Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Characters and Worlds

I was talking the other day with a close friend about different types of stories and readers. She is very interested in characters, she wants to see them change, develop, etc. She is also a huge fan of George R. R. Martin. I am much more interested in setting, when I right my characters can sometimes go unchanged for long periods, while I get lost in developing the world in which they live. I prefer J.R. R. Tolkien to Martin.
As we were talking, it brought to mind some stuff that I have read in the past about what drives stories and authors. I think this is important not just for own writing, to know our tendencies and where we may need to be more deliberate, but also to properly understand other author’s work. Tolkien and Martin are spectacular contrasting examples.
The primary appeal of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is built around the setting and the new world that Tolkien is showing.  The characters are meant to be windows into that world. Merry and Pippen are supposed to show us what hobbits are like, no what individuals they are. The same can be said of Gimli, Legolas, and Eomer. These characters have only minor arcs and their primary identity is wrapped up in the cultures, the people groups, they represent. This is also why the movies felt the need to add in so much with Aragorn, while a fascinating (and I think) compelling character, he does not have a lot of development or arc in the story.
By contrast, Game of Thrones is built around character. The world of Westeros, for all it’s differences, is far more similar to our own than Middle Earth. Characters such as Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Petyr Baelish do not give us windows into a people group or setting. Rather they drive the story and shape it as characters themselves.
Readers do not come away from Lord of the Rings talking about the great character development, just as they do not come away from Game of Thrones talking about how much they really got a sense of King’s landing. The two stories are driven differently.
Both however, do utilize the opposite method in crafting their story. Bilbo and Thorin in The Hobbit, and Frodo and Sam, go through a slight character arc that, especially in Bilbo’s case, can be very important to the point of the story. Danaerys’ Blood Riders have very little to make them unique or special, their role is to give the reader a sense of the Dothraki culture, and characterization in that role would distort the picture they represent.
The reason I think this is important is it means a lot to the story. When you are reading, try to understand what you’re reading. Is the author trying to show character arcs and changes, or are they more focused on revealing a new and interesting world. It will help you get more out of the story along with a better understanding of what the author is trying to communicate.
Also, if you are a writer, understanding the difference between setting vs. character writing can help you identify where you need to be more intentional. I know I have to go back and work long and hard on my characters, otherwise they can come across as cardboard set pieces moving around a beautifully drawn map. 
An excellent read on this subject by the way, Orison Scot Card's Character & Viewpoint, one of the few writing books I wholeheartedly recommend.
What do you prefer? Are you looking for characters? Or are you more interested in a beautifully developed world? If you’re a writer, what do you prefer to write?


  1. You make some very good points here! I've always wondered how Tolkien could get away with such a plethora of characters in a detailed setting and I think you hit on it: none of them are all that developed. (Granted, I'm only going off my sketchy memory of Dad reading us the Hobbit a few years back.) He strikes a balance because his characters aren't the focus.

    I would have to say that I struggle with the opposite problem: interesting characters in a very bland, overly realistic world. I had never considered that achieving both is so difficult. I'll have to pay more attention to how other writers handle this from now on.

    I would say in general that I look for characters. As long as I can picture the setting and it suits the characters, I don't mind if it comes off as a backdrop. I'm awful with mental geography, anyway! I will never complain about vivid scene-painting, but ultimately the characters must grab me. But I suppose this also depends on the genre. If the book is not set in my world, then I will raise the standard on setting.

    1. Glad you liked it Abigayle. I would say don't get too worried about a bland world. It's important to have setting match the story, but it is far more important to understand what kind of story you're telling and play to your strengths. I think one could argue that many of Martin's settings are less than compelling, but he's not really interested in that.
      Another example might be how JK Rowling changes Hogwarts throughout her books. In the first couple of books, the magic and wonder of Hogwarts is a big part of the attraction while Harry and his companions are less interesting characters. However, as the series goes on and Hogwarts is well established, the characters become more nuanced and the setting fades into the background, having done it's job in the earlier books.