I used to be a plot-based writer. I mean, I cared about my characters, sometimes I cried over them, but on the whole they were plot points. Their lives were defined by the direction of the plot. Their relationships existed because they caused events to happen, or were caused by other events. Their interactions revolved around plot.
And that is, to an extent, true of all characters.
Since getting involved with fandom, however, I’ve realised that there’s more to it than that. The best characters and relationships (and I don’t just mean romantic relationships — I also mean friendships and any other interactions) are the ones that can be transplanted into any situation and still maintain their integrity.
I’ve learned this from reading modern interpretations of 19th century literature, historical AUs of modern TV shows, shows in a different setting or with characters a different age. I’ve learned that the best characters are the ones you can put in a totally different environment and they’re still recognisable.
This realisation took me way too long. If I’d figured it out years ago, I would have been a far better writer. But I got there in the end.
I started unconsciously reflecting this in my writing before I realised what it was I was doing. In the third draft of The Quiet Ones, my favourite moments were usually the banter between two characters, or a throwaway line that gave a secondary character more personality than just their role within their plot. I started prioritising the development of the relationships over the plot, to the point where my ending was defined by where I wanted my characters to end up.
That’s not to say the plot wasn’t important, because it very much was. But the plot had to take a certain direction in order to reach a fixed point in the protagonist’s relationship with her family, her best friends, and her girlfriend. In order for it to take that direction, I had to pay attention to the characters. They created themselves.
At the moment, despite the looming exams and the intense French grammar work happening right now in my life*, I’m working on a second draft of the first book in the Death and Fairies series. Originally written as a prequel, this rewrite is primarily focused on turning the book into something that works better as the readers’ first introduction to this world and these characters.
But very quickly I became aware that I was actually paying more attention to fleshing out my characters, their voices and relationships.
For example, a scene that looks like this:
A character (Irial) goes to see another character (Aifa, the king’s daughter) and they discuss a third character (Alex) in the context of the things that Aifa has witnessed at her father’s Court.
Information is transferred from Irial to Aifa about Alex. Where is he? How did Irial meet him? What steps do they need to take to meet him again? It’s also being transferred from Aifa to Irial. What is the king planning? What are the movements of the Court? How do these relate to Irial and Alex?
What I was trying to do, though, is to transfer information to the reader that is independent of those plot points. How do they speak to each other? How do they behave around each other? What are their boundaries? In this scene, the reader becomes aware of how comfortable the two characters are with each other, and the trust between them. The dialogue could be replaced with a conversation about anything, because the important thing is the tone of their words and the ‘stage directions’ of the narration.
So I hope that now I would be able to place Aifa and Irial in a different setting (21st century teenagers; Ancient Roman citizens; 20th century nationalist freedom fighters) and have a conversation about anything at all (ice cream flavours, gladiatorial fights, protests) and still see the essence of their relationship. It would maintain its integrity because it isn’t defined by the situation.
It’s complex, because a lot of the interactions in this series are dictated by the plot, but it’s something I plan to work on a lot in this draft. I’m amazed that it took me so long to realise this is what I needed to focus on, but one of the reasons I’ve become aware of it is because of fan fiction and how it picks up on the ‘markers’ in relationships — a particular inside joke, or an established system of mutual support in an aspect of the characters’ lives.
(I’m using the word ‘markers’ but I don’t think it’s, like, an established literary term. I guess they’re sort of like motifs, but not exactly. It just works for me as a word. You probably shouldn’t use it in any essays or anything.)
These markers appear again and again in fan fic and commentary about these characters, because they’re how the relationship is defined and identified. Sometimes, markers from different works resemble each other, and you can say, “Look, these two relationships have a really similar pattern of [insert marker here]!” and make everyone cry by comparing their heartbreaking moments.
So now that I’ve realised that, I’m paying more attention to the interactions between characters, considering every friendship, enmity and uneasy alliance the same way I would any sort of relationship. Making playlists for them helps — I talked about that in my recent post. In a way, the songs I choose represent the markers that help me define the characters.
Which relationships in any sort of narrative (TV, film, book etc) particularly stand out to you as being transferable to any other situation without losing their integrity? What would you say are their markers? I’d be interested to know how other people perceive them.
*I started working through a textbook that opens with a recap of grammar points I should already know from GCSE and realised that I’m totally screwed because I actually never learned even the regular forms of -ir and -re verbs. No wonder I can’t get a grip on more advanced grammar. Trying to get an A in French is going to destroy me.
I might make “What Fandom Taught Me About:….” a series, when I think of more than a couple of posts to write about it. Hence the colon in the title, which doesn’t seem to fit if it were the only post.