Guest Post – By J. S. Collyer

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Today I’m busy writing my thesis. Rather than bore you with the details of kidney disease in mice, my new friend science fiction writer, and blogger Jex Collyer will entertain and inform you on the importance of character development. Enjoy!

What Would Batman Do? Making Your Characters Human

By J. S. Collyer

I think everyone loves stories, or needs them, in some shape or form, whether they be TV series, movies, books, or articles on which celebrity fell into what ditch over the weekend and what they were (or weren’t) wearing at the time. Stories, no matter the sort, are powerful because they take us out of ourselves and give us another reality, another possibility, a window into another world.

Those among us who lean towards genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or anything even slightly out of kilter with reality, arguably take it a step further than most: not only do we like being shown another possibility but we like being taken to a completely away from reality. We love to roll around in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘not heres’. Delicious and sometimes extreme escapism, pure and simple. And that’s not necessarily indicative of your personal situation or psychology. It just means you like it out there.

I know I do. I love the Rebeccas, the To Kill a Mockingbirds, the Gone with the Winds of this world, but I love even more the Farseer Troilogies, the Ender’s Games and the Lord of the Rings. Other Worlds, Other Possibilities, Other Planets. The imagination is limitless. Why not choose to send it to the furthest reaches of the universe and beyond?

But there’s a snag. Maybe I’m picky, but there can’t just be a great story, great setting, great language. Don’t get me wrong, these are worthy boxes to tick, some might argue vital, but even if you’ve ticked these boxes with a permanent marker… if your characters aren’t human, there’s no way a reader can explore what you’ve created. They need a wardrobe to climb through, eyes to see through, a human vessel through which they can see from their world into yours.

I don’t mean the term ‘human’ in its literal sense, by the way. If you want to write a story with ten-foot, blue-skinned aliens that live in glorious UV-reactive forests, fill your boots (though be careful with that one, I think it may have been done) but unless there is an element to them, or to your protagonist that interacts with them, of humanity, it will be just that: alien. Inaccessible. Impenetrable. Your characters, your protagonist in particular, is the window into your world. Part of being human is being flawed, so where the reader may not agree with the protagonist’s assessment of situations or other characters, they still have to understand them. They have to appreciate why they’ve done what they’ve done, they have to have a feel for what drives them or what holds them back. It’s part of the escapism: it’s how the reader can sink into your world and engage with it.

batman-symbol-dark-knight-i4This is why the latest incarnation of Batman on the big screen is my favorite ‘superhero’. I’m not a comic book expert but I’ve watched a lot of TV series and movie adaptations in my time and the one that really got under my skin was Christopher Nolan’s Batman. In Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is pained, conflicted, tormented by the past and brought down again and again by his limits, even more so, I would argue, than in his previous incarnations.

He soldiers on, perseveres and, though I’m sure the Wayne millions are a great help to his mission too, it’s his humanity that makes him so engaging. His struggle matters to me. And the way he reacts to his world helps me to understand it.

Think on this when writing your protagonist and central characters. Think about how you want to pull the reader in to live your story and feel for your characters. Put yourselves in your characters’ shoes. See what they see, feel what they feel–darn it, even smell what they smell. Your characters are not always going to be like you, in fact rarely will they be, but you are human. You can daub in their human shades with your own experience and reaction.

Sure, it’s unlikely you have ever had to face down an entire alien fleet with one laser gun to your name, or had to climb a volcano to fling a bit of jewelry into the chasm and save the world, but you’re a writer: this means you have imagination. Imagine what it must be like. Make it real.

Even if your characters are superheroes, superhuman or extraordinary in some way, make them flawed. Make them accessible. Unless there’s an iron-clad narrative reason for them not to be (Robot? Zombie? Ghost?). But even if this is the case, it needs to be acknowledged by the other characters that interact with them. Imagine what it would be like to come against someone or something devoid of humanity. Powerful storytelling stuff there, but only when seen through a human mirror.

This is as simple enough idea, and an effective one, even if the execution of it isn’t always straightforward. You need to know your characters inside and out. It may sound cliché but you really do need to know their motivation. Why are they doing what they are doing, think what they are thinking, saying what they’re saying? You need to know, even if the reader doesn’t (there’s nothing that kills engagement quicker than clunky exposition of over-explaining) but if you understand where your characters are coming from and why, their reactions will be realistic and the reader will lap it up.

The next thing to do is to get beta-readers. This is vital. Feedback is not gospel: people are giving you their take on what they would have written or would have liked to see happen. Not all of what they say will be useful, it’s your story after all, but at the end of it all, you are writing to be read by someone other than yourself. And a reader can pick out in less than a sentence when something isn’t right. You are too close to it, trust me: you won’t always notice.

Listen to the beta-readers. If they say ‘why the chuff did she do this?’ or ‘where the in the name of blue blazes did this come from?’ strongly consider revisiting something. (Hopefully, your readers will be more polite and give more extensive/constructive feedback than that, but if this is the gist do not put it aside lightly).

Before you know it, you will have the reader eating out of your hand and desperate to know what happens to your characters and your world.

So next time you sit down to work on your epic high-fantasy arc about the quest of a high-born elf prince or the tragic journey through eternity of a love-starved vampire… just get into their heads and make sure you ground them in reality. Give them something human. Give them some flaws, some weakness or some hope.

Compare the Batman with the rubber nipples with the Batman who gets woken at three in the afternoon, covered in bruises with dark circles under his eyes, knowing he will have to carry on fighting but not sure if it’s any use.

I know which story spoke to me more and which experience I would hope one day to recreate for my own readers.

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J. S. Collyer is an aspiring author of Science Fiction and Fantasy from Lancaster, England. She was published this fall in the anthology collection ‘Tuned to a Dead Channel’, and has other short stories in online publications.

Find out more about J. S. Collyer on her blog ,’The Path‘, and on her twitter feed @JexShinigami

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19 comments

  1. Kevin Brennan

    Excellent! I’m not a fantasy guy (hmmm, that didn’t come out quite right), but it’s important to realize that the same rules apply to all types of fiction. It’s about characters in crisis. Nice job, J.S.!

    • J. S. Collyer

      Thanks so much Kevin! You’re absolutely right. It’s true my taste has always been character-driven though I know that’s not the case with all, but Roth fiction whatever way you look at it you’re trying to show the reader a world in your head. How can you hope them to appreciate or care about it unless they can relate to it through your characters?

  2. Helena Hann-Basquiat

    We’ve discussed this before, and I think you’ve got a good handle on it. A great story with unbelievable characters falls flat. How do you achieve this? I like to, as soon as I possibly can after introducing a character, tell an anecdote about them, or give them a habit or proclivity that a person can believe — it doesn’t have to be something they like — but just something that they can BELIEVE — and then the reader feels like they’re reading about someone they know — or at least, someone they’ve met or imagined… sadly, so much fiction out there right now (particularly aimed at the young adult audience) is written with intentionally vague or bland characters so that the reader projects themselves into it “I’m just like Katniss”, etc…
    Which is, in my correct opinion, just lazy writing.

    • J. S. Collyer

      Giving the writer an anecdote is a great method. It gives them immediate infill on the sort of person they are and straight away solidifies them as a realistic character which grounds their reactions and motivations. Nice one! Nothing trips me up more than when something makes me to “Eh? As if they’d do that.” And you’re right: in YA fiction this is a major almost parasitic failing. It’s plot first and character second and I find that unsatisfying and sloppy. I work really hard to make the plot move in the directions I want it to go as a result of the character’s decisions. Whether I achieve that or not is yet to be seen perhaps but it is something I strive to achieve because otherwise it’s the writer prioritising their precious plot points over quality storytelling. Thanks so much for the comment Helena 😀 we’ll all wait with baited breath I’m sure to see if I can put my money where my mouth is

  3. jaurelguay

    I’ve really been struggling with this lately. I have a habit of driving plots by circumstance rather than by characters. The result is that I end up having to make bland characters that will go along with MY plot, or struggling to shoe-horn more interesting and motivated characters into the plot I have outlined. My current pain in the arse character has amnesia, and through a series of revelations realizes that he is not quite human, but I’m having trouble making him motivated in such a way that he would encounter and follow the revelations as I need him to. . .

    • J. S. Collyer

      I have read your fiction : you are good at character. It’s true it becomes trickier to make your character human and realistic when there are elements to them that *aren’t* human…but it comes, you’ll find, rather smoothly when you have the plot points fixed in your head and you think “well, how can he get from A to B?” There will be a way, and a realistic way too. You will probably be able to streamline it more once the first draft is done and you can see the arch as a whole. You will also know your character really well by then 🙂 besides, he’s bound to be conflicted of he thinks he’s one thing and turns out to be another! The doubt and confusion he just have to deal with, in any scale, will go a long way to grounding him and his reactions 🙂 less is more and it doesn’t take much at all to lay seeds in the reader’s head and their imagination will do the rest!

      • jaurelguay

        Thanks Jess, that’s good advice. I think most of the characters I’ve struggled with have never made it onto this blog because of their flatness. One is the other/real protagonist not included in the excerpt of ‘Overtone’ that is on here. I’ve noticed an interesting correlation in that these difficult characters are often also reflections of myself… rather telling of my own self perception.

      • J. S. Collyer

        I deliberately never put myself into characters – I just don’t think I’m interesting enough. Having said that though, whenever we think about a realistic reaction or motivation we are putting ourself in there in some form 🙂 You’re too harsh on yourself – characters that may seem flat to you may very well be a wealth of discovery for the reader. My favourite sorts of characters are the ones you find out about through their actions and decisions, ones you are told little about but figure out loads on your own. This sort of character, whilst not easy to write, takes very little to make effective. You just have to be strict and not over-explain. If you find your characters are running to under-flated, as it were, it may very well take very little just to sling a little extra in to take them from flat to intriguing 🙂

  4. D. James Fortescue

    Great article. It is absolutely critical to have characters that speak to you, or intrigue you with why they are the way they are. An epic and fantastic world does not mean much if its inhabitants and/or POV characters are as bland as a dry piece of toast =)

  5. akhinchey

    Fabulous article lovely Lady 🙂 I really found it interesting how you relate characterization to Humanity whether the protagonist is indeed Human or not. Given the nature of our writing our main characters could be anything we could imagine (again while avoiding the ‘ten-foot, blue-skinned aliens that live in glorious UV-reactive forests’) but unless they have souls, personalities and flaws we can relate to we may as well ‘give up the ghost’ before we’ve even started. I always try in my writing to give hints of something happening with the main character, or some secret they live with, and have a significant reveal later but that’s just something I find interesting to do 🙂 Top notch Lady 🙂

    • J. S. Collyer

      Thanks lovely! And yes you’re exactly right! It’s good that even with your fantasy characters they are still struggling, they have something that have to strive against or with or to. If everything was too easy, if there were no challenges or conflict (e.g. if they used magic to solve everything) the reader wouldn’t be interested because they wouldn’t be able to live through the character. You do well: there’s always something your characters are conflicted with our struggling for 🙂

  6. akhinchey

    Reblogged this on The Bard's Tale – A K Hinchey's Writing Blog and commented:
    Check out this great guest article written by J. S. Collyer. It’s a wonderful insight into the perils of characterization and the wonders that can be created from it; a must read for those worried about ‘flat characters.’ Top notch article lovely Lady 🙂 While there check out the rest of J. Aurel Guay’s blog. You’ll be blown away by the variety and creativity on there 🙂

  7. Pingback: Projects, projects everywhere…and what a lot to write! | The Path – J. S. Collyer's Writing Blog

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