Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I've been doing a bit of gaming and a lot of reading lately and got to thinking. When authors write about the characters in their books do they consciously make an attempt to create compelling characters or is it generally something that just happens. Did R.A. Salvatore have a great story to tell or did he start with a cast of great characters, building the story around them? Not that it really matters, I suppose, a good book is a good book but, characters and their development are what generally drive the story. So, how does an author create compelling characters? I know that not many people read this other than me but what are your opinions? What are the characters that make a great story? Some of my favorites are as follows in no particular order:

Jarlaxle Baenre -
The charismatic leader of a band of rogues who has always got a trick or ten up his sleeve just demands attention. When Salvatore brought to light an entire trilogy co-starred by Jarlaxle I was a happy reader indeed.

Roland -
Knight and later, Lord serving the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne Roland's combination of unbreakable loyalty to his lord, fierce adherence to the knightly code, and often reckless battlefield antics make Charlemagne's Champion one compelling character.

Jander Sunstar -
The main character in Vampire of the Mists is a truly tragic figure A character who enjoys life and the pleasures of it locked in the "life" of undeath and forced to feed on the living.

Vrock -
The simple, brutish half-orc had so many great one-liners that it was impossible to not love this character. There was no secret agendas with Vrock, he was easy to gauge - eat, drink, bash heads!

Gandalf The Grey -
My first real encounter with wizards in fantasy literature was with Tolkien's character. The wizened and mysterious magic user, for all his power, never had all the answers. He showed that he was human on many levels, mixing in just enough mischief to keep things interesting for those around him.


  1. I have waited patiently for those that have far more knowledge than I to comment on this one, but in good conscience, I can wait no longer. I am not a writer, nor a critic. I am but a simple reader with no literary schooling past that which I hazily retained from high school. I look at a story with the eye of a simpleton, and judge it by the guidelines of whether or not I like it. (Whether I enjoyed it or thought it was flat and uninteresting.) With that said, I will make a comment anyway, although it is a bit cheeky on my part to do so.

    The job of the writer is to entice, pull, drag, or tease us into the story, to then immerse us... make us loath to come out again. Some pass, and others fail. Most however want their characters and plot to keep you riveted to the pages. I think for professional writers, especially as they begin to write more, mature as writers, and become skilled, fret about their characters and how compelling they are. You bring up a favorite author of mine, Tolkien, and I will use him as my example. Would you feel the same way about the character Aragorn Son Of Arathorn, if Tolkien had left him as he originally had written him, a halfling with clunky wooden shoes? I think that Tolkien's desire to make him far more compelling drove him to that revision - and good for us he did. Many characters were not even in their authors original plots, or were far less than eventually seen. Since all of this is a conscious set of acts, I would end up by saying that although a good writer may have unconscious brilliance, it is a conscious act to create compelling characters and stories.

    With that said, to say that there is not brilliance without the conscious thought of it, is not true. I am unaware of how the author felt or fretted about a much beloved centaur (may he rest in peace, and be beneath the forest canopy of the afterlife), or how much he felt the character had depth. But as a simple reader, I can say that the character had depth and charm, and kept me amongst the pages straight out of - what the writer calls - his "first draft".

    In the case of the dearly beloved (and also departed) Vrock - Killer Of White Bear, I think the character arose, and ran like hell with the story trailing after it in his wake. Go figure. I still think that he could have been even more compelling yet, if there had been a desire to well… keep him alive a bit longer, and the author had a bit more time to grow him as a character.

    I think a focus to creating a compelling character - one for serious publication - is to be willing to change everything. Period. To remember that original ideas are just that, ideas. They are not written in stone, and to trash a whole lot of previous work when a better idea pops in the author’s head is just part of the process. When deciding who the story is about, it seems good to remember that the main character you originally pictured in the mind, is not always the best one from the reader’s viewpoint. Bringing depth to subsequent characters may change your perspective, and not to be afraid to run with the new viewpoint. Lastly, on a purely personal note, I think that many contemporary authors overwork the psychological character aspects to give their character depth. As a reader, I think the story (story events) should lead me to my own decisions on the depth of the character rather than the events of character written with the intent to directly inform me. I think that should be kept in check, that is to say, kept to a reasonable minimum. That is just purely my own preference, and I am sure there are many who would disagree with that outlook and assessment.

    That is my two cents for what its worth -- not much, but there it is. Forgive my cheek in responding, I just had to do it.

  2. As to what makes a really great character, I cannot tell you. The mechanics of it, I can only guess at, but I sure can tell when an author has hit or missed the mark for me. A recent example of this is clear as day to me. I read two books, Bones Of The Dragon by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and a non-fantasy realm book, The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini. Both were great books read greedily cover to cover, but the main character in Bones did not hit the mark with me, and I decided not to read the rest in the series because of that, and the book ended with the vast majority of things left undone for another book. It was left with the feeling of a soap on TV. Leave it to say that I don't like soaps. Amazingly written, couldn't stop reading, they teased me all the way causing me to not put it down. I would recommend it. BUT... main character - not happening for me, and could never really get into him as a character. Can't tell you why, I don't know the mechanics of it. The Sea Hawk had great characters. I also read it quickly but I was ok with putting it down every so often. The language, which is too flowery for most modern readers dragged occasionally, but for characters though...ah yes, they are as vivid now as they were when I read it. I promptly went out and got every book by Sabatini I could get my hands on.

    I prefer characters I can get my teeth in so to speak. I favor characters that are good rogues. Well meaning, but a bit bad around the edges. Not evil, just less... constrained. I love an author to tease the hell out of me, taunting me to learn just a little bit more, and make me wait. I also admit I love the shadowy side, the bit of mystery in a character hinted at yet misty enough to obscure. Throw in a dash of something unique or humorous to catch my attention, and the hook is set. Just reel me in.

  3. Several good points there. I have also read some books and been unable to continue reading due to either over-worked characters being force fed or uninteresting characters.

    I see some thinly veiled prodding going on here... Thanks for the great response none-the-less.

  4. "So, how does an author create compelling characters?"

    Good question, that I have no answer to. Any new characters I bring into DoF that were not part of the game with the DM are just there to say the things Darmot couldn't or wouldn't. I do my very best to breath life into these people and find myself falling short. I wish I had the talent to make these people live and breath as the characters in the books I read.

    To give them their own voice. If I had the time or money for school, to work on the craft I might be able to help answer the question. As of now...