All About Character – June Round Robin

Sitting on my bunk in the open bay barracks one Sunday afternoon, I entered a debate with the soldier in the bunk next to me. Her name was Culpepper and she was a skinny thing with cropped blonde hair and a thin face that made those awful military-assigned glasses look like goggles perched on her nose.

I can’t say much there, I had to wear those glasses too and any sense of vanity I had was forced to the side for those weeks in basic training.

We were both on the top bunks so much of what was happening in the barracks below couldn’t touch our debate, which was just as well because none of the other soldiers would have cared enough to join the conversation. You see, Culpepper and I loved to read.

This, sadly, set us apart from many others in our platoon. The difference between Culpepper and myself was that, at the time, I had already begun my writing career. Pieces of what would become the novel Sedition were written on 3×5 cards that I kept in my cargo pockets alongside a little pencil.

“Plot is more important than character,” Culpepper insisted and I, holding my latest letter home, shook my head.

“Nobody cares about plot, they care about who that plot happens to.”

“Yeah, but a character who doesn’t grow, who doesn’t go anywhere or do anything, is boring,” Culpepper said, which I had to acknowledge as true.

As the debate went on, we came to a consensus that there had to be an equal amount of plot and good characterization on the page to keep the novel going, but I’ve always remembered that conversation. Not only had I found a fellow reader, someone who I could relate to on an intellectual level in the middle of one of the more stressful moments of my young adult life, but she challenged me to remember that plot and character are inseparable.

Plot is born of character, and a character only grows through the plot.

For example, my current work in progress Song of Swans (title is still in the works) has a character named Cassy. I had originally planned for her to be a thief, someone whose circumstances had made her the lowliest of the low, forcing her into a life of crime.

This aided my PLOT quite well, as there’s a chapter in the outline where I have her executing those particular skills in order to survive.

However, when I went to write that first chapter I found that her character was flat. She had no life. There was nothing there that made me truly care about who she was or why she was a thief or … well, anything at all, really.

After several days of struggling, I came to the realization that I couldn’t have her be a thief.

#1) It felt too Dungeons & Dragons to me. (There’s nothing wrong with Dungeon’s and Dragons if you like to play, I just prefer not to have my fantasy novels be that on the nose.)

#2) There are many fantasy novels out there that have the main character as a thief, and I felt I should challenge myself to step out of the cliche.

#3) Cassy herself was telling me she wasn’t a thief, not really, and if I’d shut that plot up for a second she would be willing to tell me exactly who she was.

So I scrapped the thief bit and discovered that she was a laundress with one unique quality; she could read. Which led me to the obvious question of why she, a commoner in a very medieval-feeling setting, had an education and, more importantly, what she was doing with that education. 

What was she doing with the fact that she can read? Well, she was teaching a fellow slave.

Suddenly I have a character driven plot. Cassy is more complicated and more relatable than the original pages, and while I am left wondering how in heavens a laundress is going to survive everything else that’s headed her way, I’m confident that she’ll show me.

Take a look at what some of my fellow authors have to say about building characters and character arcs in their stories …

Skye Taylor
Margaret Fieland
A.J. Maguire
Victoria Chatham
Marci Baun
Judith Copek
Rachael Kosinski
Diane Bator
Dr. Bob Rich
Beverley Bateman
Anne Stenhouse
Marie Laval

Fiona McGier
Rhobin Courtright

Character Building

So I’ve been talking a lot about all this world building stuff and it occurs to me that the creation of character is intimately involved in this process. Elizabeth Bennett would not be the character so many women love if not for her house full of sisters, her loud mother, and her bookworm of a father.

Nor would she be the poised, respectful woman that we know if not for the society in which she was brought up.

Claire Fraser from the Outlander series would not be the character we enjoy if she hadn’t survived WWII as a nurse. Nor do I think she could have survived half as well in Jamie Fraser’s life without that experience.

Last week I discussed how I was using both my antagonist and my protagonist to help form the political spectrum of my upcoming fantasy novel Swans. I have a series of questions that I pose regarding how much or little power each of the characters have, where they got that power, and how they can use it.

That’s all plot and world building.

To understand the character, I have to ask the question of why they would or would not use said power.


Antagonist – Why is he pushing for slavery laws? Beyond what he can gain monetarily, why is he alright with the concept of people owning people?

Well, these two societies have been at war before. He’s seen first hand what can happen when two ultimately similar cultures come to blows and in his mind, keeping one culture enslaved is the lesser of two evils.

What does this tell me as the author?

It tells me he’s a veteran. It tells me he’s lost a lot of people he cared about. And it tells me he never fully approved of the marriage between his cousin (the King) and the Arundan Queen. Which means he has no qualms killing my hero and squashing any claim the Arundan people might have to the throne because, in his eyes, it’s the only way to preserve his own way of life and his own people.

It also tells me that this society is going to have a lot of bitter, frightened people. The division between these two cultures is deep and painful. And it tells me that there will be historical sites, battlefields and such, in the landscape that my characters can cross.

Again, I start with my antagonist. This is a new process for me as I’ve almost always started with the protagonist and built everything around them, but I have to say that it is clearly working. I have a much, much better handle on the plot and what this story is truly about than I normally do at this point in the process.

For any authors out there, I’d highly recommend building from the antagonist first. Keep the protagonist and antagonist side by side in the process. Whatever you ask for one, you need to ask for the other to keep it balanced and, ultimately, to keep the story interesting.