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A writer should be like fine wine: get better with age.

More Blog Posts178

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    7 comments · 50 views
Feb
27th
2021

How everyone should write their characters · 3:24pm February 27th

The following piece of writing advice comes directly from Aaron Ehasz, lead writer of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Just so you know that, this doesn't originate from me. But I thought I'd share it because I agree with it completely.

A:TLA has some pretty great characters, and I'm sure any writer who aspires to create equally great characters within their own works of fiction often wonder how to do it. Luckily, Mr. Ehasz gave us a simple guideline.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, I don't like likeable characters. I mean, sure, I can like them as people, in the sense that I admire their qualities, but I don't really like them as characters. If all you aim to do is make the reader relate to your character, or make the reader feel bad for them, or have your character display acts of kindness to invite the readers' goodwill towards them, then chances are you're creating a very boring character. And who wants to read about boring characters?

This isn't to say that your character can't be likeable or relatable, these aren't necessarily bad traits. But they're not necessarily good ones either. When writing a character, your first priority should be to make them interesting. Imbue them with aspects that make us want to keep reading about their ventures, that make us want to see what they'll do or what they'll say. Readers will happily follow any character who interests them. This refers to two of the good traits on the table—make your character compelling and fascinating.

A good example is Light Yagami from Death Note.

He's far from likeable, relatable, or sympathetic, but he's still an iconic and beloved protagonist because he has very clear and understandable motives, he has conviction, and he has a super genius intellect which he uses to achieve his lofty goals of global domination. On top of that, he consistently acts in believable ways, that is, his actions and words were pretty much always led by common sense rather than any kind of plot contrivance. He's the prime example of how you write a smart character. In short, he was compelling and fascinating, and that's why we love him.

Another good example is Geralt of Rivia.

Geralt is such a complex character that it's difficult to summarize him in a single sentence. There isn't one single trope that fits him perfectly. He's outlined with a great backstory and compelling motives, he acts in interesting ways and dynamic ways, his dialogue always feels fresh, never stale. He's a cynic who's also charming, he has moments of apathy and rudeness but also generosity, he frequently rips apart others' goals and plans (i.e. he's a realist and a rationalist), but he's also surprisingly wise, and he's very competent at his job. And all of this is consistent with his personality. He's far from relatable, hardly sympathetic, at times likeable, but these things do not define him. He's just Geralt.

For characters to be interesting, they have to be believable. And by "believable," I mean plausible, not realistic. Take a look at MLP fanfiction, which is what we're all here for. There's nothing realistic about talking magical ponies, obviously, but within the context of the magical setting of Equestria, having established that ponies exist, they should behave plausibly: they should act in such a manner that it seems like they have wills of their own, independent of the writer. A character's actions should never make me think, "It feels like the author forced them to do it, rather than letting them do it naturally." Just as is the case with Light Yagami or Geralt, it always felt like they were behaving in accordance with their own free will, even if it really messed with the plot structure of either Death Note or Witcher 3.

Sometimes you'll set up an important plot point, but the character avoids it simply by acting with common sense. Other times some conflict will arise, but in never gets resolved, and instead only serves to add complications to the characters' lives. In fact, it's always interesting when the climax is set to occur much later, but something causes it to occur very early, and it throws everything for a loop. My favourite stories are the ones composed of the natural ramifications of the characters' actions. But to achieve this you really must divorce yourself of any kind of predetermined plot structure. There are many conventions and rules within writing, even very subtle ones, that are nothing more than bad habits. Let us suppose that a character is tasked with mastering a certain skill before a set date. For most writers it would be considered bad writing to have the character not only fail at this task, but even forget about it after the failure, since all of that set up "went to waste." But who's to say that this must be the case? So long as things happen for perfectly logical reasons, nothing is bad writing.

Lastly, characters should be dimensional, that is, they should have the potential to change (a.k.a. character development). Notice that I say potential to change, not that your character should necessarily change. Don't force them to. A common way to write character development is to set up some internal obstacle for the character (e.g. they're afraid of mice), then after a while they grow to overcome that obstacle (they're no longer afraid of mice). But, frankly, this is shallow. I think character dimensionality ought to be omni-directional, not linear. They might change, but then change again in a different way, then revert back on certain changes, then change in a completely different way, at the margins, gradually. These are characters who are fascinating and compelling because they feel real. They have vitality to them.

Most modern writers simply don't have any interest, or talent, or neither, to write dimensional and believable characters. Just compare the characters of Tolstoy to, say, J.K. Rowling. With all due respect to Rowling (admittedly I've only read the first Harry Potter book), Tolstoy is a better writer by virtually every measure of analysis. Even his minor background characters have more depth and feel more real than Rowling's main ones. It's jarring to see how far we've come (or fallen, I suppose). This is all because Tolstoy imbues his characters with certain aspects (like I mentioned) that make us want to follow them, regardless of what plot they find themselves in. They feel real. They pop out of the page. They talk about things that get to the heart of the matter.

Let me reiterate, in case it needs to be said. It's fine if your character just so happens to be likeable, relatable, or sympathetic, but if they're only defined by those traits, then they're shallow and boring. You first have to make them interesting. This is why Rarity has been scientifically and objectively proven to be best pony. She's a stuck-up, overly posh, often pompous business owner and fashionista. But she's interesting because of her complex personality, as well as her totally legit goals of wanting to sell dresses and open shop in famous cities.

I really don't understand why there's any dispute over best pony. It's just so obvious.:trollestia:

Consider writing characters who reflect the advice of Mr. Ehasz. Merely likeable characters aren't memorable, interesting ones are.

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