Written on 2004-11-18; Read the original post on LiveJournal
1) Introduce a character by sketching her in. Don’t sling a tidal wave of paint into the reader’s face. I can and have suffered through long, long paragraphs of character introduction before, emphasizing not only what the character looks like and some of the ways she thinks but where she lives, how many siblings she has, what her greatest dream is, what clothes she likes to wear, what’s her favorite music, what’s her favorite color, and on and on and AARGH. This kind of paragraph isn’t unusual for 700-page fantasy books, leading me to wonder:
a) When the authors have 700 pages, why do they need to dump everything about the character into these paragraphs?
b) Is the book only 700 pages long because of paragraphs like these?
c) How am I ever going to remember all of this?
d) Is all this information actually relevant? (Hint: no).
e) Why is the writer telling me everything like I am a ninny, instead of using a mixture of telling and showing?
Many people bemoan the average length of a fantasy book, but I think it’s something you can take advantage of. Use that space to tell us (and show us) more stuff about your character. Get in the essential details first, the sketch, and then continue daubing more stuff in. I think one reason fantasy characters so often seem to stay frozen and static is because the author dumps everything about them at the beginning of a story, or the first time they’re introduced, and then doesn’t leave the reader anything to discover. Revelations about how the character behaves when angry, how she laughs, what she really wants out of life, are all laid out on the table. There are no interesting little trips to sideboards to find out more.
What details are essential? That depends on what you want out of the character. If you feel it is absolutely vital that people know she’s golden-haired and green-eyed, then mention that. (But not by putting her in front of a mirror, window, or pool of water. I will find you). If you’re most interested in showing how this minor character shuffles around hiding a guilty secret, you might want to start out by introducing the way he moves, or the way he starts when someone says his name. Then the more suspicious behavior can be added on later.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. I read and loved Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards partially because he uses paragraphs and paragraphs to introduce his main character, Khaavren. But Brust is not writing rebellious-princess-wish-fulfillment fantasy, or maverick-hero-wish-fulfillment fantasy; he’s writing a pastiche of Dumas, specifically the Three Musketeers series, and writing it like an eighteenth-century novel. My brain, on reading it, goes into English major mode, and I start requiring out of it the things I require out of an eighteenth-century novel. If Brust was trying to get away with the same thing while writing his usual very modern, very noir style, it wouldn’t work.
2) “Hi, my name is Anastasia and you’ve just noticed that I have purple eyes for no reason, haven’t you?” Say you have to bring in a new character. Let’s make her the serving maid at the inn the hero’s staying at. She’s the one who will snatch up the Mystical Crystal of Ormoru when the mage announces what it is and make a wish to be far, far away from her current life, which promptly turns her into a warrior queen and leaves the hero with the difficult task of getting the Mystical Crystal back.
Why does the hero notice her? You’ll probably want to at least hint at her presence, so that her snatching up the Crystal doesn’t come as a complete shock or a silly coincidence. But what makes the hero look at her, or notice anything about her at first?
You may be tempted to use “somehow.” As in, “Piotr didn’t quite know what about the serving maid attracted his eye, but somehow he knew she was important.”
This is silly. It’s a lazy shortcut, no better than giving the hero the “mysterious knowledge” from a distance that someone has just died. There has to be something about her that makes the hero pay more attention than is normal for a serving maid. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he just ignore her completely? A lot of fantasies make servants shadowy figures already.
It doesn’t have to be the “real” reason. Maybe Anastasia has such strong magic that it gives her a certain “presence,” but the hero mistakes that presence for a sign of noble breeding instead of magic. Maybe she’s really staring past the hero at a customer whom she doesn’t like, but he mistakes that for staring at him. Whatever. Just avoid the “somehow” bit. It makes you seem pretty damn lazy, and as if you don’t really know your own character all that well.
3) Include an “instant replay” of at least a few of the minor revelations leading up to the grand epiphany. I hate it when the hero reaches some grand conclusion—he needs to use this particular ritual to defeat the Dark Lord, he and not his brother is the one destined to save the world, he’s in love with the heroine—and I have no idea where the fuck it came from. Sometimes, on a second rereading, I can find the clues. Most of the time, though, the author hasn’t planted them well enough to make it seem the epiphany is anything but a bolt from the blue, granted by Author’s Convenience.
One of the best things to do is have the hero jump to his conclusion, and then step backwards, briefly, in his mind to think of a few of the things that led up to that. Has he heard of that ritual before, and discounted the tale? Then have him think of the reason that he can’t discount it now. Did he know that whoever arrived at a certain mountain first would be the savior, and he’s the one who gets there first? (This is a horrible, horrible, horrible example. Don’t use it. I have axes). Does he realize that what he took as a farewell from the heroine was actually a wish that they would meet again? Have him think not only of that, but the reason he’s changed his mind. That applies to all of them, really. Including “revelations” that don’t have any obvious link to the grand epiphany isn’t going to make it seem connected to the rest of the plot.
As with all things, use this in moderation. The hero having his epiphany on page 580 and not returning to the action until page 586, because he’s been so busy thinking of all the things this means, is just a bit lazy. Once you point out a few clues, readers should be able to think of others on their own.
Once again, read Steven Brust, his Vlad series this time, for an excellent example of how to do it. Vlad figures out the solutions to mysteries—though since he’s an assassin, they’re usually on how to kill someone else, not on how to solve a murder—and then explains it, very quickly, in dialogue and with a few thoughts. He doesn’t recap the entire plot of the book to do so. That device, besides wearing thin quickly, would also make him seem less like the brain-dependent hero he is.
4) Don’t introduce characters, ideas, or revelations with little author-squeals. You know the feeling. You know that the character the hero meets on the road is the key to everything, a wereleopard shapeshifter, and his one true love. You know how strong a part that character is going to play in all the action. You know that they’re going to end up so deeply in love as not to be able to think straight.
The hard part is resisting the temptation to introduce the character with fanfare before he’s done anything to merit it.
This is similar to, but ultimately different from, the trick of “coy foreshadowing,” where the author snickers about knowing something will happen that the reader doesn’t know. This isn’t really foreshadowing, but simply remembering that, yes, the reader doesn’t know as much as you—and the process of telling the story is what will lead the reader to know it. Resist, yea mightily, the temptation to make the character “special” when he hasn’t done anything. Resist having the hero stare into his eyes and "drown," or start suspecting he’s a wereleopard when there’s been no sign, or having people swoon and gasp at his name when you haven’t bothered to explain to the reader why he’s so famous.
You love your characters. You want the reader to love them, too; that’s only natural. But you can’t demand that the reader love them on sight. You have to show, you have to tell, you have to guide them into loving them. That’s what those 700 pages are for. Fantasy has the opportunity to show off unparalleled depths of characterization—except that too many authors seem to get impatient with the sprawling pace and dash everything off at once (leading both to this problem and the problem in point 1).
You don’t need to squeal. Give the reader 100, 200, 500 pages of this character, and they will squeal for you.
5) Use connections to old ideas, plot themes, and characters to bring in new ideas, plot themes, and characters. I know this is probably the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard in your life. But I’ve read too much fantasy where the author just declares that this country the reader hasn’t heard of before, and which doesn’t have any political interaction or trade or anything with the other countries in the story, is the Key to Everything, and the princess who will save the world comes from there, and oh, incidentally, it has been spoken of in prophecies that matter throughout the book, but no one saw fit to mention it before.
Entire countries don’t just drop in out of the blue, particularly when they turn out to be countries right next door to your main kingdom. Mention them, goddamnit. At least hint that some trade goods come from there, or that a character has a parent from there, or that there are stereotypes about the country (proverbs or insults like “slow as a Gerdashen spinner” are a good way to do this). Don’t expect your readers to take kindly to the sudden, rapid expansion of geography, particularly if your book doesn’t come with a map.
Likewise, if you have to have a character come in who you know will be important? Connect him in some way. Don’t just announce at the end of the first book that the real hero is Prince So-and-so from Derwandalwell, and that we’ve spent 700 pages following the “wrong” hero. Make the new character the cousin, the sibling, the parent, or the son of another. Mention him before, but don’t make him actually take the stage in person until he needs to. Introduce a “new” person and have him be the one who was actually manipulating the power behind the throne all along. I hate those stories where the heroes happen upon a random character, accept him as part of their traveling group for no good reason, and then realize that he’s “really” some mystical hero whom the author has never bothered to talk about.
Characters, themes, countries, and so on interact in fantasy. They have to, in order to produce the kind of epic or deep or profound plots that a lot of fantasy writers love. Give them the chance to interact.