Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Royalty, Farmers and Dragon Riders: Avoiding the Character Clichés by Subtle Kisses

(Note: I apologise now if this is terrible, or even insulting to someone. I am not trying to offend people or depress people at the state of the Fantasy genre. This is the first pep talk I have ever written, and like the first story you ever write is a terrible mess, I expect this to be the same. On that vein: ENJOY ;D)

When I was 11, I tried my hand at Fantasy. I wrote a three page epic in which a brave, beautiful and noble hero returned home to work on their family farm, only for the BIG BAD to come knocking and force them on a quest for revenge. There was a Master Sword, a prophecy, and the kind of villain who wore a vampire-style cloak and found evil laughter not only appropriate, but necessary. In approximately 1,500 words, I managed to produce a story that sucked. I was 11, I was allowed, and I still view at as a learning experience. But apart from the fact you can’t write a Fantasy Epic in three pages, what else did I learn?

I learnt how easy it is to start out with good intentions and accidently create the mother of all clichéd stories. I learnt that my roots were in Fantasy and I also learnt that I love characters. To me, a story is made or broken by its main character. Love them or hate them, the reader has to be able to relate to them. The reader has to care what will happen to them, and one of the easiest ways of doing this is by making the character believable and original.

Clichés come about because originally, they were good ideas. At some point in the past, someone wrote a fantastic story involving these clichés, and since then, they have become the building blocks of Fantasy. Yet like all buildings, these blocks are beginning to crumble and decay. Let’s be honest, haven’t we all had enough of noble heroes, damsels in distress, the rugged loner, royalty, the orphan and the farm-boy? Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings may have been a great character (In my opinion at any rate), but if I read about any more mysterious guides with hidden secrets, I shall scream. We need originality people!

Originality is the spice of life. That DOESN’T mean having a main character whose female, wields a sword, has purple hair and can drink any man under the table: please, do be sensible with what you’re imagining. Why does your hero need to start off as a young, handsome farm-boy? I’m pretty sure you can achieve the same story with a slightly overweight merchant who’s pushing forty. In fact adding in these differences can grasp the reader’s attention. How can our overweight merchant out-run the bandits that want to kill him when he’s never run more than a hundred metres in his life? How can our poor old guy out-fight a warrior who has been born and bred for battle? Simply by twisting our character so he’s not so perfect, and not so clichéd, we can add a whole new dimension to him,

And so, originality leads me to the next important step in creating a believable, interesting character: people have flaws. Now I don’t mean giving your ultra-amazing noble prince a lazy eye; I mean genuine, potentially fatal flaws that they struggle with throughout the story. Let’s look at our over-weight merchant again. He’s got a psychical flaw in the fact that he’s eaten too much venison and quail eggs over the years, but let’s give him another flaw. Let’s make him susceptible to bribes. Now here, in this flaw, we have potential plot development. What if the villain wishes to bribe him into silence after he witnesses a murder? What if the merchant is faced with the right choice or enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life? The reader will be hooked, wanting to know which choice they make. Both originality and flaws can spark off ideas that breathe new, fresh and spunky life into both your characters and your plot.

Now, I know that original characters are not the only thing to influence a reader’s decision on whether a book is good or a pile of steaming dung, and I know that sometimes, just sometimes, the clichés work. If you’re setting out this month to tear the Fantasy genre to shreds with your sharp wit, then feel free to use the clichés and exaggerate them horribly. On a similar note, if you’re sat there, reading this and panicking because you’ve accidently created a noble farm boy who’s actually royalty in disguise whilst being handsome, strong and faultless with a sword, don’t panic. Look back at your character and analyse them critically. Can you change them slightly to make them more believable? Does he need to be raised on a farm – what other working class jobs are there? Does he need to be royalty? Would it be more interesting to make him a kleptomaniac who gets himself in trouble with a passing Lord by attempting to steal from his guards? Where could this plot twist take you (apart from your character spending a week in the stocks)? Take your character and have a fiddle: you may find a whole new world (and plot) waiting for you.

Finally, just in case someone wants some more information, or simply a far better written pep-talk/article about character creation, here is a good link for original characters. I hope to provide such a link for each pep-talk I do:

Tomorrow: World-building on the go.