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I am writing fantasy.

When I look up "what authors should know about their characters" I get advice like "know what you character fears", "know your character's central motivation", "know your character's worldview" etc.

However, when I actually think about the characters from fantasy fictions I enjoyed, I don't really find myself all that interested in those questions. In fact, the characters don't even make that strong of an impression on me.

Examples of things I like and what I thought about their characters:

  1. Name of the Wind: the protagonist is a goodie-two-shoes f***boy who has generic tragic backstory and likes women, but his adventures through the world is cool and I am intrigued when he interacts with the magic system.
  2. Worm (web serial): the protagonist is a generic "not-like-other-girl" with a weak affinity towards conventional morality, but it's captivating to watch her fight her enemies using her apparently mediocre powers or her surprising diplomatic genius.
  3. Wizard of Earthsea: the protagonist just wants to learn magic, and after his fall-from-grace moment he just wanted to fight off the monster chasing him. It's fun watching him interacting with his world and its magic, but I have no memory of what his personality is like, and I had no awareness of his character development while reading the story itself.
  4. Harry Potter (series) I actually don't recall anything about the titular character besides his generic tragic backstory. He does not seem to have any motivation besides trying to solve his immediate problems. He might not have done anything story-worthy had his problems not been forcefully thrusted upon him.

In summary: while I have very little interest in the characters themselves, I nevertheless enjoyed their respective stories, mostly because their settings are interesting and/or because the characters solved their problems in interesting ways.

With that in mind, I wonder if it is actually important to know things like "a character's worldview" or their "greatest, subconscious fears and desires", when such things are never realized in the writing in a memorable way. What's going on? Am I just too much of a psychopath to notice those character's inner thoughts, or are things like the appearance/superficial gimmicks of the characters actually more important?

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  • I think you're asking how to write a character-driven story versus a plot- or setting/worldbuilding-driven story. Everyone likes different things. I think you need to go back and re-read one + of these stories and really analyze the character and what they do/how their character makes you feel. Scifi/fantasy is rarely purely character-driven, being dependent on the fantastic for color. For a purely character-driven story, go for literary fiction for examples.
    – DWKraus
    May 15 at 13:37
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The points you have mentioned in your question are things that the author should know about the characters.

Those bits of information and ideas are to help the author make the characters's actions consistent and coherent.

They are not things that the author must explicitly tell or show to the reader.

As a reader, I would be fairly disappointed if the author were to dump a list of motivations or other characteristics of a figure in the story into the text.

On the other hand, I as a reader would notice if the author doesn't have and use that information about the characters.

As I read a story, I expect to learn (by observation) what to expect from the various figures. They should develop into people, each with a comprehensible personality. I should be able to develop some idea of what to expect from each character. Deviations from expected behaviour should be clearly deviations due to external conditions - or changes in personality in reaction to things the characters have experienced.

Characters whose behaviour is "whatever the author can come up with for the current situation" are frustrating and unrealistic.

There can, of course, be characters who are opportunistic and do whatever looks most advantageous in any given situation - but that should be a characteristic of the figure, not a failing of the author.


This is very much like the physical description of the characters.

The author must keep track of the physical appearance of the characters, and keep any needed descriptions consistent.

Discrepancies must part of the story, not carelessness of the author.

It is not OK to describe a character as bald in one moment and sporting a luxurious head of hair in the next - unless the author makes some kind of effort at explaining the change. Bald to full head of hair is OK if the character dons a wig as part of a disguise (or has a spell cast that causes hair to appear.) Or maybe the bald person removes a "skin head wig" to reveal the real hair underneath. Real changes are OK. Careless changes are not.

Clothes are the same. If the author describes the character wearing torn and dirty jeans, then it is not OK for the character to be suddenly wearing a tuxedo - unless the reader can reasonably expect the character to have had a chance and a reason to change clothes.

In the same way, the author must keep track of how the characters should behave and not change it without giving the reader a reason for that change. Changes that follow from the story are fine. Careless changes because the author forgot the characteristics of the figure are not OK.

That's the reasoning behind the points posted in the question.

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Authors use characters' wants and fears when crafting the narrative because authors want readers' engagement with their stories. It is not a question of what readers' really want, but how an author decides to establish the motivations that drive plots forward.

One method of achieving that is for the plot to be the fallout of the characters' decisions. Using the Wizard of Earthsea as an example, Ged goes to Pendor to secure the safety of the people he is charged with protecting. Ged feels compelled to do this because he knows he is responsible for unleashing the creature that hunts him. And, that the creature will possess him and wreak a worse evil on the world than the dragons represent. Plus, if he dies, the world is safe from the creature hunting him. But, when battling the dragons Ged is offered control over the thing hunting him in exchange for leaving the dragons alone to do things that dragons like to do.

In that one scene everything is driven by Ged's strengths and foibles and mistakes and knowledge and ignorance. The reader understands all these qualities about Ged, on some level, because Leguin built Ged's representation up over the chapters by using his actions and reactions and inner emotions to show us what makes Ged the man he is.

Character's who lack the things you are asking about don't have relatable motivations. We react to their stories as if they are a series of volcanic explosions or meteor strikes -- things happen without control by the character -- and get bored. A couple of these events are okay and might even be exciting, but a story filled with things happening to a character, unrelated to that character's decisions or actions, gets really boring really quickly.

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  • Is it bad that I don't remember any of the nuances in character motivation when it comes to the dragon-fight/confrontation? All I seem to remember are the volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes. Maybe a reader's attention/memory on such things is dependent on the quantity and quality of that reader's reading habit...
    – user289661
    May 15 at 23:38
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    @user289661, most of you humans remember things the way you describe. But, you experience reading in the moment, intuiting the oddness or rightness of character actions and reactions through the words of the author. That is the quality of good writing that creates the compelling desire to read the next sentence, and the next.
    – EDL
    May 15 at 23:43
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Going to add a simple answer into the mix as I completely agree with the OP. Detailed character breakdowns are definitely important, but sometimes much simpler first steps can help. Personally for me, whenever I am consuming something fictional (book, film, game etc) and a character is introduced I always ask myself these two questions:

  1. What is awesome about this character for me to pay any attention to them?
  2. Why should I actually care?

To break this down further, in my particular case I want to know what is interesting or unique about this character so that if they were an actual person standing in a crowded room, I would have incentive to walk up to them and get to know them. This could mean interesting or unique appearance or manner if I have never seen them before, or it could mean an interesting or unique part of their history/backstory which is already known to me.

If (1) is ticked off then we go onto (2). So, let's say the character is the most famous, most wealthiest person in the world who has just created a spaceship that can take you to the end of the universe and back in 1 minute flat. Amazing person indeed, but why should I care? Well, what if the world is about to implode on itself and your only chance of escape is that spaceship? Sign me up because now I do care!

One of the most frustrating things I find in fiction regarding characters, is when there are far too many characters than there need to be. If they don't add anything significant get rid of them, combine several characters into one, or just make them a nameless part of the crowd.

I hope that helps.

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