How a Character is Made: My Take
A long while ago I read two very interesting articles on developing characters and their dreams. That got me reflecting on how I develop my characters and, as a very interesting exercise, what the content of their dreams might be. Since I don’t have a writing career (shrug), and I’ve ever finished one novel which is on this blog. I thought I’m going to examine the main characters in that novel to see if I can flush out the process I used on them. I’m not claiming this is a good way to do it; it’s just my way of doing it.
That project was a mash-up of a lot of things. First it was a mix of three fairy tales: Snow White, Cinderella, and Robin Hood. Then my frustration with politics at the time kicked in and dictated a lot of symbolism I used. Then due to frustration with cheesy soup operas my former roommate used to watch, I used some stereotypes to create a mockery. The first theme of the story that I was hell-bended to use was ‘there is no hero’, but after a while it sort of evolves into ‘everyone are heroes’. So to make that dissertation, I need at least a traditional hero first.
Zarchariah: The Passion
Zark was the character I intentionally made a hero and a leader. I know right from the start that he was going to be young, fierce, righteous, and very explosive. My friend asked me once why he had to be so young. My answer was we don’t have any strings attached yet when we’re young, so we can afford to take a bold move. And that was precisely what Zark did. After his family disintegrated, he left home and became an outlaw to protect those he cared about. For Zark who was raised in a family of a feudal lord, that included pretty much everybody on his land. Personally, he only had his younger brother to worry about and even then he knew his brother was going to be safer without him, so it was a relatively easy choice to make.
That was when Zark took up the role of Robin Hood. But instead of being associated with the color green, I associates Zark more with the color red, the color of passion. I found that appropriate because he is an in-your-face kind of guy. Being an outlaw, his actions were governed strictly by his principles so to not lead him astray. And like a lot of heroic figures, he often seemed larger than life.
And that was the problem I had with Zark; he was more of an idea rather than a character. He showed softer sides and moments of weakness, but he was pretty flat otherwise. I could predict what he would do and how much he would give three steps in advance without any surprise. He doesn’t grow much either because he had almost every quality he needed. He might have grown a bit more patient and cooperative at the end of the story, but by then another character has taken the spotlight. He was, I think, the kind of leader we found in the past like Alexander the Great or Sitting Bull, so it was only appropriate that he stepped down for a more contemporary leader.
Since, like I said, he was an awfully predictable character, his dream would be awfully predictable as well. He didn’t show weakness in his waking hours because he needed to be strong for his people. All his fears would only come in his dreams. I’m quite sure that there were many occasion that he dreamed of failing his people, of them losing everything not because he wasn’t there but precisely because he was. He made quite a name for himself as a thief and defier of laws that supporting him, even in secret, would lead to gruesome consequences if found out. I don’t think Zark could bare the thought of that because he cared greatly about his subjects. He basically count every soul he deemed was lost because of him and that would be haunting his dream for a long while yet.
Keith: The Quiet Storm
With Zark shouldering many responsibilities and being as volatile as he was, he definitely needed a trusty sidekick to rein him in. Keith was Zark’s Little John. He was designed to complement Zark and aided him to his goal. That made Keith the calm one, the voice of reason. He was mostly in the background, just far enough to not draw attention but close enough to stop Zark if he thought things were going too far. And Keith had a good judgement on that; he was a thief long before Zark was and had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of both sides of the law.
That posed a problem for me at first, because they were such an odd couple I had no idea how they were suppose to work. That was until I came up with Keith’s back story (or it came to me, rather). It was clear then that despite their differences, they were actually just as crazy and angry as each other. Keith was simply older and wiser in his ways of approaching things. That didn’t mean he didn’t have the tendency to get swept away by his emotional turmoil. In fact, Zark’s ideologies and cause were the leash that Keith used to rein himself in.
Despite him being another character that did not grow, I enjoyed writing him quite a lot because he was slowly unveiled throughout the story. That made him quite boring at the start because he seemed to be just this cool guy on the side who had everything under control. The fun part actually came from his tremendous control that allowed him to act in a way that was in completely conflict with his beliefs and made him more complex and unpredictable than other characters.
He also had a lot of dark corners in his mind that I am not entirely sure how his dream would play out. With all the experience he had, Keith was pretty much at peace with a lot of demons he gathered in his life. If there is anything that would stay in the back of his mind for long enough to become a recurring dream, it would be the circumstance of his sister’s suicide. Being very close to her, Keith understood why she took her own life but regretted that he never got a chance to say goodbye. Even when Keith found closure, I think he still wanted to see her just one last time. I don’t think he’d mind if she comes with all the blood and gore.
Arsen – The Adonis in Distress – and Maximillian – The Rage
Arsen was Zark’s younger brother who hero-worship him almost obsessively. Arsen was first designed to be the archetype of a victim, someone who needed help and could not fight for himself. The irony was that Zark couldn’t save his younger brother from being bullied or abused because he was busy trying to save everybody. And like Cinderella, Arsen decided to hold on and wait for some miracle to save him from misery.
In short, he was an annoying, sappy teenager who didn’t really have a spine of his own and always think of himself as a victim of a tragedy waiting to be rescued. It’s an archetypical role given to a lot of women in folk tales and soap operas in some part of the world. In fact, as one of my readers pointed out, Arsen was actually quite feminine. He was so androgynous that I have toyed with the thought of him being female at one point, but I didn’t think the tension between him and other characters would come out the same way so I stuck with the original plan. His gender ambiguity turned out to be a useful plot device for putting Arsen to the test.
But someone like Arsen wouldn’t decide to take control of his life so easily without a force from outside that threw him off his usual MO. That force came by the name of Maximillian, the son of Arsen’s stepmother. He was supposed to be one the stepsisters in Cinderella, but I just found the idea of having two giggling girls who joined force to bully their stepbrother/sister boring to the extreme. As I was trying to get away from that siblings dynamics, since I didn’t want to write it, it sort of evolved into a story of dysfunctional family relationships between a forever busy, ambitious, and inattentive single mother and a feudal lord, her two children who were quite keen on disposing each other, and their underdog stepbrother who was constantly their victim. I decided that the younger sibling would be male simply because it would put the tension between the four of them at the highest point. He was also Arsen’s polar-opposite: masculine, confident, and independent.
Maximillian started out being a bully as much as his sister Anastasia (who holds my personal record of the most psychopathic character I’ve written to date), although he bothered Arsen for a different kind of reaction; he wanted Arsen to fight back. He was disgusted by Arsen’s lack of self-esteem but at the same time intrigued by Arsen’s loyalty to the family that Maximillian never had. In a way, Maxim was fighting with what Arsen symbolized — family, interdependency, and vulnerability — as much as Arsen himself. Their constant contention led them to re-examine themselves and each other. They grew not only as individuals but as a team who learned through trying times to trust each other. Arsen became stronger and less self-absorbed (effectively having a spine of his own), and Maxim became calmer and more open (effectively losing a lot of armour he had from growing up in a family that turned on each other).
Their evolving relationship was not designed to the slightest; it just happened that way. I would really love to write something like this again because it was genuinely fun to write and, from the reactions I gathered, also fun to read. I remembered being stuck writing Zarchariah’s part because I wanted to jump ahead and write Arsen’s story instead. Because of that, I realized that Maximillian and Arsen succeeded as characters where Zark failed. People, including myself, clearly rooted for the pair.
Their dreams would be tricky to pin down because it would evolve as much as they did. For Maxim, he was subconsciously a sadist in the beginning because he didn’t really know how to have a healthy connection with another person so he would be dreaming of controlling them (his mother, sister, Arsen) or escaping from them. Arsen, on the other hand, would start out being a victim anywhere even in his own dreams. Maybe he might dream of being saved on some occasions, but mostly he would be stuck. As they evolved, their dreams would take a different tone. Arsen would begin to take control of the situation albeit reluctantly at first. Maximillian’s dream would probably take a turn for domesticity and values he came to appreciate: family, friendship, and trust.
Prince Audric: The Innocence
To me, Prince Audric was the real hero in the story. Despite being a Prince, he started out wanting just small normal things for quiet and carefree existence. He hated politics and wasn’t particularly attached to his status. He also had the mentality that someone or something would wave his problems away which was only enforced by his stepmother, the Queen, doing precisely that. Unlike Snow White, his stepmother was never particularly mean to him, but her apparent kindness made him ignorant about the world around him.
Audric did not particularly care about anything until he met Zarchariah. Zark’s ideas and his unconcealed hatred towards the Prince made Audric both curious and disturbed. Being challenged by Zark and supported by Keith, Audric went from a naive young man who cared about nothing but himself to a person who was willing to shoulder his responsibilities and protecting someone else in return.
If you ask me if I knew from the start that Audric would grow so dramatically, I would tell you that I have absolutely no idea. I knew he would come to care more about his responsibility as a prince, but I could never see him surpassing Zark’s gigantic presence and holding his own fight like he did at the end of the story. Truth is, at that point in time, Zark’s leadership was the most obvious kind I could think of. Audric chose a more diplomatic approach by persuading people to work together for their own benefit and not necessarily under an ideology. In this way, he managed to create a silent campaign against their enemy in the scale that Zark could never manage.
What I like about him is Audric didn’t become a hero or a leader because it was his birthright as a prince or even because it was the right thing to do; it was because he came to love the people around him. The interconnection of people and communities he saw whilst on exile led him to believe that if he was going to protect anyone, he had to protect them all — a task that no single human being could do. Only when people work together to protect each other could anyone ever be saved.
Could I ever plan it to turn out like this? Of course not. I didn’t even have that understanding when I write the first half of the story. That is why I like to tell people that I just let the characters play. My characters usually know more than I do.
(And if you’re curious whether Audric ate a poisoned apple and had to be kissed back to life, I wouldn’t say it played out precisely like that but he did. And he woke up with all his optimism intact much to some of my readers’ displeasure (smirk).)
You probably see now that my character development is not a well laid out process. To me, it’s like sculpting. I have a vague idea of who they are quite early on, and this is tangled a lot with what the story is going to be about. Then bits and parts of scenarios in the story come about and through that I get clearer glimpse of who they are, how they react, what their relationship are to one another. If the idea around the story got developed enough, I’ll hopefully be able to really have a good look at them and often than not I found them totally different people than I first believe them to be.
Sometimes it’s their mannerism that comes first. Sometimes it’s their principles. Sometimes it’s their symbolic values. Another time their back stories might come first. I don’t really have an order that works for every one of them, but usually it would evolve around these information. I usually don’t write the story if one of those aspects are not clear to me. But then, there are characters which I have no idea how they took a life of their own like Maximilian’s sister Anastasia. I don’t really get her because she was very different. She was crazy. But when she walked into a scene, she owned it every time.
I’d tried reading bits of psychology before. I found it occasionally useful but rarely so. At one point I was obsessed with criminal profiling which is the art and science of understanding and predicting serial perpetrators using the evidence they left behind. I actually find that more useful since part of profiling is trying to understand the motive of the crime regardless of how obscure that might be. It definitely didn’t shatter my psychological barrier enough for me to create a character that is totally outside my experience. So, yes, to some level they will always be me… with a twist. I can’t really escape that trap. That’s why I’ve always look for other ways of developing characters to help me create a wider variety.