Tag Archives: how to write fantasy

How to Write Great Characters – Who’s Your Protagonist?

Which of these fascinating characters is your protagonist? Readers must know!

Howdy folks!

Back on the blog train after a long hiatus during which I was so buried in work there was no time to blog. Today I want to talk about character.

In almost every edit letter I write, I coach the authors I work with on one or more characters. Without great characters, readers won’t care about your book. Even with a great plot, a great setting, and gorgeous prose, people like to read about people. It’s what drives us to tell and listen to stories in the first place.

So one of your tasks as an author is to immediately give the reader a character to care about. That can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to the craft. I’ve spent my editing career studying bestsellers, trying to figure out how they work, and I’ve noticed that in every bestselling book I read, six things are apparent by the end of the first chapter:

  • Who the main character is
  • What the main character values
  • How the main character reacts when what they value is threatened
  • What the main character wants
  • What’s in their way
  • What they’re doing about it

I call these the six pillars of character, and I’m going to describe them one by one here on the blog over time.

We’ll start with Who the Main Character Is. It’s the most basic of the six, and I see a number of beginning authors, particularly ones writing epic fantasy, struggle with it. So here’s a basic rule:

  • In order to hook your readers, you must tell them who your story is going to be about.

There are many, many ways to do this, and when I edit, my goal is to lead the author toward the way that feels most natural to them. But in most cases, this means using the point of view in your first chapter to signal to your reader who the most important character is. Depending on the point of view you’ve chosen, this can be simple or tricky.

  • In first-person point of view, it’s dead easy. Whoever is “I” is the protagonist, and that’s immediately clear to the reader.
  • In third-person limited point of view, it’s still fairly easy. Whoever’s head we’re in (whoever’s subjective thoughts we’re receiving along with objective description: “The sleet was colder [objective] than her mother’s cursing [subjective].”) is going to be our protagonist. So make sure you stick to one character’s thoughts, and give us plenty of interesting ones. Use your language to establish a distinctive voice for them, and it’ll be clear that they’re our main character.
  • In third-person omniscient point of view, it’s trickiest. Your best bet is to signal who the protagonist is by focusing the chapter on them. We may be introduced to many characters. We may get many characters’ thoughts. But all of them should loop back around to the main character and affect their story in some way. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings does a great job of this, if you’re looking for an example to study.
  • If you’re writing in second-person point of view, you overachiever you, the protagonist is “you,” whoever that is. This is, I think, the hardest point of view to work in, and best left until after you’ve mastered all the others. But if you’re trying it, you-the-author need to establish who you-the-reader is. Typically this is done by making sure your opening contains at least as much information about character as it does action. “You open the door” tells the reader nothing. “You scream at the kids, with their purple hair and saggy pants and wallet chains and ugly T-shirts, to stop cutting through your lawn” tells them more. “You hate everything you don’t understand, and you understand very little” tells them a lot. Combine the three sentences into a paragraph, and you’ve established a character.

That’s it for now! Like I said, this is the easy one. They’ll get more complex as we work down the list. If you have any questions, ask them in the comments, and as a reminder, you can always contact me at jeff [at] jeffdoesbooks.com to book me to look at your novel or short story.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Other Fantasy

This is the fourth in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

I suppose it’s no great secret that in order to write great fantasy, you need to read a lot of fantasy. I make mention of it here nevertheless because I sometimes catch beginning writers either underestimating or misunderstanding the reading they should be doing.

Reading in the genre is important because your fantasy novel exists in conversation with all the other fantasy novels your reader has read. That’s how the human brain works—it’s always looking for connections between previous experiences and new ones. So if I write gritty, dark military fantasy, it may astonish readers who’ve never heard of Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, et. al., but I’d better make sure I’m bringing something new to the table for anyone who is familiar with those authors.

And that last point is very important, because there’s a truth about writing fantasy that new authors sometimes miss:

Hardcore genre fans matter more than general readers.

I often hear people just getting into writing fantasy say that they want to write a book that appeals to a general audience. They want everyone to enjoy their books, not just genre fans. They want to write the next Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s a good, noble, and important goal, but it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Your first audience, and therefore your most important audience, is the reader who’s looking for a book like yours. If you write military fantasy, you must impress the military fantasy reader first, so that they will turn to the military historical fiction reader or the high fantasy reader or the general fiction reader and say, “I know you don’t usually read stuff like this, but seriously, this book was so good you have to try it.” If you fail to impress that first reader, the hardcore genre fan, you’re not going to reach the general audience you want to get to. Fantasy works that develop a general audience always develop a genre audience first—even if that genre audience is the acquisitions team at a publisher which then realizes the general-audience potential of the book and works to get it in front of general-fiction readers from day one.

Hopefully that’s established in your mind that you need to read deeply in your genre, but just in case, here’s another reason: readers, whether they’re agents and editors or just the regular kind, will not be enchanted by something they’ve seen before, even if an author hasn’t seen it.

Again, that statement may seem like common sense, but I often find authors just starting their careers ignoring it. Instead they’re afraid that if they read too many books that are like theirs, their imaginations will be squelched and whatever they write will become derivative.

There may be real risk there—I’m far from qualified to speculate about what makes each individual author’s imagination tick—but I will say that all of the successful fantasy authors I know are rabid fantasy readers, and I think there’s a reason for that. If you rehash the quest fantasy or the orphan-who-finds-out-he’s-a-wizard fantasy or the gritty-reimagining-of-the-Hundred-Years-War fantasy while thinking you’re writing something readers have never seen before, you’re in trouble. It’s very dangerous for a reader to start thinking that your book is just like title X, because that’s just one step away from “I’ve seen this before. Meh.” That risk will always exist, because you can’t read everything, but you should do your best to minimize it.

So I offer the following advice: Before you decide to call a book finished, find out whether there’s anything else like it. Take your log line (a one-sentence description of your book—“An orphan boy finds out he’s secretly a wizard and goes to wizarding school” for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) to your local SF/F bookstore, or the library, or a book club, or a Goodreads discussion board, and ask if anyone has read something like that. Then read the novels that come up during the conversation, and make sure that you’re contributing something new to the genre.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Magic

This is the third in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

If there’s any sort of structure to these posts, it’s a movement from more objective elements of worldbuilding to less objective ones. To continue that trend, I bring you magic.

Like myth, magic can be tricky to define. It takes numerous forms, each highly dependent on the culture it belongs to. Is a microwave magic? Is a lightning bolt? Is the Eucharist? And why or why not, under which circumstances?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use a definition of magic that I find particularly useful to storytellers: “Magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t.”

The Eucharist would pass the test. The microwave would be a bit dodgier—if you had so little experience with modern technology that you didn’t know that punching buttons typically makes a microwave-shaped device do something, it would be pretty magical, but in modern Western society it’s decidedly mundane. The lightning bolt would fail the test because it can’t be controlled by an elite (yes, I know lightning can be simulated in a laboratory environment, but that’s not the same, and anyone can use a lightning rod).

So that gives us a bit of a sense of what magic is. Now why does magic—and this definition of magic—matter?

In part, it matters because it’s a genre marker. The presence of magic is one of the things that separates fantasy from other forms of fiction. Take the magic out of Harry Potter and you have a boarding-school story about a traumatized orphan. Take the magic out of The Lord of the Rings and you don’t have much at all—it’s that integral to the plot.

On a more technical level, magic provides an incredibly potent tool for creating a sense of awe—another thing fantasy readers often look for in a book. Because by definition magic works for some people and not for others, it will appear awesome (in the old, literal sense of evoking awe) to some people in your book, and that sense of awe, properly described, can evoke the same in a reader. John Tristan’s descriptions of dragons in The Sheltered City (I’m cheating here and citing something I worked on), are one of the most memorable parts of the book for exactly that reason.

Finally, magic provides you with a potent plot lever. I wrote recently about Jeff Vandermeer’s (over)use of a certain psychological principle as magic in Authority, but just because the tool can be overused doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. Power imbalances between characters, however they come about, create dramatic tension. You don’t need magic to create a power imbalance, and you do need power imbalances in your narrative that don’t come from magic. But when properly used (see Bayaz in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy), magic can create great interpersonal tension.

That’s why magic matters. How do we create believable magic then?

Like history and myth, magic comes from real-world analogues. I don’t want to go deeply into “systems” of magic here because not all magic is systematic, so I’m going to restate my definition again: magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t. One way to create believable magic is to find a potent force that fails the magic test in our world (like lightning) and give characters in your world the ability to control it. When you do that, you appeal to the part of your reader that yearns to control the uncontrollable.

Beyond that, anywhere you find a power imbalance in the real world, you find a situation that can be recast to believably inform the magic in your world.

If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to get their cell phone to send a text message while someone else uses theirs to check their e-mail, book a flight, and make a dinner reservation, you’ve seen one kind of power imbalance that could be used to inform magic in a narrative. If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to open a jar while the person next to them just twists and presto!, you’ve seen another. And if you’ve ever walked blithely through a building that no wheelchair user could enter, you’ve seen a third.

Those situations may not seem magical, but in their hearts they can be. The person who yearns to be able to understand that damn thing in their hand, or open the salsa without asking for help, or see the museum that ignored the ADA, is the person in a fantasy narrative who can’t use the magic. And the person who does those things without thinking twice is the mage who doesn’t understand their own power.

The flashy, common, external representations of magic (fireballs, lightning bolts, earthquakes, et al.) are just candy coating, and you can pick whichever flavors you like for them. What matters is the power imbalance that lies behind magic, and as long as you nail that, your magic will feel real to readers.

Continue reading the series here.