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
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.
This 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.
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.