Kameron Hurley (Empire Ascendant) on Writing Distinctive (and Divisive!) Characters

Please welcome Kameron Hurley back to the blog! The newest book in her Worldbreaker Saga, Empire Ascendant, just came out, and Kameron was kind enough to write a guest post on how she writes her characters.
Writing Distinctive (and Divisive! Characters)

Building interesting, distinctive characters that your readers learn to love – or love to hate – is a core component to learning how to write a great story. I’d go so far as to say that you can fall down on prose pretty hard and still write a compelling story that sells if it’s peopled with interesting folks caught up in compelling situations (indeed, I can think of many bestsellers that fit this bill).

But how do you keep all those characters distinct in readers’ minds? Especially when you’ve got, say, an epic fantasy series with over a hundred named characters?

This was the dilemma I faced when writing my Worldbreaker series, starting with The Mirror Empire and continuing here with book two, Empire Ascendant.

Viewpoint characters are by far the easiest to differentiate. You get to be inside their heads and show readers how they see the world. What they notice will depend largely on who they are. Soldiers and assassins are more likely to scan a room for possible weapons and exits. Your weaver is going to notice the type of cloth on the table, and the state of the sweater tossed casually at the foot of the bed. Who people are bleeds into dialogue, too: the way people swear (or don’t), and whether or not they get straight and directly to a point or use euphemisms will say a lot about who they are and how they were raised.

Some of my favorite ways to work out who my characters are is to simply put them in the same room together and have them get into an argument. Most of this dialogue gets cut in the final work, but it allows you to find the rhythm of how they talk and also tease out how individual characters get along (or don’t.) I like to build in points of tension when I create groups of characters. Take two people from feuding families or feuding nations have them work together to achieve a goal. Pair someone who had an alcoholic mother with an alcoholic teammate. Put two people from warring religious sects onto a committee. These conflict-ridden situations will make you interrogate who each of your characters is and determine what they stand for fairly quickly. It also has the added bonus of adding a lot of great conflict to your book outside the primary plot. Having your characters on a slow boil, ready to burst at each other, makes for tension-laden storytelling.

While I had a fairly good idea going in about how I wanted to differentiate my primary viewpoint characters, secondary characters and those one-off spear carriers who walk in and out of a scene tend to be far more difficult to differentiate. A colleague of mine used the phrase “hats and mustaches” to describe how he helps readers identify who’s who in a growing cast. Give someone a peculiar way of speaking, or walking, or a funny hat or physical tick that you can refer to a few times throughout the book. Note that it’s easy to go overboard with this – Robert Jordan famously had a character tug on her braid so many times throughout the course of his Wheel of Time series that it got to be a running joke – but it’s a good shorthand for characters we’re only going to see two or three times in the course of a novel or series.

I gave one of my characters, Elaiko, a fondness for tea, as her family grew it. Not only was she an expert in knowing precisely what brew to get which person, but she could be counted upon to try and solve every problem with a cup of tea. Another, Gian, developed a habit of hoarding food, a reaction to extreme stress that also became a go-to description for her in any given situation. What had Gian hoarded now? My favorite villain, Hofsha, has a notoriously toothy grin and acquired a ridiculous floppy hat that also set her apart from her colleagues.

Building in these little details doesn’t take much time, and not only serves to clue in readers about who’s who in your world, but also enriches your story. If you do it right, it can provide a way for you to write your way out of some story problems. It turned out that Gian’s food hoarding introduced an important plot point in Empire Ascendant that would never have felt organic to the story otherwise.

How you track these characters and their wily habits is up to you – I have a wiki for my series that’s constantly updated with character descriptions to ensure that I keep everyone straight. That said, I’d also encourage folks to let characters grow and stretch a bit. Remember that nothing’s set in stone until you send off page proofs to the publisher. Don’t be afraid to tinker with your characters and their quirks and motivations until you get them right.

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Meeting Infinity.

Keep up with Kameron: Website | Twitter