From The Writers' Room Featuring Bookburners

Max Gladstone on How to Create Characters Who Feel Real.

Nobody is one thing all the time.

When you’re inundated with writing advice, especially in plot-driven genres, it’s easy to pare down your characters to their role in the plot. The mentor becomes sort of mentor-y, the sidekick sidekick-ish.

The danger here is that our brains are really good at autocomplete—and their autocomplete function isn’t populated by our own material, it’s populated by partly chewed versions of stories we’ve spent our lives reading. If you aren’t careful, you’ll autofill a character with stereotype or worse. The mentor will lack interests or approaches that don’t fit with their stately persona. You’ll have created a character that’s little more than a shadow of other characters.

Even if you evade this trap, you may fall into the second, shallower pitfall of autofilling your characters with yourself. Your characters assume your hobbies, your interests, your political opinions, your reflexes in a crisis, even your cultural references. This isn’t a problem over short distances, but over time, if you write enough, your characters will start to seem reflections of one another. I love Aaron Sorkin, but did you ever notice how nobody in Sorkin hates Gilbert and Sullivan? There are people who don’t get a G&S reference—sometimes they change from episode to episode—but I can’t remember a Sorkin character who really loathes G&S. In this respect, his characters often similar.

The trick to avoiding these traps is, basically, to let yourself surprise yourself. What do your characters do, from beat to beat, that isn’t what your readers would expect, given who that character is and who you are?

In the beginning of Robin McKinley’s stellar, everyone-should-read-it novel The Hero and the Crown, a rival accuses our hero Aerin of not being noble. Aerin fights back by stuffing an entire branch of poisonous surka into her mouth (it’s a plant that kills you if you’re not noble-born, but is still poisonous in large doses even to nobles) and spends the next several weeks deathly ill. It’s a dumb move, it’s not a move most people would make, and it characterizes Aerin perfectly.

Or: think about Gandalf’s anger. We imagine him as this chill wizard, but at points he gets outright furious. “Fool of a Took!” These beats establish Gandalf as far more human a being than his many imitators in later fiction—even though he’s actually an angel clad in human flesh.

Similarly, take opportunities to create distance between yourself and your characters by making them love things you hate, and vice versa. Sal, our point of view character in Bookburners, is totally uninterested in science fiction and fantasy. Caleb, in Two Serpents Rise, is an avid sports fan, which I’m… not. You can’t fake enthusiasm, but this approach will encourage you to develop empathy for others’ obsessions, which is the real key for creating real, full characters who don’t sound like just echoes of the author.

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom FiveThree Parts DeadTwo Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as @maxgladstone.

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