For the last few months, I've been helping a friend of mine work on his first novel, and recently we had a long talk about characterization. Specifically, how do you give your protagonist* a strong personality?
I have been sending him my rambling thoughts, and now that the Blog Post Time is nigh, I will share my random musings with you as well.
"Characterization" is how the author shows you who a character is. When Tyrion Lannister talks his way out of a scenario instead of fighting, or when Samwise Gamgee wades into a river rather than let Frodo go off alone, that shows you what kind of person they are.
And "personality" is their personality. I feel like you probably get that one.
The problem you might run into, when you're writing your first novel, is that you don't know your characters very well. Who are they? What would they do in a given scenario? How do you express that in a clear way to the reader?
In order to have strong characterization in your writing, there needs to be a strong character for you to characterize. The character needs to have a unique personality, and it needs to be clear in your head so that you can make it clear in your reader's head.
A lot of times, especially with their protagonist, the writer will end up giving characters a sort of "default personality," meaning the character acts and reacts exactly the way you would expect a normal person to act.
What is their response to a cave full of wolves? Fear.
What is their response to an attractive person hitting on them? Flustered.
What is their response to a spider infestation? Fire.
This makes the character blander than a bread sandwich. When they don't have a strong personality, they're not memorable or interesting. And when the main character of your novel isn't memorable or interesting, you're in trouble.
>How do you fix it?
You give them a strong personality.
Depends on the story you're writing. There are two pieces to this, A and B.
A.) You need the protagonist to be the kind of person who is going to be strongly motivated to pursue whatever goal your story requires. Basically, the hero has to want to be there, doing whatever they're doing.
A cowboy movie following a sheriff should have the kind of person who would choose to be sheriff. Now, that can be a lot of different characters--maybe he hates being the sheriff and wants to give it up, but he can't because he feels responsible for the townsfolk.
Which brings us to...
B.) The protagonist needs to be capable of having a "character arc," meaning they need to be capable of changing as a person over the events of the story.
So this hypothetical reluctant sheriff has the great potential for a character arc, because he could start by planning to leave, and then over the course of the story learn how important the people of this town are to him. At the end, he chooses to stay and keep being sheriff.
>That's cool and all, but that isn't a lot of personality.
No, it isn't. I'm sorry, there's more to go.
A fully fleshed-out person is more interesting than that, so we need some more personality traits. How do we determine those?
There are two broad categories of personality traits as well, so let's divide them into C and D.
C.) What the character has been through.
The things that have happened to the character, their experiences and profession and training, all contribute to their personality.
A warrior-king of a fallen kingdom who has lived his life in exile should probably have a very different personality to a scholar-sorceress who is lost wandering the multiverse.
I don't know why those were the first two examples that popped into my head, but they sound cool, don't they?
D.) How the character was born.
Even among two people with the same experiences, there will be differences. One world-hopping sorceress might be trying to keep her chin up and help as many people as she can, while another might be brooding and cynical, seeing death and destruction anew in every world she visits.
What traits are natural to your character? Who would they be, even if they lost their memory?
>How do you show their personality?
There are a lot of tricks to that--if you're struggling with this, you're struggling with "characterization," and there are a lot of better writers than I who have given answers.
However, I can give you a couple of tips.
First, and most importantly, personality should be clear.
A lot of people, including writers, confuse "lack of clarity" with "subtlety and complexity." They think they're being subtle, but they're actually just being unclear.
I'll go back to Tyrion Lannister. That's a complex character with a lot of subtlety and nuance, but his personality is also EXTREMELY clear. He's very distinct from any other character in those books, and you know when he does something in character versus something out of character.
Your reader should always know what is in character for your protagonist, and when they do something out of character, the reader should notice.
Second, personality should be strong.
Not that everyone in your work should be a dominant alpha werewolf, but that every character should be very much who they are. Your characters should fight and talk and check the mail in-character.
Let's imagine a character shopping in a grocery store that gets robbed while they're inside. How would Hermione Granger handle that? How about Danny Ocean, from Ocean's 11? How would Wonder Woman handle it differently from Batman?
If you know the characters, you can figure out that scenario, because those are strong characters with clear personalities.
>Yeah, but you didn't answer my question. Seriously, how do you show personality?
A lot of it is having a clear personality in the first place, but some other tips are giving them vivid actions or props that tie into their unique traits and attributes.
Imagine, if you will, you're rolling a D&D character who is an Elven Fighter.
This race/class combination suggests a few things. One, as an elf, they've probably lived hundreds of years already. Two, as a fighter, they're trained with weapons.
So you give them some habits, items, or common behaviors associated with both of those.
[They love beautiful weapons and can't help but stop and admire them, even in the middle of combat. (Elf = love of craftsmanship and beauty, Fighter = weapons.)]
[Each of their weapons has a long and storied history, and among humans would be kept in a museum, but they see these things as normal. Their belt-knife is a jeweled dagger once used to assassinate a human king. They use it to slice bacon.]
[They're very particular about the etiquette of battle, which can even lead to them introducing themselves to enemies and waiting for a polite response. Rudeness is punished with ruthless efficiency, as they have desecrated the honor of battle.]
See? The character's coming along already, and nary a mention of eye color.
After that, though, you also want to give them 1-3 traits that have nothing to do with being an elf or being a fighter, but still connect to their core personality.
[Maybe this person has a scar across their eye that people assume they got in battle, but they were actually scratched by a cat as a child, and are now afraid of cats. They don't tell anyone this story, because they are afraid others will think less of them, which suggests their reputation as a warrior is very important to them.]
Each of these things changes how the character acts, makes them distinct even from other, similar characters, makes them memorable, and makes them easier to write in a strong, consistent way.
And then there's the FINAL QUESTION, the one you should be asking yourself at every stage of this process and the entire writing process, but which I left till last to emphasize its importance.
This is the question that should guide your every decision. Ready? Here it is:
"What would your reader enjoy the most?"
If you're writing a novel to entertain your reader, you should make your decisions based on what your readers would find entertaining.
"Hm. How do I decide between making my character cheerless and bitter versus making them upbeat and naive?"
The time has come for the FINAL QUESTION. Which of those do you think is more entertaining to read?
A lot of times, just asking that question will solve your problem on its own.
*protagonist = Main Character
Right before 2021 ends, I'm going to try to earn the title of "Most Random Blog Post." Anyway, last night I had a dream that Lindon hunted down and killed a bunch of vampires.
That's what this blog post is going to be. Me recounting that dream in detail. Merry Christmas.
I almost never have Cradle dreams, in spite of what you may expect. When I'm deep enough in Cradle that it consumes my every thought, it's usually because I'm writing, and when I'm writing I have no energy left to dream.
Writing devours dreams. Send help.
But apparently this time I hit that sweet spot of "immersed in Cradle but not a soulless husk," so I had a very vivid and surprisingly well-structured dream starring Lindon, with a cameo appearance by Yerin.
It starts with Lindon walking up to a big Victorian mansion that is for some reason in a normal suburb, like a massive haunted house planted next to a regular real-world one-story house.
He is in another world and completely aware of this. He's there on a mission. I don't know if that mission was to hunt vampires or not, but that's definitely what he ends up doing, because he blasts in the door and incinerates a bunch of low-ranking vampires.
I'm then watching Lindon tear his way through higher-ranking vampires. Each of them wake up, because it's daytime and they were asleep in their coffins, and talks about the new powers they have and how much stronger they are than the last batch, and Lindon effortlessly annihilates them and keeps marching deeper into this huge, sprawling, maze-like mansion.
As he proceeds, the vampires start activating magic to seal off his abilities. I'm not kidding, this whole vampire ranking thing and them coming up with magic ways to deal with Lindon were actually parts of the dream.
The most significant one is that they have this anti-fire enchantment that prevents anyone from using fire magic inside the mansion, thus sealing off Blackflame, which they think will make him powerless. Only to have him switch cores and continue with pure madra techniques.
They seal that off, only to find out that he's also stronger than them, and is getting stronger by feeding on them as he continues.
By the end of the dream, he's facing down this elder vampire, who claims to be a world-ending threat and this apocalyptically powerful being, and Lindon has been stripped of basically all his techniques, but he's still strong enough to go toe-to-toe in a superpowered brawl.
And, even though this isn't very Lindon-like, he's having fun. He's enjoying finding someone in this universe who can, even under these incredibly restricted conditions, kinda-sorta match him.
So Lindon finally wins, the elder vampire lays there dying, and then Yerin blows the entire upper half of the house apart looking for Lindon.
She's shocked and hurt that he would take these guys on without her, because they use blood aura and thus she would have annihilated them instantly.
Dross comes out to explain that was the point, that it would have been too easy had they gone together, and then the dream POV switches to the dying elder vampire who senses the power of these other-world invaders and dies in despair, having realized only at the moment of his death that he was never as powerful as he imagined.
...real dream, no joke.
I also find it pretty hilarious that I didn't dream that *I* was Lindon. For most of it, I was just watching him fight up the vampire ladder from the outside. The only other point-of-view I took besides "person watching" was the evil elder vampire.
So anyway, that was my subtle way of letting you guys know about our upcoming licensing deal to make Blade IV: From the Grave to the Cradle.
I've started writing again, but there's not much to talk about yet, so let's talk about what I'm doing on my free time.
Why is there so much TV coming out right now?
We just finished Arcane, we've got the Witcher coming up, I've really been enjoying Hawkeye, obviously I marathoned all of JoJo Part 6 instantly, and the new season of Sunny is starting.
A lot of people ask me how I feel about Wheel of Time, which makes sense, since WoT is probably my favorite fantasy series. My honest answer: it's fine.
I'm not over the moon about it like I was for Arcane, but I expected to hate it. I don't hate it. I think it's pretty good. Though I did just finish watching the fifth episode of WoT, which was definitely the weakest of the season so far, but Brandon Sanderson says Episode 6 is his favorite.
My hope is strong!
It's hard enough to keep up with everything coming out nowadays, but what's your favorite thing airing now? What have you been watching? Did I miss anything? Should I have talked more about JoJo?
Yes, I should have? You want me to monologue for hours about JoJo? Well, if you insist.
One of the common questions I've gotten over the last eight and a half years has been, "Will, you craven cretin, how far in advance do you plan major plot points?"
I had this exchange again on Reddit recently, and as I responded, I realized it would make a good blog post. Did I know about Dross and Ghostwater before I wrote Unsouled? Do I know how the series ends?
This is going to be spoiler-free for Reaper, though it will contain plot spoilers for some of the previous books. If you haven't read through Wintersteel, probably steer clear.
Please help me in this and keep Reaper spoilers out of the comments as much as you can. Some people don't read their books in seconds by placing their hands on the cover, like I do.
SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1-8
Isaac_Xander, on Reddit, asked me: "How much of the major plot points (Orthos, the Jai Long fight, Undersage/Overherald, Dross, etc.) were planned from Unsouled or Soulsmith? Do you ever 'write on the fly' about major plot points?"
My direct answer was: "Honestly, yes and no. 'Yes' in the sense that yes, I absolutely make this stuff up on the fly all the time, but 'no' in that it's often not the plot points you might think."
Then I went into detail, and I will go into greater detail here. I'm mostly focusing on the introduction of major characters, but I'll get into other things too.
Eithan - As I mentioned on stream recently, I had developed Eithan's character before even Lindon's. He was a fun mentor character that I really wanted to write, and had developed for another series, but thought he was a great fit for Cradle. One of my regrets in Unsouled was that we couldn't meet Eithan yet.
Orthos - I knew from Unsouled that I wanted Lindon to develop black dragon powers and have a corresponding animal companion, but I decided to make Orthos a turtle and gave him his powers while planning Blackflame.
Mercy - I always intended there to be a female companion named Mercy, and it was a quick decision to make her cheery and upbeat to contrast with the usually dour Lindon and Yerin. I took the opportunity to tie her into the Akura family, whom I developed while working on Blackflame, so that I could show them off.
Hunger arm - Pretty early on, I knew I wanted to give Lindon the ability to absorb the power of others. Had a lot of plot reasons for that, but the main reason was that it was cool. The tie-in to the Dreadgods was, of course, a natural fit.
I originally wanted Lindon to lose one arm and one eye, to play up the "duality" theme of his character design and reflect the two cores, but the nature of how he lost his arm and his Goldsign being eye-color-changing made me reconsider the eye thing.
Dross - From before starting Unsouled, I knew I wanted to do a pocket world arc. It became an underwater-themed pocket dimension simply because I love the underwater aesthetic.
I knew I wanted whatever the "prize" of the facility was to be relevant to Lindon if he ascended, and I knew I eventually wanted Lindon to develop his own Presence, but it was a friend of mine who suggested those two things should be one and the same. That was when I was working on Ghostwater.
Prior to that, I knew I wanted all those things, but I hadn't combined them.
Undersage / Overherald - This is another one of those points where I knew I wanted certain things, but I found the opportunity to combine them.
Lindon's connection to the Void Icon was something I had set up from the very beginning...sort of. I laid the groundwork one step at a time, knowing that I wanted Lindon's powers to be thematically linked at the end, and I even knew the "void / emptiness" theme. That part, I'd been setting up for a long time.
But I didn't figure out how to tie all that together in a neat little bow until working on Wintersteel. I also knew that at the end of the tournament I wanted both Lindon and Yerin to reach unique advancement stages, though it wasn't until I was designing the UKT that I had a flickering lightbulb over my head and realize we should be preparing Yerin for the power-up Lindon's going to get and vice-versa.
That swip-swap thing (that's a technical literary term, take notes) was a last-minute stroke of inspiration. I usually don't trust sudden inspiration, but this one brought cookies, so I let it inside.
Ozriel - Of course I've known Ozriel's location from the beginning of Unsouled. There was no other way to write the story.
If I didn't know who he was, I wouldn't have put Suriel on a series-long journey to find him, I would have pulled an Elder Empire and had the entire premise of the series be "The most powerful guy in all existence is dead, so now what do we do?"
End of the Series - Naturally, I knew from the beginning that everything was leading up to a rap battle between Lindon and the Mad King. These hot bars have burned inside me for years, and I can't wait to let them out.
Summary - Reading it all laid out like this, I think it comes down to this: I often know vaguely what I want to do, in general terms, but how I do it is usually up to my last-minute imagination and fickle whims.
Usually. Some scenes are burned into my mind years in advance.
P.S. Remember to keep Reaper spoilers out of the comments as much as possible, thanks! I wouldn't want to have to send my flock of loyal ravens after you. They can find you anywhere, and they hunger for toenails.
Tomorrow (Tuesday, November 9) at 7 PM Florida Time, I'll be on my Twitch answering chat questions about Reaper. Feel free to join if you've finished the book.
Let me be clear: this is a SPOILER STREAM and I'll be answering questions about SPOILERS. Don't log on and listen if you haven't finished the book!
I wanted to do this last week, but I felt like it was only fair to give you a week to actually read the book.
I mostly just plan on chatting, and any question that requires me to look things up will probably result in me either A.) dodging the question or B.) lying, but if you'd like to ask me questions about Reaper, join in tomorrow!
Let me remind you one more time that it will be full of spoilers.
I probably should have blogged about this two days ago, but I was busy checking Amazon rankings and high-fiving.
Once again, we reached #1 in the entire Kindle Store. You'd think that would get old, now that we've gotten there for three titles in a row, but it really doesn't. Still awesome.
Even if we couldn't beat Dune in audio...that's okay, Dune. You can have your win. For now.
In case you missed it, Reaper is available now in all formats! And the fan response has been...overwhelming.
I was worried about this book. Those of you who have read it understand why, I'm sure. But so many fans have read it and enjoyed it at this point that it makes me feel like an idiot for worrying.
Thanks for reading, all of you! Thanks for sticking with me for so long! And for those of you who haven't read it yet, or haven't finished, I hope you enjoy the story!
Please try to keep the comments as spoiler-free as possible, for the sake of those among us who like to savor their meals. I'd like to do a spoileriffic discussion with everybody soon, once a reasonable amount of time has passed. Maybe a stream?
The pre-order for Reaper is still up, but soon it will have fulfilled its purpose, as November 2nd is right around the corner. For some, it is already here...
For you Australians and "Australians" who already have the book, please don't spoil anything for people living in the past! Please don't ruin their fun before I do.
Tonight at 9 PM Florida Time, I'll be doing my traditional launch stream on my Twitch channel! Tune in to hear me answer fan-submitted questions (not about Reaper, because spoilers) and watch me run around in circles in some video game!
I'm not sure what I'll be playing, but probably something that rhymes with Flubrottica, Plateau Hero.
I always get unbelievably nervous before a book release. People tend to make fun of me for it, since I know I'm going to sell a lot of books, but it's not book sales I'm worried about. I want people to enjoy the books.
So waiting for a book release always feels like waiting to see if you're going to get the death penalty.
Trust me; I've been in both situations a lot.
P.S. Since people are already reading the book, if you don't want to be spoiled, stay out of fan communities until you're done reading!
Especially if the thread is marked as a spoiler. Common sense, people.
First, the "news!" Most of this is a recap, so please allow me a moment to take you on a tour of the present before we discuss the future...
1.) The Reaper pre-order is still up!
We didn't take it down, because that would have been stupid!
2.) Cradle merchandise is still 10% off!
It's not much, but it's more than 9%!
3.) Voting for the Path contest is live!
I hope that link works and doesn't send you to some crazy document about how to sabotage a hospital or something!
4.) We'll be announcing the winners of the Path contest on my Twitch channel!
We're going to announce the contest winners this Friday at 8 PM Eastern, and you can vote right up until that begins!
Full disclosure: I have not read these Paths...but I will be reading the winning Paths live, so you'll get to see my genuine reactions! My incredibly narrow-minded, judgmental reactions of pure scorn. Tune in!
5.) Also on Twitch, I'll be doing my normal Monday night pre-launch stream from 9 PM to midnight!
If you're Australian (or pretending to be...) and have already read the book prior to that stream, please don't spoil anything for those of us living in the past!
If I have to know what happens without telling anyone, so do you.
6.) REAPER LINES OUT OF CONTEXT!
I've got a couple of lines pulled randomly from the book. I shouldn't be spoiling anything significant here, but if you're particularly spoiler-averse, shield your eyes.
MILD SPOILER WARNING!
Reaper Line 1: “Oh no, I missed something!” Eithan cried. “Quickly, repeat your entire conversation before you forget a word!”
Reaper Line 2: “…she’ll be your opponent.”
Little Blue put hands on her hips and whistled a challenge.
Reaper Line 3: Reigan Shen coughed up blood, which wasn’t as bad a sign as it seemed.
Also, in just a moment I'll reveal the first line of Reaper. Thought I ought to lead with that information.
But first! There's been a lot happening since I've been on Broken Foot Leave, so it's time to catch you up on all the succulent news.
1.) Cradle #10, Reaper, is now available for pre-order in ebook and audiobook! It releases on November 2nd, and we have NO PAPERBACK PRE-ORDER.
Amazon's paperback service is print-on-demand and they can't do pre-orders for us lowly independently published authors. Our hands are tied. We'll try to release the book early enough in paperback that you might be able to get it delivered and read it on Day 1...but we can't guarantee that, because we don't know where you live.
Our ninja spies followed you home, but they never reported back. You have very impressive security ghosts.
2.) There's a sale going on right now for Cradle merchandise! Everything Cradle is 10% off, no promo code necessary, but unfortunately we still can't ship outside the US.
COVID and the Union of Bridge Trolls really wreaked havoc on our shipping lanes.
3.) The third Cradle collection, Rise of Lords, is now available in ebook!
Just like the first two collections, this one contains three books of the Cradle series in one file, this time of course being volumes 7-9.
I don't know what I'm going to call the fourth and final collection. I've been workshopping Lindon Dies, but I'm also considering that as the final book title. Lindondies.
4.) The first six books of the Cradle series are FREE right now on ebook, in case you need something else to stuff your Kindle before Halloween.
This sale includes Unbeseelt, the German version of Unsouled, which is 100% in German and also currently 100% free!
See if you can catch all 16 secrets I slipped exclusively into the German version!
5.) >When on November 2nd will the book go live in my region?
Good question, you!
The answer is, WE DO NOT AND CANNOT KNOW. People have been upset at us in the past for the book not becoming available exactly at 12:01 AM in their region, and we have no control over that.
If I could control Amazon, I would be in space right now. But I cannot.
However, the audio and the ebook WILL both be released on the 2nd, that we can guarantee.
They're both coming out and they'll both be out on the second of November , but the timing is never guaranteed across regions. We've had people on the west coast of the US get it before people on the east coast, we've had people in the UK get it before people in Australia, and some people don't get it until 8 or 9 AM. But it's always up on the day of release.
Audio and ebook = November 2nd!
Paperback = Probably before November 2nd! Does that mean you'll get the book on or before November 2nd? We don't know! Paperback shipping was an inexact science even before the Rise of the Paper Weevils.
6.) There is a fan-submitted Path contest going on through next Monday, the 25th, at noon EST! I guess you submit through this link!
I did not even know this contest was going on until very recently, because I have been sequestered from such knowledge.
Speaking of which...
7.) My foot is fine, thanks for asking. I know you were scrolling down to see how I was doing physically, and my heart radiates in sympathy with your concern.
I was getting tired of waiting for it to heal, so I had it replaced with a cyborg foot. It's one more step toward my ultimate goal of transcending fleshy humanity.
Is that it? I think that's it!
PS. First line of Reaper:
Information restricted: Personal Record 8154.
Authorization required to access.
Authorization confirmed: 008 Ozriel.
Ozmanthus Arelius looked up into the ash falling from the sky and knew he’d failed.
This week, on the World's Least Interesting News: I had a minor fracture in my foot, so I'm basically trapped on a couch until it heals.
How did I do it, you ask? As you know, it's currently Alligator Season in Florida, when tumble-alligators roll down the street on every stiff breeze. My friends and I were playing a quick game of Alligator Soccer, and my kick must have caught one of its bony scutes.
I did, however, make it into the goal. And my alligator bit the keeper, so that's two points.
While trapped, I've been re-reading Part 7 of JoJo, re-watching Futurama, and still re-playing Mario Odyssey. Lots of re-doing things.
For the next week or two, if you happen to see me out and about, please don't kick the crutch out from under me. Sure, it was funny the first three or four times I face-planted in the street, but now it's getting old.
And, in case you hadn't heard yet, Cradle #10: Reaper is due out November 2nd! By which time I should be back on my feet, hobbling around like a one-legged hippopotamus as usual.
Level 99 Gengar
(2nd in series)
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