One of the most important stages of writing your next story is the creation and development of characters, both lead and secondary. If we can’t get the characters right the story will lose shape and our readers interest will dwindle. It’s vital that your characters are real and believable, get that right and you’ve cleared one of the biggest hurdles.
In this ‘The Write Advice’ post we speak with the innovative Ben Galley who has not only released two successful book series’ and a graphic novel, but also runs Shelf Help which helps to teach fellow authors about how to self publish. We delve into the intracacies of character development; touch upon the subject of magic systems; and of course take a peek at his current work in progress which sounds enthralling.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Of course – I’m Ben Galley, a fantasy author from the south coast of the UK. I’m the author of ten books, including the epic Emaneska Series and The Scarlet Star Trilogy, and I’m currently working on my 11th – The Heart of Stone. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and self-publishing since 2010. I’ve also been teaching fellow authors how to self-publish since 2012, via my site Shelf Help.
Your most recent series, The Scarlet Star trilogy, is a fantasy western, can you give us a low down on some of the main characters?
The trilogy centres around a thirteen year-old boy called Tonmerion Hark. After his father, the Prime Lord of the Empire, is murdered on the steps of their home, Merion’s sent to the edge of the known world, or as it’s better known: Wyoming. He’s an impetuous little brat at first, but the dangers of the west soon sharpen him up. He’s aided in his bold plans of escape and justice by his only friend in the world, a faerie called Rhin Rehn’ar. Rhin is an outcast of his own kind, an two-hundred year-old Fae soldier who Merion found half-dead in his garden a few years before.
In the west there’s Lurker, a sullen prospector with a talent for sniffing out gold, and Merion’s only living relative, his new minder: wise aunt Lilain. She’s the town’s undertaker, as tough as nails, and full of secrets.
How do you go about creating your characters and making them believable?
I believe good characters should have a purpose – a driving factor. We all have a purpose in life, big or small, so it means we identify with characters that exhibit similar goals, or at least goals we understand. That’s how I try to create my characters – from necessity outwards. Purpose not only drives their plot, but also defines how they interact with others along the way. I constantly ask myself, “what does this character want at this precise moment?”, and that dictates how their scenes pan out.
After deciding purpose, I set about defining characteristics, both physical as well as emotional. I usually take ideas from the Myers-Briggs personality types, which are really useful for building up characters’ traits and defining how they approach certain situations. I also like to include habits, maybe accents, or idiosyncrasies to make my characters as deep and as believable as possible.
What are some of the most important things to consider when creating the main characters for a novel or series?
When you write a series, a main character might have a story that peaks and troughs within a single book, but also be part of an overall story that spans an entire series. This means you have to think about how that will develop or change them, and how those changes ripple outwards to affect others. Exploring those ripples can lead you to ways of adding depth to your overall plot, or depth to a character’s history or personality.
With a single novel, you have less time for this character development, so your characters have to be immediately recognisable and identifiable, even if it’s as the mysterious, unknown quantity. This is where I always recommend bearing in mind that actions really do speak louder than words, Using actions to display traits rather than explaining characters through description and dialogue can often be far quicker, and far more effective, at conveying personality.
In either case, you have to make sure your readers like the central cast of the book. That’s paramount for enjoyment. Whether they like to love them or hate them, reading about them needs to be a rewarding experience. Characters who lack motive, or personality, or something a reader can identify with can make a book hard-going. In short, your readers have to care about your fictional underlings.
Do you spend as much time on the secondary characters and in what way do you develop these?
I don’t spend as much time on them as I do on my main characters, but I still spend a good amount of time on them, as I think they’re very important. I always seem to use the secondary (and I suppose tertiary) characters to represent other aspects of the world, the history, or the public mood. They’re the ones who can ask questions that help the dialogue to bounce around, or provide important stepping stones for the main protagonists.
There has been a lot of talk over recent years about making the fantasy genre more diverse, moving away from the older stereotypes. How important do you believe this is and why?
I think it’s always important to innovate. As a wise person once said, the most dangerous words in the modern world are, “but we’ve always done it this way”. Fantasy is fundamentally limitless. That’s why it’s called fantasy. Imagination knows no bounds, so why should it be limited by classic stereotypes and structures? The classics are fine pieces of work, and did amazingly to establish the genre, but nows the time to explore stranger lands farther afield. Overall It’s good for authors, and good for readers too.
Can you tell us about one of your more diverse characters and how you created and developed them?
I think Rhin Rehn’ar is possibly one of most diverse in the trilogy. Aside from being a faerie, and having to handle the human world from twelve-inches tall, Rhin is a creature with many facets. Loyal but a liar, strong in many ways and yet weak in more, he’s seen two centuries go by and has a deep understanding of the world, but his struggles and his ego blind him more than once through the series. As one of the Fae, he also has abilities, the breadth of which you’re never quite sure of. He took a lot of research, again into old mythologies and Celtic folklore. I started off making him surly, as if jilted by the human world, but around chapter five or six, I found a bit of swagger, mischief and sarcasm suited him better, so I went back to rewrite.
Did you come across any difficulties in making this character realistic and how did you overcome this?
Writing in Fae was a risk. I knew that. Even the mere inclusion of fairies can be enough to turn some readers off, myself included. Normally we (or at least I) hear fairies and think glitter and dust and tiny, bothersome beings. That’s why I knew I had to hark back to older forms of fairies; a more serious form of creature. Not a fairy, but a faerie. One of the Fae – known for their dangerous nature and meddling. That’s why Rhin can normally be found wrapped in dark steel armour, swearing at something or sharpening his sword. He’s also pretty handy in a fight, even against a human. (That took a bit of experimentation as well).
At first it was just to make Rhin and his chums different and intriguing, and in the end I think it added another layer of the world, linking with other parts of its history and giving credence to the mythical vein of bloodrushing.
I believe you have quite an intricate and vast magic system in The Scarlet Star series, how did you go about constructing this and how does it work?
With a lot of googling of the animal kingdom! I came up with the idea for the magic system before I had the first inklings of the trilogy. Strangely enough, the idea for the magic system came from researching Native American and Central American mythology, so when I started toying with my wild west plot, I realised the system could slot in perfectly.
The basis for the system comes from the idea of consuming the blood of an animal or enemy to inherit their power or their soul. I expanded that idea and added some rigidity to it – dividing the animal kingdom into six “veins” and almost a hundred individual “shades”, such as leopard or armadillo blood. One gives you night-eyes, the other an armoured shell.
Those that can drink blood and get power from it are called bloodrushers. They can normally stomach one or two, maybe three shades. Then there are leeches, who can stomach many shades, even veins. These two are staunchly against the drinking of human blood, which brings long life. Those that do drink it are called lampreys and for centuries the two have been at private war, with rushers on the losing side.
What were your biggest influences in conceiving the magic system and why?
I draw a lot of ideas from mythology, so that was the primary basis for the system. I was researching vampirism at the time, and came across “hematophagy” – blood drinking. I found it was pretty common; from the Maasai mixing cow blood and milk to Mongols drinking horse-blood out of necessity, and the Scythians, who drank the blood of the first enemy they killed in battle, to the Moche, who practised ritual blood drinking. Even in the bible there are elements of hematophagy, such as the eucharist and the blood of Christ. I found these stories so fascinating I wanted to explore the possibilities.
What would be your top tips for authors wanting to come up with a compelling magic system?
I think it has to be understandable, primarily. If it’s integral to the plot, then the reader has to understand how it works, so that when it’s used it doesn’t seem like a convenient device. As Brandon Sanderson puts it, in his First Law of Magic:
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
I also think that a magic system has to have a cost. For me, a system can’t be endlessly powerful, limitless, or free. Magic should have downsides or consequences for using it. I always see magic as something wild and powerful; something that should be tamed at risk. That’s why I incorporated costs into bloodrushing – mortal danger if trying shades you can’t stomach, or addictive qualities and long-term side effects.
And lastly, don’t be afraid to innovate and explore! There are plenty of forms of magic, and always a chance to invent something new, strange, or just plain fun.
Finally, can you give us a sneak preview into what your next project will be and when we’re likely to see it available?
I’m currently working on my 11th book, entitled The Heart of Stone. It’s my first standalone and also the first time I’m using a non-human protagonist. The story is told predominately through the eyes of a nine-foot tall stone golem. I’ve just broken the halfway point, so I think with editing and publishing, it could be out by Autumn or Winter. Stay tuned!
We’d like to thank Ben for taking time out to speak with us and would definitely recommend his website ShelfHelp that will tell you all you need to know about DIY self-publishing. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and over at his website…