A Question of Character

What comes first, the plot, the idea behind the plot, the problem, the setting, the character?? Which is the most important, the most essential, tool?

For me, it starts with CHARACTER. When asked how I ‘create’ my own characters, my answer has always been that I don’t; I meet them fully formed, complete with the problems they carry. They step out of the woodwork and essentially grab my hand, shake it firmly, tell me their name and rank, and then march me smartly to the first writing platform available and demand I take dictation.

This is partly why I never have real problems with a character’s individual voice, or at the very least, the only times I do so occur when I try to make the character do or say something that that particular character does not want to do or say, or in other words try to make the character act against itself.

So long as I listen, and obey the instructions I am given, my characters tend to assume a certain three-dimensional reality, at least to me, and I very much hope to my readers. Wearing my reader hat, I have met other characters like these, characters who were so vivid and so alive that it remains impossible for me to think that they have never existed.

As it happens, I have a couple of perfect characters in hand – NOT mine – to begin to explain this phenomenon. I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 in its entirety and no matter what ELSE the show was about, in the broader sense of the story arc, it crystallises as the story of two exceptional characters and their relationship.

G’Kar and Londo Mollari.

mollari-and-gkarBoth of them began almost two-dimensional cartoons — Mollari as the effete buffoon courtier, G’kar as the blinkered and violent thug whose first instinct was to whack something. There was an early scene between the two of them, in the cartoon days, bickering while they are waiting for an elevator, and getting so carried away at trading insults that the elevator arrives and leaves before they quite realize it and then they look at each other and blurt, in comically identical outrage, “LOOK what you made me do!”

But they didn’t stay caricatures.

Their choices began to take them in unexpected directions. Londo, who is essentially all heart, someone passionate about things and letting all those passions hang out, ANSWERS the question that the Shadows put to him, the inspired “What do you want” question which goes on to define so many of the B5 characters.

Londo’s passionate response is that he wants to see his people, the proud Centauri, up “where they belong”, as the Lords of the Galaxy. And he is given that, in spades. But he gradually comes to know the cost of the thing he was given.

I will never forget the appalled dawning understanding of it written on his face as he stands at the window of a Centauri warship watching the destruction of the Narn homeworld – something he never wanted, that he himself would never have condoned, but that he is nonetheless in a very real sense utterly and personally responsible for. He then finds himself forced to defend all of it when his people are brought up to face the consequences of it all. He cannot step up to accept his own guilt because doing so would admit guilt by the Centauri and he will not do that to his race.

We see him developing, in the aftermath, and grappling with the consequences of the choices that he has made – right until the final choice that he makes, at the end, when he willingly surrenders his body and his soul – his self – to a Drakh Keeper parasite in order to keep his world and its people ‘safe.’

In one of his last moments of freedom, he tells G’kar that once he had all the choices in the world and no power and now, now that he is about to become Emperor, he has all the power he could ever want and no choices at all.

Mollari is the martyr. In a powerful moment when the parasite takes control of
him we see none of it except his hand, lax by his side, suddenly clenching into a fist – and we know that the Mollari we have known is now gone and in his place is a puppet who will dance to a tune others command. It is a decision he made in order to preserve what is left of that thing he so passionately believes in, the Centauri place in the universe, their pride, and in this instance their very continued existence.

He does what he must, and in this moment he earns our most profound pity as well as our deepest respect. It’s a long way from the original caricature.

G’Kar’s journey is an even greater one. If Mollari is all heart, G’Kar is the soul, the spirit. His passions are no less deep, and certainly no less volatile, than Mollari’s – but they are the crucible in which his ultimate nobility is forged, in fire and in pain.

It seems, with G’Kar, that the more he loses, the more he gains in return, the more he grows, the more he becomes a towering figure who is a true leader, and perhaps even a true saint. He is occasionally portrayed as brash, sometimes even buffoonish, but underneath it all is a kind of iron nobility and the closer we come to the core of him the more we learn of what he truly is.

In a moment at which I always weep, just before Mollari is about to go off and surrender himself to his fate, he goes to say farewell to his old enemy and his old friend, G’Kar. And as he is about to leave, G’Kar calls him by name and as Mollari pauses by the door, G’Kar says to him that too much has passed between their races – “My people,” he says, ” can never forgive your people. But I…can forgive you.”

And Mollari’s face changes, just for a moment, as the two old foes clasp hands and exchange a last long look – because here, maybe, lies a glimmer of that salvation that Mollari has sought for so long and has almost – almost – given up on finding.

When I heard that the actor who had portrayed G’Kar in the series had died, I wept – I felt as though I had lost a brother. But it was not the actor whom I was mourning, may those he loved and left behind forgive me for that – it was G’Kar. The indomitable. The irascible. The funny, the tragic, the wounded, the triumphant, the glorious, the inspired. The character who never really existed, who could not exist, and yet who was as real to me as though I had grown up in his physical shadow. There was a video made in his memory, and I watch it and weep, even today.

Such can be the impact of character on someone who is immersed in that character’s story.

I remember my own characters who came to me and let me tell their stories:

 Anghara Kir Hama, heroine of my “Changer of days” fantasies, who was such a pivotal character for me that I have borne some form of her name as my online identity for as long as I’ve had a presence on the Internet.

The girls who strolled onto the stage as the eight main protagonists of “Secrets of Jin Shei” – the poet, the healer, the gypsy, the warrior, the alchemist, the sage, the rebel leader, and the Empress who dreamed of immortality and nearly destroyed them all.

Or the one who followed them, the many-times-granddaugther of my little poet from the first book, and the other characters who shared her story in “Embers of Heaven”.

My girl-mage, Thea, from the Worldweavers trilogy, and the people who helped shape her world.

The five people who make their choices on the eve of the projected end of the world in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”.

I didn’t create any of those people. They had stories they wanted told. They came, they introduced themselves to me, and they began to talk. It was all I could do to keep writing fast enough to keep up, sometimes.

For me, that is what it comes down to. It’s a question of character, in a HUGE and important way, and it’s the character who drives the story arc forward. The arc that Londo Mollari took to its extreme – the arc of going from the beginning, where you have all the choices in the world, to the end, where all the choices you have made have herded you into a place where there is only one way forward, only one thing left to do, and there are no choices left other than that one. For better or for worse.

A story is simply and solely an account of the winnowing of those choices – and the writer can only hope that the character who is making them will be strong enough to pull in the reader right along, strong enough to trigger strong emotions, because those emotions will serve to make that reader remember that character – remember some of that character’s lines of dialogue, even, verbatim sometimes – long after they have closed the book of that character’s story.

Because they live on, in our memories. All the characters who once walked down the roads in that strange country in our mind’s eye, and let us follow them on their journeys. It is the privilege of the writer to create characters like that, the ones who live long after a particular snatch of their story which the reader might be privileged to directly know is done and dusted. It is the privilege of the reader to find such characters, and to treasure them, to keep them alive, to keep them immortal, to shield them from the fading and the oblivion which comes with the passing of the years.

I hope that some of my own characters will live on, in YOU, the readers. It is only then that my work here will be done.

(See my books here)

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