Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to Make Your Characters Human

It can be very difficult to write a character who acts completely human in the fantasy genre. Maybe I should restate that. When you have a character who is endowed with enormous power or profound resources, it is easy to drift away from the human aspect and into a sort of superhuman alternate reality. It is fantasy after all, but if the reader is going to identify with the character, the character should remain human as long as possible, before the arc of the story takes them into surrealistic territory. The same goes for non-human characters. Remember, it is all about having the reader slide into the skin of the character and become in essence Haley Cork or Harry Potter. If Harry Potter became all-powerful at the very beginning of the series then there would have been very little left to write about, he only become so for the briefest moments and chooses to abandon all of that power due to his humanity. While amazing things should happen to the character, the internal struggle to overcome obstacles should be profoundly human.

When Haley Cork first discovers the Blue Door, she is overwhelmed with a sudden influx of knowledge and power, but her compassion for the plight of the people on the frozen world outweighs her ability to do something about it, at least at first. Self doubt, or fear are perfectly normal elements of a character’s make up, but what if the character cannot experience those two things for one reason or another? In Haley’s case, she cannot, instead she has an abundance of nurturing sentiments, which more than make up for the natural desire to slink away with their tail between their legs. Haley doesn’t slink off, but she doesn’t run in with guns blazing either. She thinks things through, which once again is not an attribute you’ll find in most adolescents. Lack of fear and self-doubt are the things, which appear to violate the principles I described in the preceding paragraph. Here’s the rub: Haley is phenomenally human because, while she has enormous power, she doesn’t stand off at a distance and blast away but gets personally involved.

Too many times, I have seen work by writers who started off well, blemish the entire piece by releasing the thread of humanity and launch into a series of feats by an ubermensch. While the superman may be essential to the story, the humanity is as well, and thus the internal dialog must reflect this, both in the narrative and in expositive behaviors. The bottom line is this: Characters must feel. Without feeling, the superman becomes a mere automaton being examined from a clinical distance, which might be a comfortable exercise for a doctor of medicine, but not a fantasy reader.

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