I just returned from a fantasy workshop class with Delia Sherman–or part of one–which she was kind enough to allow me join tonight. She and Ellen Kushner were giving a lecture on how to make good characters. Friends, this was fantastic! I will try to capture its essence here.
First off, we all must learn the Character Game. The Character Game is a theater game, much like vocalized character questionnaires, random questions, questions that don’t relate to plot, meant to get the author thinking about the character in a way that they do not inside of the text, things like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Do you like animals?” “How do you feel about small children?” Nonlinear questions that pop into your head. The writer answers either in third or first person as the character, first person being the greater goal. I’ve tried bio sheets, but they don’t work for me because they seem forced. I feel like I HAVE to have an answer and that everyone needs an answer, and then sometimes those are not the kind of questions I would ask my characters. Vague answers, I realize, might remedy this. “What kind of car do you drive?” doesn’t work in a Medieval-esque village, but the root of that, really, is asking about practicality, about style, so maybe I’d answer, “I don’t, but I’d like something to get me back and forth, it wouldn’t have to be flashy–actually I’d prefer it not be–I really don’t want to stand out.” See? Learning about character while dodging the question.
What was really stressed was making “even the guy who holds the horses” a human being and we talked about borrowing gestures and qualities from people around us, assigning characters to people to give them quirks and a way of speaking, of acting.
Another quite helpful thought was that, as the great gods of their universes and believing in a loving God, authors have to love (but not necessarily like) all the characters, which brings me back to A Wind in the Door and love not being a feeling but an action.
To quote Delia Sherman quoted by Ellen Kushner, “No one wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh, today I’m going to be evil.'” To quote Ellen’s favorite teacher, “You don’t have to murder anyone to write Macbeth, you just have to have been kept up all night by a mosquito.” To quote Delia and Ellen quoting The Last Unicorn, (hm, I actually liked their altered quote better, so the real quote):
“I told Rukh I’d feed his liver to the harpy if I had to, and so I would. And to keep you I’d take your friend Schmendrick, and I’d—” She raged herself to gibberish, and at last to silence.
“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said. “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”
What we were told was, more simply, “A real witch [insert writer] will tear out her own liver and feed it to the harpy.”
What do you know, I HAVE included everything of import. Friends, I look to you to be willing to play the Character Game with me. Please?