A couple of weeks ago, I posted a caption contest on my Facebook group with the promise that the winner got to choose the topic for this week’s blog post. So here it is:
‘What about character creation? Perhaps the process of creating an evil character? Someone that is completely opposite of you and how you have to delve into their mind?’
Character creation is probably my favourite part of writing. Sure, getting them up a tree and throwing rocks at them (a la Nabokov) is fun, but watching how they get back down is the best. And of course, all the snarking and bickering they do while they’re up there.
A new project always begins with the spark, the kernel of an idea that festers until I have to write it down. That’s usually something to do with the plot. In this case, the spark was, ‘why is the story about Jack when there’s someone running around with magic beans?’ So the question is about the Point of View of the original story, and that means that the story is necessarily about the beanseller. Now, I could do a whole post on how the beanseller evolved, but I’ll save it for another day.
The first thing I do is find a name. For fantasy, I often use a name generator, but I do also use behindthename.com. I find once I have a name, the rest follows pretty easily. A lot of times, the face will come shortly after. I almost never use actors or other celebrities as templates, and Magic Beans is the sole exception to that rule. In fact, I usually use the Sims to give my characters some visual. The personality usually drops right into my lap in a big wet wad. I spend a few minutes talking to myself, out loud, until a voice emerges.
Yes, writers Google dodgy things, make faces while they write, and talk to themselves out loud. The creative process is not a pretty one.
Once I have a name, face, voice, and vague personality, I take a personality test or a character questionnaire until I have enough detail and understanding to start running. 16personalities is great for nailing down the basics. Alois is an ENFP, which means he can be impulsive and emotional, but he’s also warm and charming. Sulat is an ISTJ, so she is meticulous and dependable, but also stubborn and a little too honest sometimes. (I could also write a whole blog post on how Sulat is a textbook ISTJ, but also the exact opposite of what an ISTJ should be) Johanne is an ESFJ; loyal and practical, but also resistant to change and very concerned with what other people think.
Knowing a character’s weaknesses as well as strengths really helps to throw them into situations where they’re at a disadvantage, and that makes it more exciting to watch them beat it, or more sympathetic to watch them fail.
So what about villains?
A lot of people believe that the villain is the most interesting character. The hero is usually a good person, constrained by ethics and a Code of Honour. Villains, not so much. They represent unbridled ambition, mental illness out of control, or evil for the sake of it. Often all three. The most interesting villains tend to be the ones we can see ourselves in.
A note: there is a difference between the villain and the antagonist, and the hero and the protagonist. Heroes are good and villains are bad. Protagonists are your main characters and antagonists are the characters who stand between them and their goals. If your book is about a mob boss, then technically your villain is your protagonist and your straight-arrow cop is the antagonist hero. (And of course, the anti-hero, who is a grittier, more grey-are good guy)
I would say the biggest difference between a hero and a villain is how far they’re willing to go to achieve their goals. Most ambitious people wouldn’t label themselves as power-hungry psychopaths; more likely, they’d say they’re visionaries with a clear view of how to make things better for everyone, with the drive and connections to make it happen. A hero may want to enter politics to improve the lives of the poor, but the confines of their moral code are usually too tight to allow them to attempt World Domination. Very few people reach those heights with clean hands.
Like anything else, we give them a story seed, the germ that starts everything–the origin story, if you will. With the Spider Queen, she is a member of a group of people who can do magic. In this world, there are two forms of magic user: healers, who use their specific powers to help people, and witches, who perform dark magic for personal gain. The Spider Queen’s grandmother, the only person who looks after her, is a witch. When she is executed for her crimes, the Spider Queen is alone. Even though witchcraft is illegal, the Spider Queen is imbittered by the loss and feels like society has abandoned her, so she retreats into the forest. There, she learns that she has a knack for leadership.
The Spider Queen’s personality type is an ISTP. She is energetic and knows how to prioritise, but she is also rigid and prone to take risks. Of course, the Spider Queen has a number of other things going on that influence her actions, but they only enhance her personality type.
I think the best way I can describe writing about characters who are different from you (I’m an INFJ, myself) is to put yourself in their shoes.
I look at their stories, at their lists of personality traits, and at what else is influencing them, and I try to see the world and the situation the way they do. To be able to write someone, and write them sympathetically, you have to understand them. You have to feel for them, to know why they act the way they do. For the length of time you’re writing them, you have to think and feel like they do, and to do it authentically.
I’m not trying to sell a crazy lady with magic spiders. I’m showing you a traumatised and isolated woman who found confidence removed from society. She though the laws of the kingdom were unjust and prejudicial and that things would be more fair with her in charge. She doesn’t want money or disciples, she wants to save people.