carried her straw purse through the door of the Farm n’ Garden store and glanced at the flecks of mulch on the floor. Her lips pursed into a slight curl of disapproval, and she went to the largest piece of mulch and kicked it against the wall. They ought to sweep better in here, Violet told herself, and she hitched her straw purse over her shoulder and walked towards the selection of sentient pansies in the back.
The snag here is the way she notices and reacts to perfectly normal debris in a gardening store. Something is under that reaction, and if we continue the story and allow some other character to confront the snag, a beginning of character depth will result. Observe:
Having chosen out her intelligent potted plants, Violet carried them to the willowy clerk at the register and dug in her straw purse for the appropriate measure of gold.
“Why did you kick aside that piece of mulch?” the clerk asked. Her eyes were clear and blue, and she stared at Violet with an unnerving boldness.
“Um, what?” Violet asked, shifting through gum and sparrow bones in her purse.
“When you came in the store. You went and pushed a piece of mulch over against the wall with your shoe. Why’d you do that?” the girl asked. Violet looked up at the willowy young woman and blinked. Violet elected to ignore the question, and succeeded in withdrawing a lump of coins.
“That should be enough. I have smaller change, if you need a closer amount,” Violet said, rendering up a handful of precious metal.
“No, that’s fine. Are you a clean freak?” the clerk asked, opening the register.
“Um, no,” Violet said, feeling that the young woman was being excessively rude.
At this point, I have two choices:
- The clerk pushes the point and starts a fight over getting a better answer about the mulch, and the clerk and the witch begin a relationship, either friendly or antagonistic, depending on the results of the confrontation
- Violet walks away with her potted pansies, is mildly bothered, and we chase down further snags throughout her day
The stakes in the relationship determine how far the snag-pushing can go on. I’ll talk over my examples from above:
- Henry the bodyguard is confronted about the hand-shaking by Vince, and turns out to have been physically tortured by some older men a long time ago
- Albion the centaur is confronted on his stiff manner by the young lady centaur he is speaking to, and she finds out he is very lonely
- Lysette the beautiful queen is eventually caught doing some very naughty magic that extends her youth and good looks
And Now, The Final Rule
3. Contextual framing creates depth
A successful character draws the reader in and allows for intimacy between reader and character. You get intimate with a person by understanding how they think and feel. Showing a character’s actions and words is not enough; the character’s internal experience of their outer experience is essential to building empathy for that character within the reader.
Empathy is created by vulnerability and contextual framing.
On a completely unrelated note, here’s a landscape sketch I’m working on:
Contextual framing is created over time by showing the character’s familial situation and relations to people immediately around them. Relationships, shown through writing, make the contextual framing.
To frame our witch, Violet, we would go home with her and see her speaking to her mother and sister, who live with her, and we would watch her interacting with the magical hamster who resides in her garden and keeps back angry pests. The more we illustrated Violet’s relationships with those closest to her, the deeper and more interesting her personal snags would become.
Altogether, The Rules Are Three
- Start with what you have. Don’t add shit just to show off or artificially create drama. That doesn’t lead to authentic depth. You know in your gut what really belongs with the character and what is added on top.
- Call out snags. Usually the character who is paying attention to snags is the protagonist. Hercule Poirot catches snags; that’s almost his entire character, is finding and following up on snags. Harry Potter actually is also mainly volitional because of the way he notes and investigates snags in the people around him.
- Contextual framing brings everything together and cements depth. Excellent characterization creeps in on the reader over time, impressed by the relationships immediately surrounding the character.
You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Max is reciprocating some of the good work Vince has been doing for him. (Vince the hunter is, in the words of one bodyguard, “a mystic energy dude.”)