Living and Growing with Characters

This past weekend, I gave a talk for about writing series characters.  I enjoyed the topic and thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

My Series

I’ve written three series on my own: the two athanor books (Changer and Legends Walking), the six Firekeeper books (starting with Through Wolf’s Eyes and going through Wolf’s Blood), and the three “Breaking the Wall” books (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and Five Odd Honors).

In addition, I’ve done series short stories: my three Captain Allie stories (now available as an e-book under the title Star Messenger), my three “Andrasta” stories,  at least four stories featuring the Albuquerque Adepts, a couple featuring Lillianara and the android, Alastar, and  a couple featuring a Chinese mage named Tieh.  (If you want publication information on any of these, go to my website, http://www.janelindskold.com; they’ll be listed under Other Works).

I’ve also done three series stories set in David Weber’s “Honorverse.”  “Queen’s Gambit” tells how the current reigning queen of Manticore took the throne.  “Promised Land” and “Ruthless” focus more on Elizabeth’s younger brother, Michael.

The reason that I like writing series stories is that because, once you’ve created the background, a lot of the setting is in place.  This leaves more mental room to focus on characters and plot.

Let me use the stories in Star Messenger as an example.  I created Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee for a story called “Winner Takes Trouble” for the anthology Alien Pets.  She’s a singleship captain, strong and independent, the sort of character I enjoyed reading about in the works of such writers as Larry Niven, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, and Poul Anderson.

In “Winner Takes Trouble,” Allie wins an alien creature in a poker game.  When, a few years later, I was invited to write a story for an anthology called Guardsmen of Tomorrow,   I immediately thought “Hey, this would be a great opportunity to explore Allie’s background.”   Allie is a bit of a bender of rules, so casting her as a “guard” of any sort was a fun challenge.   A story called “Endpoint Insurance” resulted.

Later still, I was asked to contribute to the anthology, You Bet Your Planet.  In “Winner Takes Trouble,” Allie had already been established as a gambler.  In “Here To There,” she takes on her biggest gamble ever – one where she’s the only person playing who realizes that the peaceful coexistence of several races may be decided by who wins a “reality show” type game.

Allie begins these stories as an adult with a profession, a spaceship of her own, and a lot of life history.  I find that there’s a special challenge involved when writing a series character who begins the series relatively  young.  In this case, especially if the books span a good number of years, the character needs to grow and change a great deal while, at the same time, remaining recognizable as the person whom the reader started out with.

My most long-running series, both in terms of books and in terms of the years of the characters’ lives, are my Firekeeper books.   In Through Wolf’s Eyes, Firekeeper is about fifteen years old.  For as long as she can remember, she has lived with wolves, as a wolf.  Only in her dreams does she remember anything about her life as a human.  Writing from Firekeeper’s point of view at this early stage in the series was very challenging.  Although she has language, she has no reference points for anything to do with human culture, including such basics as clothing and domestic animals.  I basically had to create an alternate vocabulary for her, one that would make sense without driving the reader (and myself) nuts.

As the series progressed and Firekeeper acquired a familiarity with human customs, the challenge was to keep her recognizably “other” without making her stagnant.    I handled this by having Firekeeper – no matter how much she learned about human culture – persist in thinking of herself as an oddly shaped wolf.  This manner of thinking provided a well-balanced – if decidedly odd – person.  Firekeeper’s companion, the wolf Blind Seer, often quotes from wolf proverbs to provide a sense of wolf culture.  In fact, he does this so often that Firekeeper starts accusing him of making them up!

Firekeeper is the youngest of the point of view characters, but several of the others are comparatively young.  Derian and Elise begin the books in their late teens.  By the end of the series, both have experienced a great deal.  From people with unfocused dreams, they become people with responsibilities – responsibilities they have chosen based on their varied experiences.  In their own ways, they were as challenging to develop as the more obviously alien Firekeeper.

Another challenge is writing a series where one or more of the characters are quite young children.  In the “Breaking the Wall” series, Nissa Nita has a two and a half year-old daughter named ‘Lani.   When a child is that young, even a month can mean significant differences in interests and abilities.   Birthdays are a big deal, for parent as well as for child.  Even though ‘Lani is a comparatively minor character, I had to keep track of the passage of time and adapt her accordingly.

I’ve never been fond of series where characters don’t change at all, although I will make exceptions.  I like both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poroit and Miss Marple.  I can accept that they don’t change much because from their first appearance forward, as both are quite elderly.   The skills that they need to draw upon to be successful in their chosen lives are ones they already possess in great quantity.  Why should they change?

It’s important to note that Christie could and did write characters who changed.  Her recurring characters Tommy and Tuppence (first appearance, The Secret Adversary)  change a great deal over the years from their first appearance as young people, recently “demobbed” from service in World War I, through later books where they are married and have children of their own.

Christie showed that an older person may change a great deal if the right stimulus is applied.  Mr. Sattherwaite, the point of view character for the stories collected in The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, begins as an older man, set in his ways, believing – and even content – that life has passed him by. By the end of the series, he has been changed by his experiences and has become a player in the game of life, rather than merely an observer.
Something I like even less than characters who don’t change at all are those who change either in the direction of near perfection or in that of being so shattered by their experiences that they are jittering balls of nerves and quirks.   Both strike me as variations on lazy characterization.  The first is dull and – especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy – can verge of turning the characters into superheroes.  The second ignores that even when people are hit hard by adversity, they usually acquire some interesting coping mechanisms.

So…  There are some very basic thoughts about living and growing with characters and the challenges of writing a series where the characters live and change.  I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the matter.  Any characters you particularly like for how they evolve?  Hate because they fail to evolve?   What do you hope for in a series character?

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5 Responses to “Living and Growing with Characters”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Dear Jane,

    Great post. I feel the same way, characters must change.

    I particularly liked how Daenery’s Targaryen changed in George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire.” She starts out as a weak little girl, (who I hated) and becomes such a strong and awesome character, The Mother of Dragons, now one of my favorite characters ever.

    I really liked how you showed Andrasta in those three stories, as she became a woman. Those were the first of your works that I read and your skill led me to the Firekeeper series. Wow, great job there. Tip of the hat, low and humble bow.

    Personally, I like writing series characters, especially late in the series. Books two and three in my Iron Dragon series were easier to write than the first one, as I knew the characters so well and focused on how they were changing–which was a major point in the books.

    I hope that a series character does evolve, and that it is natural and believable. I don’t want them to be totally destroyed emotionally either, but I want their reaction to be true.

    Thanks for your Wednesday Wanderings. They always put me in the mood to write . . .

    Paul Genesse
    http://www.paulgenesse.com

  2. Emily Says:

    I think it’s important for characters to change, but sometimes I don’t quite understand the changes. Sometimes writers will change a character to suit the story. I hate when a character seems to just wake up one morning and decides to be a completely different person.

    A gradual change though is much better. Firekeeper’s gradual change from her impulsive young stage to a mature leader figure was completely believable. I guess the degree and how realistic the change is ultimately hinges on the writer. In most books with a talented author the change is seemlessly woven into the story.

    That is one of the reasons I love your writing, Ms. Lindskold. You always make your characters so believable. It seems like they could be people that I’d meet on the street.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    I’m glad I’ve managed to make my characters believable. Certainly, they become very real to me. It’s one reason that I have trouble when people ask me who I would want them to be played by in a movie or TV show… They aren’t modeled on anyone but themselves.

  4. Paul Says:

    When magazine SF was king, novels were often series cobbled together (Asimov’s various Foundation “novels,” Raymond Jones’ “This Island, Earth” being three “Cal Meachem” stories, “Dune,” “The Martian Chronicles” (which reminds me that we lost Bradbury this week) and many others. In most of those early ones, it wasn’t the character(s) who changed each time, but the situations they faced. Nowadays, in most series that I enjoy, the characters do change. It used to be that, in TV shows like “Star Trek,” the characters weren’t allowed to change or, if they did, the change had to be negated by the end of the story and all back to the way it was. But, of course, as the TV show segued into new series and movies, the characters did all change…

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes. Often such works are called “fix-ups” — a term I find insulting. Why should putting a bunch of series stories under one cover be thought of as a “fix”?

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