Over the past few years I’ve frequently mentioned my fondness for the epic fantasies of Robin Hobb, both here and on WU, and via social media. Let’s face it, I’m a geeky, rabid fan. I not only enjoy Hobb’s books, I feel I’ve learned a great deal about writing fiction by reading her, particularly in regards to character development. So I consider her an inspiration; a mentor of sorts. I’ve recently devoured her most recent release, Fool’s Quest, which is among over a dozen titles set in the same world and the eighth to feature Prince FitzChivalry Farseer and his dear friend and longtime companion known as the Fool (owing to the fact that he was literally a court jester when the pair met as boys).
As I said, I appreciate many aspects of Hobb’s work, but reading this last novel reminded me of a powerful storytelling tool I particularly admire. It’s one you don’t often see utilized, but one I aspire to use in my own work. I’m talking about a complex character arc that unfolds over the course of a series of titles.
Admiring An Epic Life:
When readers first meet FitzChivalry he is a young boy, the bastard son of a king-in-waiting. Fitz is delivered into the hostile confines of his extended family’s royal court, where he is the ultimate outsider. Over the course of two lengthy trilogies, we are privy to the unfolding development of a character who is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating in fantasy fiction. Fitz goes from victimized bastard child to teenaged trained assassin, tool to the very royal family who maintains his ostracized status, to a man without a name or a family, forced into a life in hiding yet still unable to disengage from the Farseers’ use of him. In the first two books of this newest trilogy, we find Fitz in his fifties, a father and husband; a squire hoping to live out his days simply and anonymously, in comfort and among family. (This, of course, is not to be. Otherwise there would be no new trilogy.)
Watching Fitz’s life unfold is so full of delights, I can hardly describe the full effect here. We are witness as the young man who starts off so impetuous, vengeful, and maddeningly unpredictable matures into a (mostly) reliable, loyal, and deeply reflective man; a former killer struggling to tame his demons as he strives for a life of honorable domesticity in a world made safe – in no small way – through his concealed efforts.
I found so much of this eighth Fitz book moving and deeply satisfying. And I realized that it was because it was like watching someone I’d known all of their life finally coming into his own and receiving his just dues after long years of denial. In spite of a plethora of wrenching new developments, my heart swelled again and again in seeing Fitz gaining rightful recognition as a prince of the blood, the unheralded hero of the realm. It’s a sweeping effect that I feel would’ve been all but impossible in the course of a single novel, or even over a lone trilogy.
My Own Efforts:
I say I aspire to utilize this tool, hoping to create more satisfying characters though complex development over the course of a series. Of course the tricky part of that is not just selling the first book, but leaving readers wanting more. But my attempts to create multi-book character arcs go back to the very beginning of my writing endeavors. Hoping to continue to develop my characters over the course of several individual story arcs is one of the reasons I strive for a worthy first offering in my story world. I’ve already had a blast doing this, and several of my characters’ lives have unfolded in surprising ways; ways that are very gratifying to me.
One character who particularly surprised me is a good example. Rohdric of the Amalus clan first appears in book one of my original trilogy as an antagonist. The nephew of a fallen Gothic conquering king, Rohdric is raised as a slave in the Roman world. As he comes of age, the elder Goth slaves aid Rohdric’s escape to their tribal homeland in the hopes of his raising an army of their kinsmen to ride against the imperials who enslave them. This puts him in direct conflict with the story’s protagonist, Thaedan (his cousin, son of the conquering king) who aspires to avoid his father’s murderous lifestyle and keep his people free from imperial conflict.
As a young man, Rohdric is brash and bullying, conceited and unscrupulous. He considers himself the good guy, the only Amalus heir trying to do the right thing. By the end of book one, Rohdric has gained a following and breaks away from the Gothic nation to forge his own path. Along the way to personal glory he is humbled by defeat, and is severely injured. The wound is very apparent to others, and has an ongoing effect on him, both from a physiological and a psychological standpoint. After his defeat, he and his men change sides to become foederati (foreign fighters in the service of the Roman army). As a Roman soldier, Rohdric encounters racism and discrimination. Unfolding events force him to a renewed perspective of the injustice of slavery. Even as a former slave, slavery had simply been “the way of things” – unchangeable. What had been a selfishly personal vendetta (to free his kinsmen) becomes genuine compassion. Ultimately, he comes to understand the importance of belonging and of self-sacrifice; of friendship and loyalty; of love and honor.
And that’s just his young adulthood! And it took three books to get that far. Makes me wonder what a long literary life like Fitz’s would hold in store for Rohdric of the Amalus.
It’s the Transformation, Stupid.
“Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result.” ~ Lisa Cron
I love Lisa’s quote, offered up at the onset of a workshop she gave at the Writer Unboxed UnConference last year. It reminds me that the heart of every story is not the protagonist’s goal, nor is it the stuff that happens along the way. The heart of every story lies in how the characters change as a result of the stuff that happens and the achievement (or lack thereof) of the story goal. And of course, with a character who reappears in multiple editions of a series of stories, they will necessarily be changed many times, hopefully with a cumulative effect.
With that in mind, and also keeping in mind I’ve yet to successfully sell such a series, I offer two pieces of advice to series writers wishing to feature (a) recurring character(s): First, be sure to have them change! And second, be sure to have them stay the same!
Conflicted? I know I am. Hopefully your characters will be, too. Allow me to elaborate.
*Have them change! And in each story. Even if they’re a secondary character. Start with the obvious. If the character is maturing, there will be physical changes. How they look as they age, for a start. But go deeper. This is an element that Hobb has mastered, and often it speaks to other changes in Fitz’s life. For example, even though he undergoes ongoing physical mending through a magic called Skill Healing, in the most recent trilogy he’s still become out of shape and out of practice from a martial perspective. He’s often sore and out of breath. Another example: one has only to think of Tyrion Lannister’s disfigured nose to think of how a visible wound can transform a character’s life. It’s an apparent and inescapable symbol both of his bravery in battle and his fall from grace.
But of course we have to go beyond physical change. We must ask ourselves how what’s happened in each story has transformed our characters. After all, psychic scars can be as enduring as physical ones. In what ways have they grown more comfortable in their own skin? In what ways are they even more vulnerable? What fears have they conquered? What new fears have appeared since the last story? What old fears cannot be shaken? What shamefulness lingers, and how does it manifest itself moving forward? Who do they grieve? What do they regret? What about the past makes them proud, or content? How do they self-sabotage that contentedness?
I’m sure that, depending on the nature of the character, you’ll come up with your own list of questions. Just be sure to delve deeply.
*Have them stay the same! Have you ever reencountered someone you knew in prior life, say, at a dinner party, who seems completely different? It happens. They could look different, seem wiser, calmer—even have reversed a previous impassioned position. But more times than not, by the end of the dinner, their old stripes are showing through, aren’t they? Perhaps they’ve had a few drinks, and suddenly there’s a subtle jibe about a longstanding note of discord between you. Or they tell an unflattering story about you—one you could swear you promised one another you’d never share. How much have they really changed? How much is a new façade?
At their core, some characteristics never change. Someone who’s prone to rage may have gained some mastery of their temper. But how often is their anger still there, simmering beneath the surface? Or have you ever met someone who lights up a room with good cheer? That light never seems to diminish, does it? And they seem to stay that way, even if you know them well enough to know the burdens they carry inside but don’t show to the world.
We should ask ourselves not just how readers will recognize our recurring characters, but how they deeply know them. Based on a character’s history, what are readers waiting for them to do? Will the character’s new icy façade melt in empathy? Will their old explosiveness somehow ignite? Is newfound kindness a cover for their old scheming selfishness? In what ways are they still endearing? Or frustrating? What element of their past selves will we most ardently root for to reappear? How long can we tease and yet withhold that element?
It’s important to know which aspects of your returning characters are unalterable. How do their core beliefs and fundamental characteristics come to bear on the changes you explored above?
ep·ic /epik/ noun
1 – a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.
2 – extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope. <That story was epic!>
I admit, I’ve always been a bit frustrated by the confines of the marketplace’s definition of “novel length.” As a reader, I’ve always favored long books—stories that begin at a hero’s childhood and quite often encompass much of her or his life. I can see how such extended character explorations can still be viable, even in today’s market. Through an extended series—one in which the previous trilogy appeared almost a decade ago—Robin Hobb has provided a brilliant pair of examples in Fitz and the Fool.
I’m drawn to tell these kinds of stories. I want my work to extend beyond the usual or ordinary in scope. So I’m seeking to get it right. I patiently strive to prepare a worthy first offering—one that will lead to the chance to delve into my characters’ many transformative experiences.
After all, I’m not just seeking to publish a story. I’m seeking a career as an epic fantasy author.
And you? Do you have a favorite recurring character? Do you seek to write a series, or have you considered it?
Goth Warrior Photo Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_evdoha’>evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Excellent post, Vaughn. It’s a wonderful thing when an author inspires us so! “Have them change!” “Have them stay the same!” Thanks for the timely reminders. Your characters and world are epic, and, unforgettable. You are an epic fantasy author! 😀
Thank you, Brin… For wading all the way through such a long post! 😉 Seriously, I really appreciate your ongoing encouragement. Don’t know where I’d be without you in my corner. 🙂
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Good morn, Vaughn!! I’m using that greeting because I’m fresh off of a Netflix binge watching a Danish dramedy–Rita. Her character arc over three seasons was so well done–real, believable, fascinating, yet simple. I am now in a funk, “missing” her and wondering what she’s up to. Thanks for your inspiration–since Rita’s on hiatus I have time to get back to writing! Tak!
Now I must look into Rita! Woo-hoo! Sorry about your funk, but I’ve got three seasons to explore. I’m there with you, wondering how Fitz is faring (and Robin left him in a fretfully untenable position, of course). Thanks for wading through a long post featuring another genre, Dee! You’re not just a funny (and funky) friend, you’re a steadfast one. Have a great weekend!
Great post, V! I’m not an epic fanstasy writer, but the premise of character evolution I believe is the most powerful aspect of storytelling be it one story or a hundred.
The curious thing I’ve noticed is the evolution of the writer as they write and rewrite. I suppose it’s an inevitable part of the journey..
Hey B! Yes, the principles of evolution and transformation certainly apply within a single story.
Your observation about the writer’s evolution reminds me of my very first (non-family member) beta reader. He’s an old friend, and the poor guy read what was basically a first draft… of the entire Broken Oaths trilogy! (So in ’09). A while back he reread the most recent version of book one. Regarding Rohdric, he said, “Boy, he’s different.” I’m not sure why it startled me, so I said, “You think he’s changed that much?” His reply: “Yeah, now he’s a total dick!” I had to laugh. But that’s evolution, for sure.
Have a great weekend, B! Thanks for your support!
[…] Vaughan Roycroft has series aspirations and looks at Robin Hobbs’ Assassin series in this post: Drawn to the long arc. […]