Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Compelling Characters – A Very Potter Case Study (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of A Very Potter Case Study! If you haven’t read Part 1, then this isn’t going to make any sense at all! You can find Part 1 here.

#3 – Build Conflict out of Characters, not Plot

All good stories need conflict. It’s the reason the story exists, it drives the plot forwards, it’s the catalyst for characters to grow and change. As such, your story’s conflict needs to be compelling. But you know what’s not compelling in the slightest? Conflict which is only there because the plot needs pushing forward a bit. Because then your characters are just being pulled along by the plot, and are not pushing the plot forward themselves by their own actions.

2Ch.12 A Very Potter Case Study - Part 1

To look at compelling vs less-compelling conflicts and the difference between them, I’d like to look at two arguments between the Golden Trio in the series, one in The Prisoner of Azkaban and one in The Order of the Phoenix.

Let’s start with the less compelling one. At the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has heard little-to-nothing from Hermione and Ron over the summer holidays, despite them knowing he’s just suffered through the magical world’s version of the Hunger Games, watching a schoolmate’s murder and being the sole non-evil witness to the rise of the Dark Lord via dark magic. The previous year was a touch stressful, one might say?

What little Harry’s friends have told him essentially exists to tell him that there’s a lot that they aren’t telling him, and I think we can all think back and agree that there are few things as irritating from those around us than being constantly told that there’s something they are refusing to tell us.

‘HARRY! Ron, he’s here, Harry’s here! We didn’t hear you arrive! Oh, how are you? Are you all right? Have you been furious with us? I bet you have, I know our letters were useless – but we couldn’t tell you anything, Dumbledore made us swear we wouldn’t, oh we’ve got so much to tell you, and you’ve got things to tell us –…’

‘Hedwig!’

The snowy owl clicked her beak and nibbled his ear affectionately as Harry stroked her feathers.

‘She’s been in a right state,’ said Ron. ‘Pecked us half to death when she brought your last letters, look at this –‘

He showed Harry the index finger of his right hand, which sported a half-healed but clearly deep cut.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Harry said. ‘Sorry about that, but I wanted answers, you know –‘

‘We wanted to give them to you, mate,’ said Ron. ‘Hermione was going spare, she kept saying you’d do something stupid if you were stuck all on your own without news, but Dumbledore made us –‘

‘- swear not to tell me,’ said Harry. Yeah, Hermione’s already said.’

[Author’s Note: As a general rule in life, can we all agree that when the owl is Judging you, you are doing something wrong? Owls know these things, I tell you…]

Ok, so now the group is addressing this lack of communication, and when I first read this I was thinking to myself, seriously? That’s it?!

Dumbledore told them not to tell Harry anything? That’s the explanation? Now I recognise that Dumbledore up until this point in the books has been shown as a great and benevolent figure, but this still isn’t credible. Hermione and Ron have never flinched away from defying their authority figures before now, and I refuse to believe that this is where they’ve chosen to start obeying commands without question.Ch.9 Fantasy Idioms - A Shortcut to Writing a New Language

Hermione set a grown man on fire aged eleven, and brewed a highly illegal and dangerous potion using instructions she swiped from the Restricted Section of the school’s library under false pretences aged twelve. Ron stared down the wand of a convicted crazed criminal, while standing on a broken leg, to act as a human shield aged thirteen (yes, Sirius Black wasn’t really the Bad Guy™ but Ron didn’t know that!) and as previously mentioned organised the illegal smuggling of an illicit dragon out of the school in his first year!

The set up for this disagreement makes no sense at all, and the next part of the argument doesn’t improve things, because Hermione and Ron are shown to be very aware that they are harming the group by their actions, but still don’t have a good reason to do so:

‘So why’s Dumbledore been so keen to keep me in the dark?’ Harry asked, still trying to keep his voice casual. ‘Did you – er – bother to ask him at all?’

He glanced up just in time to see them exchanging a look that told him he was behaving just as they had feared he would. It did nothing to improve his temper.

‘We told Dumbledore we wanted to tell you what was going on,’ said Ron. ‘We did, mate. But he’s really busy now, we’ve only seen him twice since we came here and he didn’t have much time, he made us swear not to tell you important stuff when we wrote, he said the owls might be intercepted.’

‘He could still’ve kept me informed if he’d wanted to,’ Harry said shortly. ‘You’re not telling me he doesn’t know ways to send messages without owls.’

Hermione glanced at Ron and then said, ‘I thought that, too. But he didn’t want you to know anything.’

And here we have the reason why this conversation is happening – the adults, especially Dumbledore, are trying to keep Harry in the dark. This is the plot-point that’s being set up. And that’s a fine plot-point, no problems there. But how is the plot served by Hermione and Ron just going along with it? The argument is over by the next chapter; it’s not setting up the idea that on top of Harry being in the dark, the adults are trying to isolate him from his friends or anything. Harry’s not really being abandoned by everyone in his life. Look, the next time it comes up, all is forgiven:

‘Harry’ll tell me and Hermione everything you say anyway!’ said Ron hotly. ‘Won’t – won’t you?’ he added uncertainly, meeting Harry’s eyes.

For a split second, Harry considered telling Ron that he wouldn’t tell him a single word, that he could try a taste of being kept in the dark and see how he liked it. But the nasty impulse vanished as they looked at each other.

‘Course I will,’ Harry said.

Ron and Hermione beamed.

This whole argument just isn’t consistent with what we know of the characters in past books, and it doesn’t help the main arch of this book’s plot, which focusses on the adults keeping secrets, not the teens.

The plot-point is perfectly serviceable, and continues throughout the book. The adults go to some really quite spectacular lengths to keep Harry from knowing things (and frankly, if they’d put this amount of effort in during Harry’s first year, I feel like The Philosopher’s Stone would have gone very differently!)

Ch.12 A Very Potter Case StudyBut why couldn’t Harry have arrived at Twelve Grimmauld Place to find Ron and Hermione at odds with the adults? Hermione admits that she considered there were ways to communicate other than owls. Ron’s family sent Harry a muggle letter last year and Ron himself has tried using a telephone before. Fred and George spend this year showing off the true potential of their inventions in both information gathering and diversionary tactics, can’t they have been found in league with Hermione and Ron to try and contact Harry without the adults’ interference? The plot wouldn’t be affected at all. Hermione later this year helps Harry contact Sirius, and sets up and maintains an illegal defence club, not to mention cursing the sign-up sheet to ruin the life of whoever breaks the secret to outsiders, so she doesn’t seem to be that changed from previous years in the long-run.

This whole thing exists to push the plot forward, and the established characters aren’t supporting it at all.

So what does a character-driven conflict look like?

Prisoner of Azkaban’s plot is I swear about one half argument between Harry-and Ron and Hermione. The whole conflict goes on and on and keeps going and it’s absolutely riveting the whole way through! Every time I read it, I’m completely hooked and I desperately want them to make up with each other, but I’m also fascinated by the many ways they are clashing. And this is because the whole thing is based on the characters’ established traits reacting with plot-based stimulus. The plot is affecting the characters and they are responding, but they aren’t becoming unrecognisable to serve the plot’s needs. Harry, Ron and Hermione are recognisably Harry, Ron and Hermione throughout.

The argument is a superbly crafted work of art, I’m not even kidding. It’s got all these layers and it moves between peaks of anger and these valleys where everything calms down and you think it’s going to be fine soon, and then it gets kicked back into anger again. JK Rowling was absolutely on top form all through this book, and this argument is one of the things that makes it so great. There’s clearly been a lot of time and effort put into making it so good, and it really pays off.

I would argue that in fact the argument in The Prisoner of Azkaban is actually 2 or 2.5 separate arguments, but like all good writing, they all feed into each other, with the earlier one setting up some aspects of the later one, and the later one being made worse by the earlier one having happened. Untangling it for the purposes of analysis has been a nightmare, and I’ve focussed on two main themes that run throughout.

Friendship – An exercise in trust

The first argument, which I like to call The Firebolt Incident, is really Harry’s argument with Hermione. Ron doesn’t have that much of a role, except for backing Harry up. It kicks off when Harry, in need of a new broom, receives a brand new Firebolt for Christmas anonymously. Harry and Ron are excited but Hermione instantly has reservations:

‘Oh, Harry! Who sent you that?’

‘No idea,’ said Harry. ‘There wasn’t a card or anything with it.’

To his great surprise, Hermione did not appear either excited or intrigued by this news. On the contrary, her face fell, and she bit her lip.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ said Ron.

‘I don’t know,’ said Hermione slowly, ‘but it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I mean, this is supposed to be quite a good broom, isn’t it?’

Ron sighed exasperatedly.

‘I’s the best broom there is, Hermione,’ he said.

‘So it must have been really expensive …’

‘Probably cost more than all the Slytherins’ brooms put together,’ said Ron happily.

‘Well… who’d send Harry something as expensive as that, and not even tell him they’d sent it?’ said Hermione.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with Hermione’s concerns, but she never elaborates further except to say:

‘I don’t think anyone should ride that broom just yet!’ Said Hermione shrilly.

Harry and Ron looked at her.

‘What do you think Harry’s going to do with it – sweep the floor?’ said Ron.

So we, and Harry, know she has concerns, but we don’t get anything further. We know that Hermione is upset about the Firebolt, but there’s no further conversation, although we do get this extra bit:

[Harry] devoted himself to examining the Firebolt, which he had brought down to the common room with him. For some reason this seemed to annoy Hermione as well; she didn’t say anything, but she kept looking darkly at the broom as though it, too, had been criticising her cat.

It all seems weirdly emotional for Hermione, who likes logical deductions and fact-based analysis. We, like Harry again, are utterly confused about what could be the matter. This isn’t the first mystery the group has tackled after all; puzzles are a yearly staple of Hogwarts for them, so this refusal to talk about it and instead just silently sulk is out of character. We do get a climax to this tension though and, while it all makes sense after-the-fact, it’s totally out of left field for both Harry and the readers.

[Author’s Note: I’ve cut a lot out of this section that didn’t apply directly to the argument, sorry. Hopefully it still reads ok.]

‘Coming?’ Harry said to Hermione.

‘No,’ Hermione muttered. ‘I want a quick word with Professor McGonagall.’

‘Probably trying to see if she can take any more classes,’ yawned Ron

… Harry went straight up to the dormitory, collected his Firebolt and the Broomstick Servicing Kit Hermione had given him for his birthday, brought them downstairs and tried to find something to do to the Firebolt… He and Ron simply sat admiring it from every angle, until the portrait hole opened, and Hermione came in accompanied by Professor McGonagall.

… Hermione walked around [Harry and Ron], sat down, picked up the nearest book and hid her face behind it.

‘So this is it, is it?’ said Professor McGonagall beadily, walking over to the fireside and staring at the Firebolt. ‘Miss Granger has just informed me that you have been sent a broomstick, Potter.’

Harry and Ron looked around at Hermione. They could see her forehead reddening over the top of her book, which was upside-down. …

Professor McGonagall turned on her heel and carried the Firebolt out of the portrait hole, which closed behind her. Harry stood staring after her, the tin of High-Finish Polish still clutched in his hands. Ron, however, rounded on Hermione.

‘What did you go running to McGonagall for?’

Hermione threw her book aside. She was still pink in the face, but stood up and faced Ron defiantly.

‘Because I thought – and Professor McGonagall agrees with me – that that broom was probably sent to Harry by Sirius Black!’

So Hermione has seen a risk to Harry’s life, and acted to keep him safe. That’s laudable, but what she’s also done is sacrifice Harry’s trust in their bond. Rather than laying out her concerns to him and giving him time to think through the clues and draw his own conclusions (you know, that thing that Harry does every year and is usually proven right all along?), she went behind his back to the Deputy Head of the School and got it taken away from him, only afterwards giving any kind of reason. Did she think Harry wouldn’t listen to her? Maybe, but since she never gives him the chance, this seems pre-emptively harsh. Did she think she just knew better than Harry what was for his own good? Harry’s trust-issues are well-earned and wider than a Quidditch pitch, so even though as readers we can see logic in Hermione’s actions, we can also sympathise with Harry.

Even Harry can see both sides in the dispute, despite his frustrations:

Harry knew that Hermione had meant well, but that didn’t stop him being angry with her. He had been the owner of the best broom in the world for a few short hours, and now, because of her interference, he didn’t know whether he would ever see it again. He was positive that there was nothing wrong with the Firebolt now, but what sort of state would it be in once it had been subjected to all sorts of anti-jinx tests?

Ron was furious with Hermione too… Hermione, who remained convinced that she had acted for the best, started avoiding the common room.

It’s like this perfect storm of everything Harry reacts most poorly to; people taking control over his choices away from him and thus rendering him powerless, and uncertainty about the future. Of course it’s resolved simply enough when Harry gets his broomstick back, miraculously still working despite two non-professionals (in broomsticks) having fiddled about with the spells that make broomsticks fly. But there’s crucially no real conclusion in the group; no one apologises and therefore nothing really gets a chance to heal:

‘I got it back,’ said Harry, grinning at her and holding up the Firebolt.

‘See, Hermione? There wasn’t anything wrong with it!’ said Ron.

‘Well – there might have been!’ said Hermione. ‘I mean, at least you know now that it’s safe!’

‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ said Harry.

It’s a small thing, the lack of any real closure, but it comes into play multiple times later on when the group is fractured again by Hermione’s cat appearing to have eaten Ron’s rat. The Golden Trio is held together by shared loyalty and friendship, and the fractures to those connections are showing badly.

‘Can’t you give her a break?’ Harry asked Ron quietly.

‘No,’ said Ron flatly. ‘If she just acted like she was sorry – but she’ll never admit she’s wrong, Hermione. She’s still acting like Scabbers has gone on holiday or something.’

Ron has seen Harry feel hurt by Hermione before without closure or apology and he’s unwilling to allow himself to be hurt in the same way. Ron’s definitely the most emotionally aware of the group in this book, he knows what he needs to past the argument; he just doesn’t think he’s going to get it:

‘If she’d just get rid of that cat, I’d speak to her again!’ Ron said angrily, ‘but she’s still sticking up for it! It’s a maniac, and she won’t hear a word against it!’

And further blows to the pair’s trust in Hermione keeps being dealt too. Later on Hermione tries to intercede in the interests of Harry’s safety again, and again seems all too happy to break Harry’s trust in her to do this:

‘Harry, if you go into Hogsmeade again… I’ll tell Professor McGonagall about that map!’ said Hermione.

‘Can you hear someone talking, Harry?’ growled Ron, not looking at Hermione.

‘Ron, how can you let him go with you? After what Sirius Black nearly did to you! I mean it, I’ll tell –‘

‘So now you’re trying to get Harry expelled!’ said Ron furiously. ‘Haven’t you done enough damage this year?’

And it says something that relations reach such a low point in the end that when Hermione receives devastating news, the look on her face only suggests one thing to Harry and Ron when they see her.

He broke off; they had reached the corridor where the security trolls were pacing, and Hermione was walking towards them. One look at her face convinced Harry that she had heard what had happened. His heart plummeted – had she told Professor McGonagall?

‘Come to have a good gloat?’ said Ron savagely, as she stopped in front of them. ‘Or have you just been to tell on us?’

‘No,’ said Hermione. She was holding a letter in her hands and her lip was trembling. ‘I just thought you ought to know … Hagrid lost his case. Buckbeak is going to be executed.’

But the group does heal, and as was always foreshadowed, the one thing the Golden Trio needed to do was apologise and forgive each other:

‘Oh, Ron!’

Hermione flung her arms around Ron’s neck and broke down completely. Ron, looking quite terrified, patted her very awkwardly on the top of the head. Finally, Hermione drew away.

‘Ron, I’m really, really sorry about Scabbers …’ she sobbed.

‘Oh – well – he was old,’ said Ron, looking thoroughly relieved that she had let go of him. ‘And he was a bit useless. You never know, Mum and Dad might get me an owl now.’

Destabilising the Familiar – Conflicting Character Roles

Ch.7 - The Ghost in the MachineNow the second-half of the Great Argument is very different in nature and here’s why; this is the argument where Ron and Hermione switch traits and roles and it’s just so confusing for everyone. No really, hear me out. Ron is the emotional one in the group. Harry has the weirdly accurate intuition, Hermione logically works through clues to a sensible conclusion and Ron has the emotional depth.

I should stress here that this isn’t the same thing as out-of-character behaviour as in The Order of the Phoenix. For one thing, there’s no new traits in the group, such as a previously unseen docility, Hermione and Ron have essentially just swapped traits. Secondly Harry, standing in for the reader, is utterly baffled by this and unsure of any way out of the situation. This is uncharted territory and the book acknowledges this straight out, there’s no pretending that this is normal:

It looked like the end of Ron and Hermione’s friendship. Each was so angry with the other that Harry couldn’t see how they’d ever make it up.

Back to this trait-swapping. The Mysterious Affair of Scabbers is the time when Ron has all the logically followed clues and Hermione is stubbornly making an emotional judgement. Ron has a whole year of Crookshanks’ many witnessed best efforts at chasing and trying to catch Scabbers, Scabbers’ blood on his sheets and Crookshanks’ hair in the room where Scabbers was last seen alive. Added to a general Rule of Nature that cats eat rats, this does seem like a logical conclusion. But Hermione…

Hermione, meanwhile, maintained fiercely that Ron had no proof that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, that the ginger hairs might have been there since Christmas, and that Ron had been prejudiced against her cat ever since Crookshanks had landed on Ron’s head in the Magical Menagerie.

Personally, Harry was sure that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, and when he tried to point out to Hermione that the evidence all pointed that way, she lost her temper with Harry too.

‘OK, side with Ron, I knew you would!’ she said shrilly. ‘First the Firebolt, now Scabbers, everything’s my fault, isn’t it! Just leave me alone, Harry, I’ve got a lot of work to do!’

We, the readers, end up sharing in Harry’s bewilderment a little. It’s understandable that Hermione should defend a beloved pet, but she’s not on very firm ground as far as the evidence points. She’s outright ignoring what’s in front of her to defend her cat, and blaming others for following their logically drawn conclusions. Leaving aside what actually happened in the book, it’s worth noting that even when the adults try to intervene and patch things up, their argument is not ‘Hermione’s in the right’ but ‘Look, does this really matter?’:

‘Hermione,’ said Hagrid.

‘What about her?’ said Ron.

‘She’s in a righ’ state, that’s what. She’s bin comin’ down ter visit me a lot since Chris’mas. Bin feelin’ lonely. Fris’ yeh weren’ talking to her because o’ the Firebolt, no yer not talkin’ to her because her cat-‘

‘- ate Scabbers!’ Ron interjected angrily.

‘Because her cat acted like all cats do,’ Hagrid continued doggedly. ‘She’s cried a fair few times, yeh know. Goin’ through a rough time at the moment. Bitten off more’n she can chew, if yeh ask me, all the work she’s tryin’ to do… I gotta tell yeh, I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats. Tha’s all.’

Harry and Ron exchanged uncomfortable looks.

So everyone’s swapped behaviours, this is confusing and unsettling to everyone, and because JK Rowling is a genius and clearly decided that this wasn’t enough, what we also get to see is another aspect of Ron and Hermione’s character traits. They are both attacking each other with the other’s main trait. Character traits have been weaponised in a way.

Ron using Hermione’s logical ways has turned this against her, pointing out unwelcome facts and drawing logical conclusions that Hermione understandably doesn’t want to face. Hermione, in turn, is behaving as Ron normally would, stubbornly holding on to an emotional belief regardless of contradictory information, and then lashing out angrily at others when they don’t support her. We, as readers, are seeing the uglier side not only of Hermione and Ron, but of these character traits too, because when removed from their customary character, we see them on their own. Sure, loyalty to beloved friends (and cats) is good, but what if you’re wrong? Is it so good then? Is loyalty worth more than the truth? In the same way, logic and evidence-based thinking is great. But does that make it alright to force people to face up to possibilities they are uncomfortable with? Would we like it if people treated us in literally the way we would treat them?

Ch.3 - The Joys and Hardships of Life After Death - smallThe arguments in The Prisoner of Azkaban are some of my favourite in all of literature because JK Rowling isn’t just showing childhood drama, or giving us easy answers here. She’s asking us to question ourselves, our own behaviour and what we would do if we were convinced we were in the right. Hermione and Ron are both absolutely convinced that they are in the right, that the other is clearly wrong, and will do anything to prove it. Wouldn’t we do the same, if it was us? What’s your main character trait? Do you ever use it on others? Would you like it if people treated you like that?

It’s a hard question, isn’t it?

There’s certainly no lack of plot being served throughout all this conflict, but it’s not the only thing being served.

But how do you end a conflict in which everyone is using each other’s worse traits against them? Of course, as book readers already know, what brings the group back together is needing to team-up to defeat a larger shared enemy; Lucius Malfoy’s efforts to have Buckbeak the Hippogriff executed, and their efforts to help Hagrid appeal the decision. Between the need to join forces to defend Buckbeak and the climactic showdown with Sirius Black, the group is forged anew in very much the same way as they found each other to begin with.

It’s the troll in the girls’ bathroom all over again; they are all forced to put themselves at risk to defend each other, they lie and deceive the authorities to do the Right Thing, they lean on each other’s natural strengths, rather than exploit each other’s weaknesses. The stakes are bigger and the metaphorical monster is bigger these two years down the line, but then again, so are Harry, Ron and Hermione. It seems fitting somehow, that this is what heals the group.

Because that’s what conflict should do, in the end; it should feel like it fits in with what we’ve already had established. This might sound ironic, but what conflict in a narrative absolutely should not do is conflict with the narrative, and the characters driving it. If major elements of the narrative are pulling in different directions then there’s no anticipation of what might come next, because the audience has no coherent sense of foreshadowed doom. We can’t tell where the narrative is going, so where is the threat meant to be coming from and what is it going to affect, and actually if none of these characters are the ones we invested our emotions into in the first place, do we even care? And there’s the final disaster to all narratives: the reader no longer being compelled to follow the characters down their journey.

Stories need to be cohesive to be compelling.

Found this useful? Let me know in the comments; if it’s popular I’ll do more in-depth looks at some other stories, books and films, focusing on what story-tellers can learn.

If this is your first time with the Chronicles in Creation Series, check out other chapters here. See you next week!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Compelling Characters – A Very Potter Case Study (Part 1)

Last time on Chronicles in Creation, we looked at how designing compelling characters is, like all vitally important things, difficult to do. Today we’re taking an in-depth look at one of the finest examples of the art in recent times: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – the Golden Trio – by JK Rowling. In fact, this post is so in-depth that I’ve had to split it into two parts. For Part 2 click here.

SPOLER WARNING – I’d like to think this was obvious, but this post is going to be talking about the plots of multiple Harry Potter books in great detail! If you aren’t familiar with these works, maybe skip this post?

Ch.12 A Very Potter Case Study - Part 1

Character Flaws vs Character Traits

A lot of writing advice on character-creation starts by emphasising how important it is to make sure your characters have ‘flaws’ as well as ‘strengths’. Essentially we’re told that there are ‘good traits’ and ‘bad traits’ and that characters should have a balance of them. I’m never very convinced about this, as I feel that it can be very limiting and potentially really damaging as well. Think about it; what exactly are ‘good qualities’? Being clever? How are you going to define that? Many people might say something along the lines of ‘is good with books’ but what about people who can build beautiful works of art or craft really useful objects with their hands, but can’t read or write easily? Is ‘patience’ a good trait? What if that just means the character never stands up for themselves and suffers needlessly?

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1There’s also the concern that this binary thinking can easily be used against people. ‘Female traits’ – such as domestic skills, loving relationships, gentleness – are often shown as being ‘bad’ or at least are undervalued, and more masculine traits – physical fitness, skill with weapons, the ability to intimidate one’s foes into submission – are often considered as ‘good’ and to be emulated. This has been challenged in recent years, but it’s worth looking past the efforts to redefine ‘good/bad’ in characters and challenge the idea of binary character traits at all. Changing one binary definition of ‘good trait/bad trait’ isn’t addressing the real problem here, it’s just swapping out the window-dressing.

There’s a school of thought I’ve discovered recently which really struck me as a much better model. The idea is that rather than divide characters up into ‘strengths’ and ‘flaws’, you simply give each character a variety of character traits, which can be good or bad to have depending on the character’s circumstances, and then keep putting them into situations where they are at an advantage or disadvantage.

This strikes me as a much better model because it provides writers with far more possibilities. Think about it: a main character who has ‘flaws’ must, by the end of the story, either have conquered those flaws and eradicated them from their being, or succumb to those flaws and ultimately fail on some level. Those are your two options here for a satisfying ending. And that can get very repetitive.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2By giving a character traits however, they have to learn that all of human traits have positive and negative aspects and therefore a character must strive for balance between these aspects. The narrative is set free from ‘overcome your flaws’ and can instead explore the full extent of its characters, watching them grapple with situations that they cannot excel in naturally, but may triumph in through struggle and effort. It’s much more realistic for readers, who also live in a difficult world which doesn’t magically fit in with our strengths, and by not forcing the narrative into a well-worn formula, the writer has more creative freedom too!

I’d also like to mention that it’s less potentially damaging to readers who aren’t willing or able to fit the conventional ideas about what’s ‘good’ in fictional characters and by extension real people, but I’m not the first person to say that and others have done it better elsewhere.

So, how does JK Rowling help us here? JK Rowling has created some of the most memorable and relatable characters in modern fiction, and she’s done this by specifically constructing her stories around the idea that it is not a person’s intrinsic traits which make them good or bad, but the actions that person chooses to take.

As Dumbledore so wisely tells Harry in The Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

#1 – Give Everyone Distinct Traits (Make Them Stand Out From Each Other)

You know what readers hate? Not being able to tell characters apart. The more characters you have, the more they need to stand out from each other instantly so readers aren’t stuck flicking through pages trying to work out who’s speaking to them, etc.

So give your characters their own very distinct personal traits that they can be easily identified by.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are really good examples of this – yes, they work together well as a team, but they are each very distinct from each other and those around them. You aren’t going to mix up Ron’s dialogue with Neville Longbottom, are you?

JK Rowling is also clever in designing the trio’s main traits; each trait is shown as having positives and negatives, and usually she will display both sides within the same chapter. But like all good writers, she doesn’t sit the reader down and just tell us this straight, but shows us the benefits and drawbacks through the character’s lives and interactions.

Let’s take a look…

Harry Potter

The word I would describe Harry as he gets established at the start of the series is undoubtedly ‘Fast’. He’s physically fast, of course:

Dudley’s favourite punching bag was Harry, but he couldn’t often catch him. Harry didn’t look it, but he was very fast.

Which is later expanded on when he learns to fly and is shown to be brilliant at the role of Seeker. But he’s also prone to doing things without thinking, as if his actions are so fast his brain hasn’t caught up yet:

‘I had a dream about a motorbike,’ said Harry, remembering suddenly. ‘It was flying.’

Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beetroot with a moustache: ‘MOTORBIKES DON’T FLY!’

Dudley and Piers sniggered.

‘I know they don’t,’ said Harry. ‘It was only a dream.’

But he wished he hadn’t said anything.

Later on in the series, we see that Harry’s tendency to act without thinking can be both a help and a hindrance. He can think on his feet and act in a crisis like no other character, which saves his life on multiple occasions, but he also drops himself into trouble just as often by acting without thinking things through.

Ron Weasley

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3This might sound weird, but if pressed to say what trait was unique about Ron Weasley, I’d say ‘Family’ every time. Yes, Ron is his own person, but as a character he is defined primarily by his large family, especially at the start. No other family featuring in the whole series is so numerous; seven children in total. No other features as prominently as a group. The Weasleys are tightly knit, and often come in as the sources of help. Ron contacts his brother to smuggle Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback out of Hogwarts, the twins help Harry out as Quidditch team-mates and later in the books with the Marauders’ Map and such.

Ron is introduced to us for the first time absolutely surrounded by his family, contrasting with Harry who is on his own having been abandoned by the Dursleys at the station. The initial benefit is clear – Harry, without any kind of inherited knowledge has no idea about catching his train to Hogwarts, but Ron, with his mother and brothers already familiar with Platform 9 ¾, knows exactly what to do.

‘Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘First time at Hogwarts? Ron’s new, too.’
She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was tall, thin, and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.
‘Yes,’ said Harry. ‘The thing is — the thing is, I don’t know how to –’
‘How to get onto the platform?’ she said kindly, and Harry nodded.
‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘All you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it, that’s very important. Best do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous. Go on, go now before Ron.’
‘Er — okay,’ said Harry.

But once Ron and Harry start talking, the downsides of so many others going before you are fairly obvious too.

‘Wish I’d had three wizard brothers.’

‘Five,’ said Ron. For some reason, he was looking gloomy. ‘I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.’

Harry may be standing alone, but he’s never going to be overshadowed by anyone else either. Ron’s family is constantly present in his life, contrasting him with Harry’s family, only ever felt by their absence.

Hermione Granger

Hermione’s main trait is much easier to identify; she’s book smart to a fantastic degree. Everything she knows about the wizarding world, she learned from books. Books are how she relates to the world.

‘Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard — I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough — I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you.’

Hermione is unique in the Golden Trio; she has to wait four chapters for the inherent weakness of her main trait to be highlighted. This is because it simply takes this long for her to be put into a situation where her book smarts can’t help her. JK Rowling didn’t try and force this information upon the reader, it just comes along naturally when the occasion is there:

Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. This was something you couldn’t learn by heart out of a book- not that she hadn’t tried. At breakfast on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she’d gotten out of a library book called Quidditch Through the Ages. Neville has hanging on to her every word, desperate for anything that might help him hang on to his broomstick later, but everybody else was very pleased when Hermione’s lecture was interrupted by the arrival of the mail.

Hermione throughout the entire Harry Potter series absolutely hates flying. Like, she really hates it, and this isn’t a major drawback in everyday life but the books keep on having moments when she can’t get out of it. With Hogwarts being a school environment, she has plenty of opportunities so show the good sides of her ability to memorise and regurgitate information from her books and is rewarded with praise and House Points, but JK Rowling never forgets to find situations where Hermione is at a disadvantage either.

There are good and bad sides of all traits, if you think about it, and Rowling shows them off clearly to her readers whenever it is appropriate. She never over-does it, to the point where Harry being a fast flyer is a bad idea, for example, or where readers might wish that Ron didn’t have a family because they keep getting in the way. It’s always done just enough that we can see that nothing is a completely good or bad thing.

#2 – When Grouping Characters, Always Put Contrasting Traits Together

You know what no one likes, again? Everyone on the page being the same. Literally nothing is more boring than a group of characters who might as well be interchangeable. It’s not just dull, it encourages that slide into that ‘good trait/bad trait’ thinking we’re avoiding here too; if the heroes all have the same traits, even if the antagonists don’t you’re still sending a message that these traits are objectively ‘the best’.

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffinsThe Golden Trio are amazingly well-grouped, because they are all each other’s opposites, yet they all have things in common. In the Harry Potter books, their shared traits are what prevents them from being each other’s antagonists, but because they are all so different too, the readers can appreciate the conscious choice each member has made to be a part of the group, so their camaraderie feels earned.

As we’ve already seen, Ron is immediately introduced as the polar opposite from Harry with his large family and he also has diverse native-born wizarding knowledge, providing Harry’s character with something new to contrast against his inexperience with this new world.

‘What are these?’ Harry asked Ron, holding up a pack of Chocolate Frogs. ‘They’re not really frogs, are they?’ He was starting to feel that nothing would surprise him.
‘No,’ said Ron. ‘But see what the card is. I’m missing Agrippa.’
‘What?’
‘Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know — Chocolate Frogs have cards, inside them, you know, to collect — famous witches and wizards. I’ve got about five hundred, but I haven’t got Agrippa or Ptolemy.’
Harry unwrapped his Chocolate Frog and picked up the card. It showed a man’s face. He wore half- moon glasses, had a long, crooked nose, and flowing silver hair, beard, and moustache. Underneath the picture was the name Albus Dumbledore.
‘So this is Dumbledore!’ said Harry.
‘Don’t tell me you’d never heard of Dumbledore!” said Ron. “Can I have a frog? I might get Agrippa – thanks.’
…Harry turned the card back over and saw, to his astonishment, that Dumbledore’s face had disappeared.
‘He’s gone!’
‘Well, you can’t expect him to hang around all day,’ said Ron. ‘He’ll be back. No, I’ve got Morgana again and I’ve got about six of her… do you want it? You can start collecting.’
Ron’s eyes strayed to the pile of Chocolate Frogs waiting to be unwrapped.
‘Help yourself,’ said Harry. ‘But in, you know, the Muggle world, people just stay put in photos.’
‘Do they? What, they don’t move at all?’ Ron sounded amazed. ‘weird!’

So Harry and Ron are very different, got it. But why are they friends then? Because they can also bond together over something they both share. In their case, they both know what it’s like to not have very much and to have to make do with the little they can get. Nothing in either boy’s life is easy, and they both have to learn not to equate self-worth with physical possessions.

‘You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.’…

Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out of the window.

Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents. This seemed to cheer Ron up.

Also food helps with bringing people together as always!

‘Go on, have a pasty,’ said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties and cakes (the sandwiches lay forgotten).

Hermione, by contrast, is introduced only in ways that set her up in conflict with Harry and Ron, and is almost shown as an antagonistic character. That may seem harsh, but look at how similar her remarks are to those of Draco Malfoy, Harry’s major personal antagonist in the series. (Yes, I know, I know there’s Voldemort, but he’s this shadowy figure for almost the whole thing, and Harry has barely any rapport with him to compare to the complicated and invested relationship he has with Draco Malfoy.)

Hermione with Harry

‘I’m Ron Weasley,’ Ron muttered.

‘Harry Potter,’ said Harry.

‘Are you really?’ said Hermione. ‘I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.’

‘Am I?’ said Harry, feeling dazed.

‘Goodness, didn’t you know, I’d have found out everything I could if it was me,’ said Hermione.

Hermione with Ron

[B]ut the girl wasn’t listening, she was looking at the wand in [Ron’s] hand.

‘Oh, are you doing magic? Let’s see it, then.’

She sat down. Ron looked taken aback.

‘Er – all right.’

He cleared his throat.

‘Sunshine, daisies butter mellow,

Turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.’

He waved his wand, but nothing happened. Scabbers stayed grey and fast asleep.

‘Are you sure that’s a real spell?’ said the girl. ‘Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practise and it’s all worked for me.’

…[S]aid Hermione in a sniffy voice. ‘And you’ve got dirt on your nose, by the way, did you know?’

And then there’s Draco Malfoy:

Draco with Harry

Three boys entered, and Harry recognized the middle one at once: it was the pale boy from Madam Malkin’s robe shop. He was looking at Harry with a lot more interest than he’d shown back in Diagon Alley.
“Is it true?” he said. “They’re saying all down the train that Harry Potter’s in this compartment. So it’s you, is it?”
“Yes,” said Harry. …

“[M]y name’s Malfoy, Draco Malfoy.”
…He turned back to Harry. “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”
He held out his hand to shake Harry’s, but Harry didn’t take it.

Draco with Ron

Ron gave a slight cough, which might have been hiding a snigger. Draco Malfoy looked at him.
‘Think my name’s funny, do you? No need to ask who you are. My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.’

Yes, Draco is far more antagonistic, but he and Hermione both start by assuming they know everything about Harry because they’ve heard about Harry Potter the legendary figure, and both insult Ron by making him uncomfortable, especially about his appearance. Yes, Draco has a family-based grudge against Ron, which sets him further up against the pair, Harry being envious of Ron’s large family and all, but there are definite parallels. This makes Hermione becoming friends with both Harry and Ron feel like an achievement, something that was earned and the reader is instantly invested in the group as a whole in a way they never could be if it was easy for them all to bond together right from the start.

So how does Hermione overcome this rough start to become a part of the group? By the three of them sharing traits: bravery and bending the rules for the benefit of the group. When Hermione is endangered by a troll loose in the school, Harry and Ron save her, and later on Hermione puts her academic record at risk to take the blame for the situation. They share a dangerous task together, requiring them to work as a team, and in doing so they are triumphant.

[Author’s Note: I know it could be argued that Harry and Ron are responsible for Hermione being in danger, but the troll had already entered the bathroom, all Harry and Ron do is lock the door and Hermione was on the opposite side of the bathroom when they get there. So can we all just leave the blame with the monster who let a troll endanger children inside a school, please?]

First Harry and Ron show that they are willing to take responsibility for other people’s safety – even putting their own lives at stake for Hermione:

As they jostled their way through a crowd of confused Hufflepuffs, Harry suddenly grabbed Ron’s arm.

‘I’ve just thought – Hermione.’

‘What about her?’

‘She doesn’t know about the troll.’

Ron bit his lip.

‘Oh, all right,’ he snapped. ‘But Percy’d better not see us.’

…It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have? Wheeling around they sprinted back to the door and turned the key, fumbling in their panic – Harry pulled the door open – they ran inside.

Hermione Granger was shrinking against the wall opposite, looking as if she was about to faint. The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the walls as it went.

‘Confuse it!’ Harry said desperately to Ron, and seizing a tap he threw it as hard as he could against the wall.

The troll stopped a few feet from Hermione. It lumbered around, blinking stupidly, to see what had made the noise. Its mean little eyes saw Harry. It hesitated, then made for him instead, lifting its club as it went.
‘Oy, pea-brain!’ yelled Ron from the other side of the chamber, and he threw a metal pipe at it. The troll didn’t even seem to notice the pipe hitting its shoulder, but it heard the yell and paused again, turning its ugly snout toward Ron instead, giving Harry time to run around it.
‘Come on, run, run!’ Harry yelled at Hermione, trying to pull her toward the door, but she couldn’t move, she was still flat against the wall, her mouth open with terror.
The shouting and the echoes seemed to be driving the troll berserk. It roared again and started toward Ron, who was nearest and had no way to escape.
Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid: he took a great running jump and managed to fasten his arms around the troll’s neck from behind. The troll couldn’t feel Harry hanging there, but even a troll will notice if you stick a long bit of wood up its nose, and Harry’s wand had still been in his hand when he’d jumped – it had gone straight up one of the troll’s nostrils.

And then Hermione leads the charge of lies to cover up the group’s actions, proving that some things are more important than being on the authority’s good side all the time:

‘What on earth were you thinking of?’ said Professor McGonagall, with cold fury in her voice. Harry looked at Ron, who was still standing with his wand in the air. ‘You’re lucky you weren’t killed. Why aren’t you in your dormitory?’
Snape gave Harry a swift, piercing look. Harry looked at the floor. He wished Ron would put his wand down.
Then a small voice came out of the shadows.
‘Please, Professor McGonagall — they were looking for me.’
‘Miss Granger!’
Hermione had managed to get to her feet at last.
‘I went looking for the troll because I – I thought I could deal with it on my own — you know, because I’ve read all about them.”
Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?

‘If they hadn’t found me, I’d be dead now. Harry stuck his wand up its nose and Ron knocked it out with its own club. They didn’t have time to come and fetch anyone. It was about to finish me off when they arrived.’
Harry and Ron tried to look as though this story wasn’t new to them.

Like with any good ‘Building a Team’ narrative, the reader suddenly gets a glimpse of how well the team can work together, despite and because of their differences. It’s been hard, it’s been a struggle, but now we can see that it’s also been earned. As JK Rowling summarises it for us:

The common room was packed and noisy. Everyone was eating the food that had been sent up. Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates.

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

Part 2 of this post can be found here.

Found this useful? Let me know in the comments; if it’s popular I’ll do more in-depth looks at some other stories, books and films, focusing on what story-tellers can learn.

If this is your first time with the Chronicles in Creation Series, check out other topics here

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

In Defence of Doing Nothing

Greetings Everyone! I’ve been noticeably absent from the Interweb World for a few weeks, and what have I been getting up to in all this time? Well, those of you with sharp eyes may notice I’ve been fiddling around with the layout of this blog but otherwise? Nothing. Shocking isn’t it? You feel like it’s not something you can admit to; it’s probably Not Allowed even!

The word ‘Nothing’ has all these negative connotations, not limited to being the name of the threat in The Neverending Story. But I’d like to talk about two ways in which I feel writers – and indeed everyone else – should view ‘Doing Nothing’ as a good thing. Continue reading “In Defence of Doing Nothing”

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Why Even The Villains Should Have Rules…

Greetings, Everyone! Sorry for the disappearance last week, but we’re back and running to the usual schedule now…

Nanowrimo continues in its quest to challenge writers’ block, sanity and how well you can type with one hand while you eat/drink/brush your teeth with the other. (That’s not just me right? Please tell me that’s not just me!) How are you all doing? I have been sadly running behind, but never mind! There’s a whole half of a month left to go!

Ch.6 - Why the Villains should have Rules - small

 

So I’m afraid that I start this week with a confession; this wasn’t what I was going to write about at all. I was going to talk about how I went about figuring out what fairy cities looked like, which I suppose is going to be posted next week. It was a masterpiece of literature-related insight and theory, I promise!

I’ve been doing a lot of outlining for the book at the moment and I realised that an idea had solidified and started to become incorporated into everything I was writing without me really noticing or looking at it, and so that’s what I’m talking about this week; What Rules do the Villains Live By? And, just as importantly; Why should Villains have Rules in the first place?

So there’s been a huge movement in the last few decades towards having sympathetic, relatable villains. Villains are given backstories and relatable motivations and I’m really enjoying where various creators have taken us.

Of course it’s not completely new as an idea – writers have been exploring how monsters are created for time out of mind; some famous examples would be Frankenstein and his monster, or even Paradise Lost. But there have been some really interesting moments recently which I seem to have subconsciously nabbed for mine own and, having realised that I had unconsciously developed and started implementing an idea, I went back to try and work out where that idea might have come from and why I found it so appealing.

By the way, let me know in the comments if you’ve got a similar experience to this? Where you suddenly realise you’ve made a decision while you were working on something else and now its woven right into your work seemingly without your own permission? That can’t just be me that has happened to…

So there are two problems with creating a modern villain; you need to make them relatable, and also make them intimidating. These two things don’t always sit very easily together, which can be an interesting conflict for either the character, the audience or both. That’s the genius of some of the best villains and monsters ever written.

Now I should say that you do not need to have both in one villain, and some very memorable characters are not:

The Step-Mother in Disney’s animated Cinderella is terrifying to me, but I don’t relate to her at all: why does she hate her step-daughter so much? No idea. Why is she so cruel? Never explained. But I find her terrifying precisely because I don’t have answers to these questions. She’s an unknown quantity all the way through the film.

By contrast, I really do sort of relate to the character of Erik Lehnsherr, or Magneto, from some versions of X-Men. I’m not saying I agree with his goals, or his actions, but I know a lot about his life to empathise with. I know that he lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust, his daughter was burned alive in their house by a French mob who didn’t like her being half-Romani, and so I understand why he might, on facing yet another majority decision that his minority people need to be taken down as a threat, decide that this is the end of all his patience. He’s not going to allow this to happen, no matter what. I can relate to that, on some level. The downside is that I don’t find Magneto to be a very frightening villain, and in the films he is indeed usually over-shadowed by a more present threat for what is likely the same reason. I know he’s dangerous, but he’s mostly just a frightened, emotionally- and physically-scarred man who just wants himself and his loved ones to be safe from present and future threats, and that’s too easy to understand to be intimidating to me.

But as previously mentioned, I believe that the very best villains and monsters are the ones with a bit of both in them. They are both relatable and unknowable, and therefore they constantly throw you off-balance as an audience. You don’t know which side of them you’ll be encountering next and therefore you can’t prepare for either. Let’s take two not-so-recent popular examples: Loki from The Avengers and the Joker from The Dark Knight.

Loki is very familiar to the audience; we’ve seen him before in Thor, we know that he’s the spurned younger son trying to get his father to notice and approve of him, trying and failing until finally he despaired and both figuratively and literally fell to the Dark Side (yes, I know I’m mixing fandoms, I do that.)

Now, I know that none of us have fallen from the Bifröst, but Loki’s story is still pretty relatable. I think most of us have experienced something similar (on a smaller scale, of course) either with our own parents if we have siblings or in friendship groups or at work, just some setting where we always feel that we are being constantly overlooked in favour of people who are more… eye-catching in some way. More popular than us, even if they aren’t actually ‘better’. Tone down the scale of the drama, and this exchange from the Avengers may sound pretty familiar to plenty of people:

Thor: We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?
Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss, I who was and should be king!

For this reason, lots of people really related to Loki as a character, even if he was technically the villain. We understood where he was coming from.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, on the other hand, is a complete unknown. We don’t know where he came from, or what he went through to give him this outlook on life. Did he have friends that he lost, did he lose his family? Did he kill his own family? In The Dark Knight, the Joker has even been written to play up this aspect, by having him give two completely different but equally unsettling ‘explanations’ about the origins of his most distinctive features: those scars. Which one is true? Who knows! Is either of them true? No idea! It’s actually a clever trick that I’ll be coming back to later, because you think for a moment that you’ve been given some answers about him, some information about the Joker’s life that you can relate to:

Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker and a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So – me watching – he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, “Why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife… “Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And… why so serious?

But later, when the Joker is speaking to another character, he starts the story the same way and you think to yourself for an instant, ‘Really, Nolan? You’re just going to repeat yourself?’ and then:

Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em? Come here, look at me. So, I had a wife, who was beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much, who tells me I oughta smile more, who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day they carve her face, and we got no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. Hmm? I just wanted to let her know that I don’t care about the scars. So, I stick a razor in my mouth and do this… to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves! Now I see the funny side. Now, I’m always smiling!

So you now know that neither of these stories is reliable. Blast everything! You’ve been given one tiny bit of information, and now you realise it might be a complete lie. There’s absolutely no steady ground, nothing to relate to, because you can’t trust anything you’re told. So you can’t necessarily relate to the Joker because you don’t know anything about him from before he starts hurting and killing people, but you can find him utterly terrifying for that exact reason.

But now here’s the fun bit; both of these characters also have mixtures of the opposite element mixed into them, this is why they are really good villain characters. Loki has been tortured and has tortured himself to the brink of insanity, so you can’t guarantee what he’s going to do next. Yes, he might be relatable, but he’s not predictable. He’s just far enough off-balance that he’s still a hell of a threatening presence.

The Joker is unknowable as a person, but he’s pretty clear about his goals; he wants to watch the world burn, he is a force of chaos. A friend of mine had a home-made poster for years on his wall which read:

‘All my life I wondered to myself what would happen if I set that building on fire. As I grow up I find that the answer is always: It will be on fire.’

Going from this, I’m going to take a punt and suggest that some people have at least some understanding of the Joker’s perspective? Except most of us don’t actually act on it, right? Right?

So this was a long and involved way to build up to my main point for this post: if possible, villains should be both relatable and unknown the later making them intimidating because millions of years of evolution has taught humans that the unknown is scary and dangerous. Got that? Right, let us now move on to talking about how and why having some clear rules help us…

The whole point of my books is that there are human characters and folkloric characters mixed together and that they have got to relate to each other and either conflict or work with each other. The problem I faced with my cast of non-human characters was that they needed to be both relatable enough to draw the reader in and alien enough that you’d never for one minute forget that these beings are not and never have been human. They do not see the world like humans do, they don’t value the same things we do. Where we generally see babies and children as vulnerable and therefore something to be protected, most Fey characters would see a human child as vulnerable and therefore worthless except as food or sport. Where we may think of certain things as valuable and worth trading for safety (things like friendship for example), the Fey may see those things as worthless. Things they value we may see as pointless, and therefore could risk insulting them.

So the idea which I have just realised has sneaked into my plot outline and fixed itself right into the foundation of my world was this: The Rule of Fair Warning.

I have a sister, and when we were younger we would play together. And inevitably these games weren’t always happy. And I remember that we had a weird and dubious unspoken arrangement that so long as you warned the other sibling that if they didn’t stop doing something annoying you’d push them over or throw something at them, it didn’t count when they kept doing the thing and you did indeed throw something at them. It was a concept with a lot of connections to the ‘They were asking for it!’ line of defence also commonly used in playgrounds.

Strangely, our parents did not agree with this sentiment.

I wonder why.

Anyway, I realised that all of my Fey characters, regardless of what country and customs they came from all had the same idea: you could attack and eat someone provided that you warned them fairly. So long as you warned another character that if they didn’t stop some action you would wipe them off the face of the earth, it didn’t count.

Essentially it boiled down to: what if those childhood rules really did exist and genuinely powerful people actually lived by them? What if the law upheld them?

It’s pretty closely related to another idea which is more widely seen especially in fantasy fiction, especially from villainous henchmen: The Sporting Chance. You let the hunted character (usually the hero) have just a hint of a chance of getting away and this improves the feeling for the henchman when he catches and kills them … in theory. As previously noted, the hunted is usually the hero, so for narrative reasons he actually does use the chance to get away.

The reason I decided to keep this idea, and the reason I think it works so well is related to a different set of established villains you already know: the Pirates of the Caribbean in The Curse of the Black Pearl. In this film, the pirates are introduced as being so evil they are hanged on capture, and you see a ship which has obviously just been attacked by pirates, it’s burning and there’s only one survivor – a small boy called Will Turner. OK, so pirates are scary and bad, sounds simple enough. Then later on the pirates from the Black Pearl attack the port-town, and they terrify everyone, kill people, steal things, set building on fire, attack women. Yep, pirates are scary and they don’t seem to be easy to stop because they come quickly and leave just as fast.

Then Elizabeth’s character, on being cornered by some pirates, demands ‘parley’, citing the Code of the Order of the Brethern, and the pirates follow it. Suddenly even if we still know that the pirates are a threat, they have become a rational force which has rules – you just have to follow the rules and you’ll be fine.

However, then Elizabeth pushes her luck a bit and tries to use the Pirates’ Code as leverage again, and this time it doesn’t work: the pirates refuse to take Elizabeth back to her home, and kidnap her instead. When Elizabeth objects Captain Barbossa says this:

First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Suddenly and for the rest of the film you are always at least a little wary of the pirates, even before you find out that they are really undead zombie pirates. Is there a rule for this? Will the devil be in the details of an agreement? ARE the pirates even going to follow the rules if the answer to the above questions is ‘yes’? We see pirate characters adopting the code;

Jack Sparrow: Keep to the Code. [Any man who falls behind is left behind]
Joshamee Gibbs: (Doubtfully) Aye, the Code.

But we also see them abandon it. Multiple times. It comes up constantly as a reference to a universal set of laws for these lawless characters, but at no point are you certain that it will save the day.

That’s what I wanted for my books; a set of rules which everyone in Fey knows, regardless of their individual country, so they can interact together in a common understanding. I wanted a sense that they all took this set of rules for granted as something they expected everyone, even the humans, to know and understand. The safety of knowing even in this strange world of magic, where the human rules don’t apply, there are rules already set up.

But I also wanted the fear of uncertainty. What counts as ‘Fair Warning’ after all? A few seconds’ head-start? A few weeks? Would it actually warn you enough to avoid some terrible fate, or basically just tell you enough to know that it’s coming? And of course, what if the character you fear refuses to follow this rule at all? What if the rules fail you?

This last is a relatable fear in its own right of course. Humans have thousands of laws designed to help us lead peaceful and non-violent lives. We have local by-laws which only apply to the specific place we live in, national laws which won’t apply when we move to live on another continent (not that we always remember this), and international laws which can either apply across a few countries or (hopefully) over ALL countries everywhere. But what happens when someone isn’t following the same laws that we are? And that’s a very adult and relatable fear. Just like the Joker is a threat to Batman because he is simply not following the same rules, what if WE are facing up against someone who is not playing the same game as us?

Imagine a creature which comes in the night and says ‘Let’s play a little game… except I’m not going to be playing the same game you are… So good luck winning…’

Scared yet? Let’s hope you will be!

Found this interesting or helpful? Or both? Try out the rest of the series here. 

You can find my thoughts on how on earth you pick out names for your characters, why you should have limitations built-in to your worlds and why world-building even matters at all.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Building Rules and Breaking Them

Common consensus about anything is a rare thing, especially since the dawn of the internet, but if there is one thing that writers all seem to love about writing it is this: They love the endless possibilities and the way they can do whatever they want with the places and people they create.

Need to commit a few murders but it is irritatingly illegal in the real world? Make up some characters you don’t like much, murder them in horrible, horrible ways and you’ve got yourself some great free therapy right there!

Wish you could have a fabulous and glamorous job? Write a character who does!

Want superpowers, or to be around super-villains? Boom! Create your very own and make them go off and have wacky adventures!

I myself have only made it through some days at work by imagining in great and graphic detail how I would go about turning some of my co-workers into frogs.

I may or may not be weird. It’s a possibility.

Anyway! So the point we’re looking at today is that writing is a place where anything is possible…

…or is it?

Ch.4 Building Rules and Breaking Them - small

So the focus this week is two-fold: Plausibility and Narrative Tension.

First let’s look at Plausibility. In the world we live in, there are literally (and I know what the word means) millions of rules; rules made in law, rules made by religion, rules made by a common consensus of what it means to be a ‘decent human being’, rules made by your family, by your workplace, by your school, by the group of friends you have. Humans like to talk about freedom but we like our rules. I’m sure people with backgrounds in psychology will be able to explain why we like them so much, but empirically if you put two humans or more together they will create a set of rules. I mean, they’ll probably start breaking them instantly but that’s not an exception from these rules at all; it’s part of it. You can’t break rules that don’t exist after all.

In a book that really shows evidence of a well-thought out world with lots of effort going into giving the narrative something solid and tangible to play out its plot in, the setting is there to support the narrative by (ironically) giving it believable constraints and limitations. Not everything should be possible, or we’d have nothing to invest in, to latch onto as relatable from our rule-filled experiences, which is especially true as we get older.

Listen to a child tell you a story and it will probably be filled with an attitude that random things can magically happen for no justified reason. And this will make sense to other children, because in their experience of the world they haven’t found out where the possibilities end and the limitations start. We all know that children like to ask us ‘Why?’ a lot, but it’s always worth remembering that we ask kids to take a lot on faith in their early years. Milk will make you grow tall – really? Is milk magical? Fresh air is good for you to play in, but dirt can make you sick – but they are found together, so how does this work? I volunteer with children, and the intricate explanations that they once gave me me for why people get taller as they get older is still one of the most fascinating and magical ideas I’ve ever heard, and I’m genuinely sad that none of them were true. Especially the one about how we’re all plants who rebelled against the soil years ago and don’t want to admit it, or the one where we get stretched out by goblins in the night…

However the biggest and best part about limitations, at least for a writer, is Narrative Tension.

Here’s a riddle for you: when is a big moment a Big Moment? And how do you know?

The world we live in affects our lives every minute of every day of everyone’s lives and the main effect of this is in our choices. You don’t even notice half of it because we’ve all assimilated the rules of our society so early we forget that there are other options which we naturally don’t choose because it’s Not The Done Thing, and when we do choose to make an alternative choice this is a Big Deal.

Setting up a world with rules and expectations gives your characters’ choices weight and meaning, gives context for why some decisions are hard, but others are not. If the plot takes place in a post-apocalyptic war-zone then killing someone would be an (arguably) easy choice while sparing someone’s life would be harder. They could be an enemy after all, or someone who will take up resources that you cannot spare, thus endangering the lives of others. But if the plot is in a land of peace then those choices are totally reversed. Why on earth would you kill someone, you monster?

But a world with clear rules also implicitly indicates what actions are a struggle and what actions are easy, not only mentally – through choice – but physically. An extreme example would be gravity. Gravity is hard to counter, making flying difficult. Sure, you can get around that by mechanical engineering (if your plot takes place in a time where this is possible) but even then there are limitations such as weight, fuel, weather which can all complicate this solution. The audience knows that flying is difficult, and so while they will accept that it can be done, they will also accept that there are plenty of times when a problem cannot be solved by flight.

But, how does this help you as a writer? Imagine that you need to write a scene and the solution to the problem is that a rescue can only be managed by flight. You bring it up and the audience says ‘oh yeah, that works. Great, everything’s going to be fine here.’ But you need to add extra tension to the scene. It cannot be this simple! So you can say that the weather is too poor for flight and the planes might be dashed against the cliff-side (which being a good writer you have already told the audience is there, yes?) You therefore don’t have to explain any further; the audience will accept this as a valid obstacle and instead of using their energy trying to reconcile a random explanation (think ‘The stars are not yet in alignment and so we dare not fly this day!’) and can instead focus all their thoughts where they should be in this scene; worrying about our protagonists and their rescue-which-cannot-yet-happen.

Fantasy and science-fiction is not exempt from this either, in fact these writers must work even harder to find consistent and believable problems. Because Plausibility and Narrative Tension are separate factors, but they are very much interlinked. If a writer loses control of either of these factors then they lose control of the other.

The main rule for this would be; once you introduce the audience to the idea that something exists, you don’t get to ignore it later for plot-reasons. That’s a common cause for plot holes, when you’ve told an audience that an option to solve the problem the characters are facing is available and then they don’t use it!

You can of course avert this by giving a simple easy to understand reason why this option won’t work. All the problems Harry Potter and his friends are facing in the Deathly Hallows, wouldn’t life have been easier with a Time-Turner or two? Yes, it would, but they all got destroyed in the attack on the Ministry for Magic in The Order of the Phoenix. Boom! That’s why Harry doesn’t immediately just go, grab a time-turner and then set off looking for horcruxes. Right, everything makes sense. Done.

But if you over-use this way to get narrative tension and not make everything too easy, you start to lose plausibility.

Let us at this point take a moment to think of the suffering (self-inflicted, I admit, but still) of the writers for Stargate SG1, back in their first season. Like fools did they establish that their ‘zat guns’ could have the power to make things and people invisible! Sounds like a great idea, and cool for the special effects, really showing off that this is a world of The Future, right? Now we watch and realise their plight, however; every single time they have a situation where it just seems so obvious to use this invisibility-technology, they have to find a good reason not to use it because their plot needed something different! And there were times when you could really see the strain this caused those poor souls!

And as ever, consistency is key! Do not, ever, under any circumstances, hold tightly to a rule you’ve set up in one scene and then abandon it without a word in another, even if you come back to it later. Just like with a friend or parent who treats one person  or child differently to another, your audience will lose all trust in you and the rules you have given them.

However, all is not lost! For there is another way…

Let us now consider the realm of the Not Meant To Be Serious. It is a fine realm and I spend as much time there as I can. Because your setting only has to follow logical rules if your plot is following logical rules!

Let us consider, as another obvious example, The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy.

This plot has absolutely no logic whatsoever, and is not meant to be taken even a little bit seriously. That is its purpose; to be ridiculous and to show that nothing really matters in the end. The characters themselves can be serious, very much so in some cases, but the plot and the setting are not in the slightest and that is where the humour of the whole thing hangs. The result is that the author can absolutely and joyfully get away with saving his heroes from two torpedo missiles by turning them into a whale and a bowl of petunias (this is the earliest joke I ever remember being told and it still makes me laugh).  Did that make sense? I’d say no, but then once you’ve explained how the Infinite Improbability Drive has been invented, I would say that all bets are off… In any other tale this would be madness but in THGTTG it so completely matches the tone that the audience just takes it right in their stride.

So I suppose that’s the crux of the matter; if you want a serious tension-filled plot then you need a serious setting with serious rules that you stick to. If you want a ridiculous plot that knows it’s ridiculous and is entirely unashamed of such, then gleefully fling all logic right out of the window.

There is, I hear tell, a legend of a Middle Ground, but it is very hard to reach; there are no maps to its location; few have ventured to that land and the road is littered with the works of those who sought it and failed. If you, like me, are just starting out, perhaps it is best to play it safe for now…

First experience of Chronicles in Creation? Catch up with the rest of the series here.