The Easiest and the Hardest Character to Write
I was asked for this article to write about which of my characters was the easiest or the hardest to create. A simple enough question, you might think, but it got me wondering. Is there any reason why one character can’t be both?
My debut, When the Heavens Fall, was published by Tor last week. It’s an epic fantasy along the lines of JRR Tolkien’sThe Lord of the Rings or George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and it has four viewpoint characters. If there is a “main” character, it is Luker Essendar – a warrior Guardian of an empire called Erin Elal. Luker is an outsider. Born beyond the borders of the land that becomes his home, and orphaned as a child, he is recruited into the ranks of a group of elite fighters whose very thoughts are weapons. But he is never made to feel welcome. At the beginning of When the Heavens Fall we learn that he has walked out on the Guardians, only to be drawn back by a cryptic message sent by the head of his order.
I think writers put a little bit of themselves into most (if not all) of their viewpoint characters. There is some of me in Luker. Luker is searching for a direction in his life. He doesn’t feel comfortable among the Guardians, but they are all he has known, so turning his back on them isn’t a thing he can do easily. I faced a similar scenario in my life when I was writing When the Heavens Fall. Like most authors, I had a day job. For years I slogged away at one of the top law firms in the City of London, before realising that working there did not mix well with simple pleasures such as having a life. I liked the people, but I didn’t enjoy the hours or the many other demands of the job. At that time, just about everyone my age seemed to be looking for a way out of the profession. But how? We had families, we had commitments. And you can’t just walk away from those unless you have something else to walk to. Luckily, writing came to my rescue.
Luker and I may have a few things in common, but we also have many more differences. Generally, I think it is a mistake to base a character on someone you know in real life – particularly yourself – for the simple reason that most people aren’t interesting enough to be characters in a book. Readers read books to escape from the ordinary. So whilst it may be understandable that writers draw inspiration from the people around them, if you’re going to take a trait from someone you know and give it to a character, you really have to dial it up to maximum. So I made Luker disrespectful of authority, yet faithful to those close to him; assured in his own abilities, yet uncertain of his allegiances and his place in the world. Then I added a sense of humour a little blacker than black and mixed them all together. Job done!
Or so I thought.
A while after the book was ‘finished’, though, I wrote a short story in which Luker features. It takes place before the events in When the Heavens Fall, and sets the stage for the novel. In it, I wrote Luker the way I’d remembered him from the book. But when I went back to look at WtHF afterwards, I found he was different in a number of respects. He took himself a little too seriously. He was overly confrontational, especially in the early chapters, and thus risked putting off readers before they had got a chance to know him. So I had to do another edit of the manuscript to make him how I wanted him to be.
An author called Joe Abercrombie describes writing as being a bit like pouring cement. When you compose your first draft, the words are liquid and pliable. Just as well too, because my first drafts are riddled with mistakes, and as the old adage goes, writing is rewriting. Every time you rework it, the writing gets tighter. Like cement, it begins to set. Each word has its place, each sentence follows on from the next, until you reach a stage when taking something out, or putting something in, can disrupt the whole flow of a passage. Now try changing a character. It’s a difficult thing to do, not least because you also have to change how other characters relate to them, and how the character reacts to certain events in the book. Change them too much, and you may find they reach a point in the story where they refuse to go the way the plot needs them to.
Fortunately, the changes I had to make to Luker weren’t quite as drastic as that. I had to tone down some of his thoughts, and tone up others. I had to tinker with a few sections of dialogue. Just a week’s worth of work all told, but in that period he did go from being my easiest character to write to the hardest.
One day I’ll get him back for that . . .
Marc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website.
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