Moderator Trisha J. Wooldridge led a lively panel at the Writers’ Track Saturday morning chatting about characters that readers love. Wooldridge, Lucienne Diver, Eric Flint, Esther Friesner, A. J. Hartley, and Robert J. Sawyer considered characters in stories they had read or written as well as how-to pointers to consider when creating new (and hopefully) beloved characters.
Discussing the number one tip on making characters loveworthy, panelists responded with a plethora of recommendations. Flint talked about advice from the late, great Jim Baen that, to be loved, a character must care about someone or something other than self and cannot be self-absorbed. Sawyer joked in reply that when he wants to create a favored character he simply does an autobiography.
Hartley said not to be too general when creating characters, but to include specifics that readers can link to. Diver suggested adding quirks and surprises when creating a character. Wooldridge added that she does side-writing, chatting with characters that she is creating or has seen included in work she is editing. In this way, she can discover ticks and quirks. She footnoted this plan with another method of exploring character by writing a sketch in third-person omniscient point-of-view.
Flint explored the possible negative implications of giving characters a quirk. He said that if you decide to assign a specific mannerism to a character, be careful. He recounted an anecdote about Seven Samurai, the iconic 1954 film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa backed actor Toshiro Mifune’s use of scratching himself as a character tick. Although it worked in the film, if you were to include the “Samurai scratch” in a series, you would “get tired of it by the tenth book,” Flint warned.
Sawyer clarified that first you have a tick, then a mannerism, and finally you must have a payoff. He gave an example from his novel Red Planet Blues. A character often tips an imaginary fedora, but when tipped at the villain, it transitions from a quirk or a mannerism to an insult.
In discussing personal favorite characters, Friesner said that her first favorite was a vampire, Christopher Lee as Dracula. She later became enamored of Peter Pan (as played by Mary Martin), but later decided that of the two characters, Dracula was less toxic.
Other favorites were: Tasslehoff Burrfoot of Margaret Weis’s and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series (Wooldridge); Dickon from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (Diver); Rowan from Emily Rodda‘s Rowan of Rin (Diver); Nate Twitchell from Oliver Butterworth’s/Mark Crilley’s The Enormous Egg (Sawyer); and John Pertwee as the third Doctor Who (Sawyer).
Hartley divulged that Edmund in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of his favorite characters even though he betrays his siblings for Turkish delight. Hartley’s favorite in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is Boromir. He commented that we both love characters who we’d like to be and characters who have flaws we can slip into.
Regarding Nate Twitchell and his dilemma, Sawyer said that we sometimes find humor in the worst situations. A character we might find reprehensible in some ways is still interesting because of a humorous take on another situation.
Friesner also reflected on the effectiveness of unique character tag lines as used by Charles Dickens to distinguish his characters. She related how the tagline of Uriah Heep (David Copperfield) that he is humble becomes an oxymoron as we learn that Heep is far from humble. He is a character we love to hate, she said. Friesner added that tag lines are also used to help portray superheroes. Wooldridge quoted Darkwing Duck as an example: “I am the terror that flaps in the night!”
Flint talked about his early interest in ancient Greek military histories and his later favorite Thorby, the protagonist in Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. In his own stories, perhaps as a result of these preferences, he puts his characters into a mess, then sees how they get out of it. He also reflected that the characters we love are not always heroes. Charisma, bad or good, is an essential quality. Create a “wish fulfillment avatar” for the reader, Flint advised. “Then you got ’em.”