Content Warning: Some mild spoilers below the Sir Terry Pratchetts Witches and Guards series, Jim Butchers Dresden Files.
Greetings! This weekend past I was at Norcon, the Norfolk TV, Film and Sci-Fi and Convention and, as is common at the events I attend, I met many wonderful people some of whom asked my advice about writing and publishing their own work. I’m always happy to share my experiences of writing and self-publishing (hence this blog) and so, as it is a subject I haven’t really covered, today I thought I’d talk about some of my favourite characters and what makes them memorable for me.
As with all things no one character is universally loved, but why? Why don’t Black Panther, or Sherlock Holmes, or Hermione Granger elicit universal love across fan-bases? The very simple answer is that the scope of human experience is vast. Cultural differences, upbringing and life experiences shape what we as fans find compelling in the characters we love. As creators it’s impossible to write a character that speaks to everyone so this blog is going to talk about a few characters who speak to me and then a little about crafting your own characters.
I’m a long-time fan of the works of Sir Terry Pratchett so, first off, I’m going to look at ‘Granny’ Esme Weatherwax. I think most of us have or have come across the stereotype of the crotchety elder, it’s a trope and one that is often used but what set’s Granny apart? Is it that she’s a Witch? Well, no. Being a witch is only a small part of Granny’s character no matter how powerful she occasionally reveals herself to be. As acerbic as she can be there are many references, especially in the Tiffany Aching books, to just how much Granny cares for people (most notably those closest to death) and that is potentially one of the reasons she closes herself off from the world at large, to protect herself. She helps those who really need it but doesn’t want everyone relying on her all the time. She’s haunted by the lessons of Black Alice and her sister Lily (both of whom abused their power and she is markedly stronger than they were). She relies (although she’d never admit it) on her long-term friendship with Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg to keep her grounded and to let her know if she starts ‘Cackling’. So, as much as she is a powerful witch she is a character in her own right with flaws (her stubbornness is at once her greatest flaw and greatest strength) and this is the foundation of the most memorable characters, the most commonly cited being Spider-Man.
Another character from the Pratchett stable is His Grace, Sir Samuel ‘Sam’ Vimes, Duke of Ankh and Commander of the Ankh Morpork City Watch. Sam Vimes is a copper and a character we watch as he gets dragged up from the gutter and the lowly rank of Captain in the Watch (at a time when it has only four members) by circumstances outside his control. He combats alcoholism as surely as he chases down the villains and vagabonds of the ‘Great’ plains city (a thinly veiled contemporary for London, Victorian to Modern era). Sam Vimes relies upon his experience and a stubborn resentment for authority (even though he is the authority) to solve his crimes. Unlike most detectives in stories he’s innately distrustful of ‘clues’ and is certainly of the opinion that everyone’s guilty of something (although he views living in a slum as a far lesser crime than owning one). His dogged determination in the chase is one of his most appealing aspects but lesser than his willingness to punch up the societal ladder rather than down and his genuine embarrassment or discomfort in dealing with people who show him the deference to a rank which he never felt he deserved. One of the great developments in his personal story is becoming a father and scenes in which he flagrantly abuses his station, so he can get home in time to read his son a bed-time story are simply the joyous antithesis of the trade-mark ‘cop who puts the job over their family responsibilities’.
Moving on, Jim Butchers Harry Dresden is a private investigator and wizard in modern day Chicago who advertises in the phone book (Lost items found, no parties, no bottomless purses, no love potions). This character divides a lot of people because he is (and there’s no arguing about it) a misogynist. He repeatedly talks about ‘chivalry’ and hates to see women get hurt. He’s the owner of a massive White Knight complex and that colours most of his interactions as well as being a tool that Jim uses to get him into trouble time and time again. We watch him, through the early books, flounder from one catastrophe to the next riding a tide of ego, bravado and luck but, on the odd occasions when he does know what he’s getting into, seeing him properly prepare and go in all guns blazing is something about the series I have enjoyed. He rails against the out of touch nature of the magical establishment until he’s made a more significant part in it and has some power to affect change. I think the most significant change comes when he takes on an apprentice and, through teaching, learns more about how he uses his own power and not just via magic. Harry Dresden is a new take on the old style Gumshoe and, while he comes with many of the tropes associated with the genre, there’s a genuine desire to do good in the character despite (or perhaps because) of his flaws and failures.
As a counterpoint to Dresden Jim also introduces us to Karrin Murphy. As a police officer Karrin see’s some things that can’t be explained and finds herself transferred to the ‘Special Crimes’ unit (a department for all the unexplainable cases committed by supernatural nasties which the authorities don’t believe in). Despite this career stumbling block Karrins own dogged determination see’s her rise to command of the unit and allows her to call on Harry as a consultant. Rather than denying her experiences as impossible she’s one of the few with the self-confidence to accept the reality before her eyes and work from that. We watch Karrin struggle to work within the system against perps it doesn’t even acknowledge exist until she’s forced, eventually, to go outside the law against the predators that can’t be brought in. Karrin Murphy is a counterpoint to Dresden, she does not need nor want ‘chivalry’ or protection, she fights for herself against beings much more powerful than she is but, while Harry relies on gusto and luck ‘Murph’ believes firmly in being practical and prepared and often ingenious with the tools available to her. We get to see her interactions with her extended cop family and her real family (including her ex-husband who married her sister), see her go through triumph, loss and personal trauma. Karin Murphy is a character who refuses to be cowed by the things that go bump in the night and is determined to ‘bump’ back.
So, the important part about creating characters is not that they be perfect, far from it. One of the big issues I see come up about Superman is that he’s not a character but an ideal which, of course, is the very reason for Clarke Kent’s existence. Realistically there is no need for Kent but that is who Superman was growing up and serves to keep him tied and connected to the planet and the people he defends. Any character has to have flaws if they’re to remain someone the audience can identify with and, if we can’t identify because they’re too perfect of too flawed then they shouldn’t be the central focus of the story even if their name’s on the cover. Take figures like The Punisher, Jason Voorhee’s or Michael Myers. As a long-time fan of Frank Castle my biggest criticism of the movies and Netflix show is when they try and force character on him. All credit to Gerry Conway, John Romita Snr and Ross Adru for creating Punisher but my favourite stories about him are the one’s where he’s treated like Voorhees and Myers, seldom seen and terrifying when he is. Garth Ennis does it very well. In that way all three of these killers are not unlike the shark in Jaws, not characters but force-of-nature level threats and the stories become about the people trapped in the situation with them.
Another question that come up (particularly among younger writers) in the fantasy or sci-fi genre is ‘Are my characters too powerful?’ and I would say, as long as they’re fully developed characters, probably not. It doesn’t matter that you’re writing Superman or Zeus, you don’t need Kryptonite or Hind’s blood (according to Hercules: Legendary Journey’s) to put the MC’s ‘in peril’. A creative writer can put more than a characters body in danger, imagine if Lex Luthor engineered a situation where Superman killed Louis Lane as collateral damage. I mean, in the movies he breaks one of his father rules to bring her back when she dies in the earthquake, how much worse if it were not that he arrived too late but that it was his own fault? Another example of a near immortal protagonist that comes to mind are the stories of Lazarus Churchyard by Warren Ellis and drawn by D’Israeli. A convicted criminal, sentenced to death is experimented on and ends up as a kind of living synthetic plastic. Functionally immortal the stories of the character span take place four-hundred years after the experiments and the characters own dysfunction at his longevity are a driving force. Churchyard is actively looking for a way to die. That said, having a character with godlike power probably has a short shelf-life (as indicated by Churchyards short run) unless you are Superman but they do keep finding ways to make the Man of Steel vulnerable. It’s a classic Brawn vs Brain story, Supes vs Luthor just as the Hulk faces down the Leader time and again.
At the end of the day, powers and abilities are what a character can do, not who they are and, if your audience don’t identify with who that character is they’re not going to care about what they can do, no matter how cool you think it is. Characters don’t have to be nice either but they should have the capacity for it from time to time. I remember how I fell out of love with the show House played by Hugh Laurie, there came a point, beyond the medical procedural, when the MC’s personality stopped being entertaining as a function of the story and just became abrasive to me. Making something new is hard, but nothing worth doing for long is easy.