They All Look The Same To Me…

I’ve run into something tricky in my last few pieces, and it comes down to character description. I’m generally a ‘broad brush’ sort of writer when it comes to characters. A few pertinent physical details can be given, but it’s just as important to give the impression of characters, giving a glimpse of demeanour, gait and overall appearance – sly, shabby, aristocratic and so forth.

You just want me for my body

Which is all well and good when one is writing about the fabulously diverse human race. However, it tends to be the nature of SF and fantasy that other races/ species tend towards a grouping of one particular physical type. I’ve recently written two novels about Warhammer elves, I’m currently writing Path of the Warrior which deals with Eldar (the Warhammer 40,000 equivalent of elves) and of course there are plenty of stories about Space Marines. In these cases it isn’t really appropriate to talk about fat elves, short Eldar, wrinkly old Space Marines. Sure, there are some physical descriptors of eye colour, and hair colour, and a character or two can be outside the racial norm. In this last case though there’s the danger of the niche cliche – ‘tall, even for a Space Marine’ or ‘more graceful than most elves”. Such comparative descriptions only help if the reader can picture the norm being compared against.

This is where description has to tend towards behaviour and demeanour, and it’s not just enough to say ‘he looked shifty’ or ‘she was arrogant’. When trying to subdivide what is basically a trope or archetype, a writer really has to concentrate on expressing the personalities of the characters through their actions and dialogue. If the character strays too far from the norm, the essential ‘elfiness’ or ‘Space Marine-ness’ can get lost; on the other hand, if every character is the same, there’s very little dynamic in the relationships to be exploited – narrative is conflict, after all.

I’m a non-conformist individual, just like all my friends.

I find it best to think of these sorts of characters in two ways – exemplary traits and dissident traits. Exemplary traits are those aspects of the character that embody the wider image of the race. Dissident traits are those that are outside of the normal scope, or at least on the boundaries of what is consistent.

Some characters can be pure exemplar, totally embodying the culture and ideals of their species. Often the protagonist will be such a character, though I find it more appealing if the main personality of a story is a little different from the norm. A character that is nothing but dissident is probably an outsider, standing  apart from the beliefs, traditions and society from which they sprang. Such characters can be very interesting adjuncts to other characters, acting as a foil for their more traditional personalities. However, the writer may be prevented from giving the reader a deeper insight into those racial characteristics because their main character merely observes them rather than experiences them. This might lead the reader to be divorced from the culture being portrayed, associating strongly with the dissident character and having no empathy for the wider society.

When looking at the exemplary and dissident traits of your characters you’ll see where they mesh and where they differ, which leads to a social dynamic that can be explored in the writing. The differing levels of adherence and divergence from the usual racial characteristics need to be expressed through the characters’ behaviour – with each other and with the wider society. This gives you scope to explore the race from a slightly skewed perspective, highlighting some aspects through dissidence and some through conformity, leaving the reader in the position to make their own judgements (if they feel like it).

Dour Dwarfs are sooo last week

For some writers, the thought of having generic racial traits might seem a little narrow-minded. After all, isn’t it a bit old-fashioned that non-human races all conform (to a greater or lesser degree) to some personality template? If we put aside any physical differences between or human and non-human characters, and instead think of cultural personality rather than racial personality, it’s possible to see that all societies have distinctive traits and characteristics.

The trap that many fantasy and sci-fi worlds fall into is the assumption that physical race equals society, rather than incorp0rating the idea that just as human societies can be diverse, so too can non-human societies (Fantasy Novelist’s exam question 68). Different nation states may exist, they may even have several languages. Rather than seeing racial characteristics as boxes to confine characters, it can be worthwhile taking those benchmark traits and seeing how many different ways they can be expressed through action and personality.

For example, The Sundering deals with the elves of the Warhammer World. Not only that, it deals with them in their early history, before and during some of the great divides that later separated them into the distinct kindreds of High, Dark and Wood Elves. In writing the two novels so far, I’ve imbued different parts of elven society with different traditions and values, so that the elves of Ellyrion are distinct from the Caledorians and the Naggarothi and Tiranocii. They all embody the essential elvish traits – aesthetic, sophisticated, intellectually and cultural evolved – along with threads of arrogance, self-righteousness and overly emotive reactions. Yet the way they interact with each other, their environment and other cultures can be quite diverse.

All of which brings me to my final point (congrats on getting this far). All of this is just as true for human characters! Characters from different societies should have diverging cultural values expressed in the way they behave. It’s not enough to simply give them different styles of names and some exotic clothes if they all actually act and speak the same. Personality is influenced by culture, upbringing and environment and the same should be true of your fictional characters, whether human, elf or flangaloid.

Back in the real world: I’ve been beavering away on a couple of projects for the Black Library. The first is related to the Horus Heresy series, the second is my next 40K novel, Path of the Warrior. In addition, I’ve been contract-wrangling and will have some very exciting news soon. More to follow in the weeks and months to come!

Published in: on July 2, 2009 at 3:25 pm  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “You just want me for my body”

    “I’m a non-conformist individual, just like all my friends.”

    “Dour Dwarfs are sooo last week”

    This was worth reading simply for the above sentences. Interesting as always Gav.

    Didn’t know you had Path of the Warrior in the pipe, REALLY looking forward to that one. So no letting us down, ya hear?!



  2. Hello there Gav. interesting reading and some really valid points (the headlines were quit smile generating)

    I shall look forward to Path of the Warrior as I enjoy your writing of space marines. Though I had some reservations with Renegade, but we got that covered at length on the forum on BL =)


  3. Really looking forward to Path of the Warrior!
    Ever since your design notes on the 3rd edition Codex: Eldar -ten or eleven years ago?- I’ve been hoping to see some of the comments on the background developed. What, for example, are the “jaw-droppingly horrifying” plans of the Harlequins? At any rate, it is always interesting to see 40K fiction dealing with one of the non-human races as something other than a villain.


  4. I’m glad that you brought up the point of culture, some people will mention it but don’t give it much thought after “dour dorfs arrogant elfs”.

    Culture’s also what makes humans alien to one another. Go back to writing 100 or so years and people really did exist as seperate distinct races from one another.


  5. I am really interested in this type of subject, getting the most out of our written characters, and trying to the pander to just stereotypes.

    What techniques are you thinking of using to make Eldar feel more alien? My own limited understanding from your writings is that they have a quite unique physical structure that enables them to feel and think and even act so much faster than humans do. Hence why they became decadent and indulged in these extreme sensations. And later on were forced to make the Paths to help control and hone their powerful feelings.

    Assuming I got this right, would you be using any of this to portray your Eldar, or do you have other concepts in mind?


  6. “I’m a non-conformist, just like all my friends.” That’s a lyric taken from a song by 3rd Sunday Market. You should really cite your sources as such and not take the credit as an original thought.


    • I have heard that phrase in several places, but since I’ve never even heard of the band, I’m unlikely to credit them…


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