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Thursday, November 3, 2016

GUEST BLOG: Some Thoughts on Overpowering & Balancing Characters in Fantasy by Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton is a favorite author of mine. His fantasy novels are detailed, unique and a pure joy to read. In honor of his recently released novel, Spellbreaker, which came out in August, he has decided to stop by and talk with Fantasy Book Critic about writing within the fantasy genre.

To learn more about Spellbreaker and even read the first chapter, visit our blog post from August. Click here to go to the blog post.

Without further ado, I give you Blake Charlton. Enjoy!  


Some Thoughts on Overpowering & Balancing Characters in Fantasy

Recently, I’ve formed a hypothesis about overpowering characters in fiction. I doubt it’s an original observation or even a very profound one, but it’s helped me develop as a writer, and for some reason it took writing three books for me to form it, so I thought I share it. Here’s the hypothesis: The caveats regarding overpowering characters extend to morality, characterization, and voice.

First let me define my terms. Usually “overpowering,” as I understand it, happens when an author--perhaps too much enjoying the personal wish-fulfillment aspect of writing--gives one or more character abilities so powerful that they weaken the story. Epic fantasy and space opera can be especially vulnerable to overpowering: technology that confers invisibility, magical powers that confer omnipotence. It’s hard to develop meaningful conflict and tension when a character is so power that they don’t have to change to achieve their goal. The quick fix is to power up the antagonist, while this sometimes works, it often lead to uninteresting polarizing escalation. While many starting out writing science fiction and fantasy initially overpower their technology or magic, most quickly learn to limit the speculative elements or impose a cost on the use of the magic or technology. My personal favorite, of course, is to create a character with a disability, which interacts in some meaningful way with the speculative element.  

What I hadn’t until recently realized, and perhaps what others might find useful to contemplate, is that the phenomenon of overpowering extends to basic aspects of fiction. One easily demonstrated example might be morality. If you “overpower” morality in your story, you may end up with a protagonist who is an angel and an antagonist who is a demon.  A few years back, there was much made of the GRRM’s minimal use of magic in A Song of Ice and Fire. There was a parallel conversation about the “gritty” or even “grimdark” characterizations in fantasy, where no one character was wholly good and wholly evil--though most were wholly unsavory. I find it interesting now to look back at those two discussions and see them as interconnected. Epic fantasy had had too many “overpowered” magic systems in the past, and, if you will, it also had too many “overpowered” moral systems.  The movement then was one of balancing both magical and moral power.

Hopefully this is useful to you in more than just an exercise in semantics. What I’m driving at is that, maybe, in fiction the balance of power is important across many different qualities.  As I think of it now, characters can be overpowered not only in terms of magic or technology or moral standing, but also in terms of voice and characterizations. If only one character has a unique and lively voice, they will drown out the other voices. If you have a massive number of characters described in great depth and given great detail, it may be too much for the reader to track--perhaps you have “overpowered” the deep characters and you need to make some of them more “flat” for contrast.  

I don’t mean to imply that balance is always better. Balance or lack thereof is subject to trends. We certainly seem to be going through a trend of complete moral balance, almost moral equivocation; in almost every medium there are now successful franchises about sympathetic villains, anti-heroes, or morally ambiguous protagonists. I found thinking about balance useful when writing my last novel and find it useful even today as I think about what it might mean about our current global society and political atmosphere that we are so fascinated by moral balance in our stories.

If you’re the type of person who is curious, I wrote the lead character of my latest book Spellbreaker as a way to explore this interest in moral balance and “overpowering” a character in morality. My goal was to make her anti-heroic, but rather than being neither wholly good or bad I wanted her to demonstrate great capacity for both.  The book starts out with her acquiring a prophetic spell that allows her to know that in one day’s time she will have to choose between murdering someone she loves or dying herself.  She readily accepts that she will soon become a murderer and sets off on a sort of “inverse murder mystery.” That is to say, rather than an investigator trying to figure out who killed the victim and why they did it, we have a murderer trying to figure out who her victim will be and why she will do it. I also gave her the ability to misspell any magical text she touched but at the price of exacerbating a chronic autoimmune-like disease she has had since childhood and, she has always known, will condemn her to die while still young. I like to think it provided for some interesting character development. If you should pick up the book, I’d be curious to hear if you agree.

So, anyway, overpowering and balancing, that’s it. Fairly simple thoughts. I hope they’re useful or at least interesting. I’m always curious to hear what others think about such things.


Kathryn Troy said...

This was a very thought-provoking piece, and I whole-heartedly agree what when we don't balance things like magic, morality, or character's abilities, the storytelling suffers, causing the genre as a whole to suffer. It's hard to show emotion without characters having anything in their universe that creates a sense of urgency. It's interesting that you've tried to achieve balance with disabilities. In my own fantasy fiction, I've incorporated mental instability--not any specific diagnosis, but rather the triggers we can all have in emotionally unbalanced lives, that can unhinge our behaviors and decision-making. I've explored, for example, and how people with super abilities deal with loss or self-destructive/suicidal impulses.

Blake Charlton said...

Thanks for the consideration of the post and the kind words. I'm glade the idea balance and imbalance resonates with your work as well!

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