Likeable Characters

Last night I was reading Neil Gaiman’s latest blog entry in which he replied to a young writer’s question about creating characters. The questioner felt like their characters were too often contrived plot devices, and they wondered how Neil made his characters so personable and interesting.

Neil’s advice was that characters should be, quite simply, people you find interesting. Whether they’re good or bad is irrelevant, they should be people you’d enjoy sitting down with over a cup of coffee and chatting, getting to know, and learning more about. If you enjoy their company and find them interesting, they’ll be better characters and more enjoyable to read about.

I thought I’d give this a try and began writing about a dwarf’s first night at a local tavern. Dwarves are stereotypically boisterous, Irish, and greatly enjoy alcohol, but to be honest, I’d have no interest in sitting down with such a person. Therefore I thought to make the dwarf more interesting, someone who reads poetry and philosophy, and though I have nothing against beer (and really enjoy it myself), I thought it’d be fun to have a dwarf that’s a teatotaller. This one might prefer milk.

I began to write a scene from the dwarf’s point of view where a drunken man accosted him for turning down a drink the man had bought him, and this was OK, but I thought I’d stretch myself further and pick up the scene from the drunkard’s perspective. Make the dwarf a secondary figure so his actions speak for him rather than an internal monologue.

Unfortunately, the human I created to be the antagonist was not someone I found interesting. I was quickly able to come up with a backstory for the guy, an explanation for his temperment, behaviour, etc… but I didn’t like him at all. And as such, I think the scene suffered. It will have to be rewritten if I am to use it further.

Is it possible to have antagonists we like, or at least find interesting? Jaqueline Carey does this masterfully in Kushiel’s Legacy, particularly in the character of Melisande, but I haven’t learned how yet. Does anyone have any advice or experience in regards to interesting antagonists?

Philosopher King

“A rounna drinks, on me!” Lem shouted. He’d rarely bought drinks for himself, let alone anyone else, but everything was different now. He was somebody.

His daughter, worthless bluestocking bookworm that she was, had somehow caught the eye of the count. And he’d proposed! Lem always thought he had a good turn coming, something to balance the years of bad luck, and this was it. Happiest night of his life.

As he turned from the bar, mug in hand, he surveyed his kingdom with a grin. With a shock he spotted a dwarf in the corner.

“Heya!” he shouted to the room in general. “We aughta have us a drinkin’ game! It’sa dwarf!”

No one really seemed to notice his declaration, but they probably just didn’t see the dwarf, sitting as he was apart from the celebration. Lem began to walk across the room when he saw a barmaid deliver one of the drinks Lem had just ordered for everyone to the bearded stranger. With a negligent wave of his hand, the dwarf shooed her away, his nose stuck in a book.

Fury suddenly gripped Lem by the throat and he slammed his mug onto the bar. He staggered across the room, shoving faceless friends out of his way.

“Bah, whats’is?! A dwarf ‘oo won’t drink?!” the human slurred as he slapped his hand down upon the rough, wooden table.

The dwarf in question had been sitting quietly at a table for four, spectacles perched upon his craggy nose. He had arrived at the tavern near dusk and the haze of the road still coated his armour, his pack dropped in the nearby corner and hanging open where he had retrieved his book. Closing it silently, the dwarf marked his place with a finger and looked up at the man over his glasses.

Clearing his throat, the dwarf nodded once. “Sorry friend, I meant no insult to you or yours. Did you need something?”

“I bet… I bet you just been sittin’ here judgin’ us, ain’t ya?” the human shouted far louder than needed. “Sittin’ there with ya… with a book! Just like my daughter… is’at it? Maybe yous a girl unner that beard!”

Lem laughed, a great guffaw made greater by the silence in the tavern, as he staggered back from the table and pointed at the dwarf with one hand while gesturing for others to join him.

“What’ya say fellas? I heard’at dwarfs all look da same until ya get them wet!” Lem grabbed a beer from a table nearby, his eyes gently spinning.

The dwarf sighed, having a good idea where this was going. Before the man could throw the drink, the dwarf made a quick movement with his free hand, two fingers pressed together. Bands of radiance erupted around Lem, constricting his movement and dazing him. Lem fell to the floor, the drink clattering from his hand and soaking the boots of the nearest person (who cursed quite colourfully about this happening yet again).

Smiling apologetically at the barkeep and the two men who hauled Lem from the tavern, the dwarf laid an extra silver piece beside his glass of milk and returned to his book.