In the midst of this COVID-19 crisis, I wanted to get away from the stress and worry and focus instead on something that brings me joy and solace – my favourite fictional characters!
In this post, I’ll be exploring what makes a character come alive to me, what embeds that fictional soul in my heart and brain, and makes me keep coming back for more.
There are many amazing characters I could’ve chosen for this: Eric Draven from The Crow, Dream and Death from The Sandman, Kaylee from Firefly, Camina Drummer from The Expanse, Ghost from Lost Souls… the list goes on, but I decided to go with Ronan Lynch from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle and Dreamer trilogy, because this is a character still fresh in my mind from my recent read of Call Down the Hawk. For those who haven’t yet, but plan to read these books, be aware this might be a bit spoilery.
There are many things that go into making a strong character. There are many devices and techniques a writer can employ to craft a three-dimensional protagonist or antagonist, but what is it about certain characters that causes them to leave such an indelible impression on their audience?
Despite the myriad approaches to crafting characters, I’ve come to discover that there is no simple formula and no quick recipe for making a character who resonates with people. Through my analysis of Ronan Lynch, I hope to better understand how to write characters that become favourites to others.
Here’s what we know about Ronan Lynch:
- 18 years old
- Aglionby Academy dropout
- An orphaned middle child with two brothers
- A Greywaren capable of manifesting things from his dreams like his raven, Chainsaw
- Tattooed, scarred, and foul-mouthed
- Favours black shirts and leather jackets
- Prone to confrontation with a penchant for drinking and street racing
- Tough exterior, soft heart
Suffice it to say, Ronan is a complicated guy. But more importantly, he is complex the way real people are.
He’s relatable and sympathetic because he is full of contradictions—just like a real person! This is something that too often gets a bad rap in writing, particularly in YA. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of thinking teens want to be accepted and fit into certain social cliques, that characters can often feel like stereotypes with little substance beyond what fitting the stereotype dictates.
Even with Ronan, his tough guy image coupled with a soft heart could be considered a bit of a cliché. But it’s a cliché because it is often the case that sensitive people armour themselves against the world by creating a persona to protect their hearts. A cliché like this can be highly effective if approached authentically, examined, and challenged in the story. If not, the use of clichés and stereotypes can feel a like lazy writing.
I have found that when crafting characters, many character questionnaires and worksheets can be extremely helpful, but also limiting. A big focus in writing craft is character development, often described as character arc. You might already know that, generally, a good character is one that changes. They have to be affected by what’s happening in the story, in the plot and cannot stay the same. It’s quite unusual for the protagonist to have a so-called flat character arc where little change occurs.
In wanting to do this right, I know I’ve made the mistake in the past of trying to create a three-dimensional character by planning out the character arc and slotting in plot points to evince the requisite change. This can cause the change I’m trying to achieve to feel artificial and contrived. When I’m consuming fiction, a red-flag for me is when I start to see the mechanics churning behind the story instead of becoming immersed in the characters’ lives.
This is why I’ve started to think about my characters less in terms of ‘change’ and more in terms of ‘growth.’
While significant (especially traumatic) events can cause people to radically change, something far more subtle happens more frequently as we live our lives. We grow as we experience new and different things, we develop as our perspectives are challenged, we self-actualize, and we become more like ourselves. This is why I think I love Ronan Lynch so much. Also, I have a soft spot for sensitive bad-boys with scars and tattoos.
Without giving away too much story, suffice it to say there are a lot of changes in his circumstances as the plot moves through The Raven Cycle and Call Down the Hawk, and yet, has Ronan radically changed and become someone new, someone different? No. Has there been growth in his character? Absolutely!
He’s become more like himself. A more self-aware version who shows better understanding of his own motivations, his own weaknesses and strengths, and how who he is (what he is) affects those around him. I think it’s this that makes him one of my favourite characters. The emotional and psychological journey he goes on feels real. At no point does he become unrecognizable. He’s still the same foul-mouthed bad-boy who acts tough to protect his soft heart while struggling to come to terms with who and what he is. That doesn’t change even though the plot has dramatically altered his circumstances. He has become better at being himself when life pelts him with lemons.
So, what’s the TL;DR here for writers?
- Analyse your favourite characters: what do you love about them? why do they work?
- Don’t try to force your characters to fit a narrative mold. Let them live as real people do, full of contradiction.
- Focus less on how the character changes during the story, and more on how they grow, which can be, but isn’t always the same thing.
- Go and read The Raven Cycle if you haven’t yet!
*Art used with permission