In his latest fantasy, James K. Burk experiments with not just two or even three points of view, but with twelve, including a wide range of age and sex, and one outsider to whom everything he sees is new and foreign. That means he had to think about the issues of culture, attitudes, religion, even clothing and eating habits, in some detail when he started out. I'll let him explain.
One of the greatest challenges of writing is the creation of an engaging and memorable character. The character need not be likable, but the reader should be able to look at the world through that character’s eyes. That is, in my experience, best achieved by using a limited third-person point of view. Other techniques will work but I prefer that approach because it allows the writer to display to the reader the values and ethics of the character through their perceptions.
My novel The Twelve was written at least partly as a writer’s challenge. One has a tendency to slip comfortably into only one or two character types. In The Twelve, I wanted to show twelve different points of view. The first hurdle in that sort of game is to let the reader know, at all times, whose head they’re inside and whose eyes they’re looking out of. This was addressed by breaking up the story into short chapters with the name of the viewpoint character as the title of the chapter.
As a writer, the next trick was to actually perceive the world as the characters did. Since the characters were of both sexes and from late teens or early twenties into quite elderly ages, this requires a writer to employ a literary version of method acting. One’s outlook depends partly upon the state of one’s health, as well as age, sex , and the culture at large. The writer must, therefore, take all these factors into account when sharing the characters’ perceptions.
In fantasy and science fiction, the writer must also be intimately familiar with the culture or cultures within which the story has been set and must convey it to the reader. A culture is part and parcel of the character, whether he or she reflects the culture or rebels against it, and it has so many ramifications that it is the sea in which the character swims.
Again, the writer must have a clear vision of the society. Is the culture largely shaped by religion or is religion largely ignored? For example, Iceland converted to Christianity around the year 1000 but it made a negligible difference in the daily life of the people. Rather than being deeply pagan or deeply Christian, the Icelandic “religion” was a sort of aggressive fatalism. What was fated to happen could happen and was inescapable. One had a store of good luck and when it was used up, that person was doomed. What was important was the fortitude with which one met the inevitable. Most fatalistic cultures tend to be passive but, to the Icelanders, it was an incentive to adventure and standing up for what you thought was the right thing. Or, in some cases, the thing wanted, right or not.
Culture, sometimes reinforced by religion, is reflected in, among other things, how women, the young, the aged, minorities, strangers, and even servants or slaves were treated, and your character reveals himself or herself by how the character reacts to the people around them.
What sort of art is appreciated and practiced? These play a major role in the development of characters. What sort of music do they produce? Are they literate or do they have an oral tradition? Almost every culture uses drawing or painting. Do they have sculpture? What sorts of dances do they perform and for what reasons?
Climate and terrain play a very important part in the development of culture but not to the degree that it is predictable. Most highlanders live hard lives of scarcity, even privation, and the result is often a people who are dour, parsimonious, and often reserved or even hostile to other peoples, but might be quite hospitable to lone travelers who bear news of the outside world. Or outsiders might be considered contaminants.
Names are sometimes essential to a character, both for a reader and for the character. We often use names with no sense of there meaning but once upon a time (and still in some cultures) names had meaning. For instance, the common name John once meant “God is gracious.” Other common names also have very strong or poetic meanings, and that gives another clue about culture. So the meaning of a name can help display the culture and it may, of course, have its effect on the character.
Some cultures consider names to have power, and to protect themselves, may have a true name and a use-name. The use-name will almost always have a meaning but it will never have the same meaning as the true name.
For the character to resonate with the reader and seem real to them, the character must have flaws as well as virtues. Given the culture, what we might now see as flaws might be seen by others as desirable traits. Among the Icelanders, words like “formidable” and “ruthless” were not terms of approbation. They were necessary qualities for a leader.
So, we have our character and the culture in which he or she lives. Often a writer will get a “twofer” by making the character a stranger in a different culture, which lets the writer introduce the reader and the character to the new culture simultaneously but, unless you’re going to pull A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the writer must deal with the character’s perceptions being colored by the culture from which they came.
Two more quick words of advice; the character, to be believable must sweat and must stain his shirt when he does so; and even minor characters, down almost to the spear-carriers, must be considered characters, not stereotypes.
There are two ways to accomplish all this. The writer must either start with a clear vision of the character and the world he or she inhabits, or must edit like a pro.
About James K. BurkJames was born long, long ago in a place far, far away. He had as normal a childhood as one could expect of someone who grew up to be a critic and writer. He was taught (or was that conditioned?) by a succession of nuns and Jesuits. His favorite job was being a Sunday gunman. This was a summer weekend job at an amusement park helping stage old west gunfights. He was usually cast as either the villain or the village idiot. This is called type-casting. He writes everything from fantasy to science fiction to weird westerns.
Besides his shorter work, Burk has two novels currently in print, Home is the Hunter is half of Double Dog #3, and his fantasy novel, The Twelve has received some very satisfying reviews. Check out Amazon's James K. Burk author page for more details