Originally published 2016-02-19: Complex Characters with Joleene Naylor | Spotlight Saturday
I’m always on the lookout for an author whose style – whether it’s the way they put the words on the page, the kinds of stories they tell, or a particularly memorable character that they have created – stands out amongst all the books being published today. Now more than ever, readers can get their hands on any kind of book they want at an affordable price that is delivered straight to their door or e-reading device without any extra effort on their part.
It’s tough to dig an individual trench through all the books and authors out there clamoring for our attention, so when I find an author who does so, I always love to pick their brain. How did they do it? What makes their writing different? Where and how do they write? What color socks are their favorites?
Well, maybe not that last bit, but you get the idea.
Joleene Naylor is one of those stand-out writers. She’s incredibly prolific, and she writes about the kind of characters that stick out in your mind as something different. They’re enigmatic, varied, and without a doubt embody the word complex. I asked her to talk a little about creating complexity in fictional characters, and she was kind enough to oblige.
Characters. No matter the genre – or medium – of your story, characters are important. They have the job of presenting the plot, and a well written story feels like it is driven and ruled by their motives and personalities. Unfortunately, with only so much “face time”, rushed plots, and in some cases just poor writing, characters often end up one-dimensional.
The basic characters of a story can be broken down into the old archetypes of the black and white cliffhangers. There’s the “good guy”, the “bad guy”, and generally someone “in distress”. Though these character types are present in every story in one form or another, they are most easily recognized in speculative fiction such as fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal stories.
With the focus of many of these kinds of stories being on the adventure, things like motives sometimes get tossed to the wind. Oftentimes the villain is evil just because he is evil, the good guy is good just to be good, and for the sake of goodness he helps out whoever or whatever is in distress (whether it’s a village under threat from an invading hoard, native aliens threatened unscrupulous earth men, or a human hunted by evil vampires).
In reality there are many shades of gray between those two black and white personalities, and a lot of motivations. Like all morality, good and bad are in the eye of the beholder. One man’s murderer is another man’s conqueror. By the same token, one man’s hero is another man’s villain. It all depends which side of the line you’re standing on.
Very few villains think they are the bad guy. If you watch interviews with criminals and murderers, most feel that their actions were justified. If you asked them if they were good or bad, most would consider themselves good, even if they admitted that what they did was wrong. This same principle should apply to vampire lords and evil wizards.
The same can be said of heroes. Sure, there are people who do things because they feel it’s “the right thing” to do, but at the same time they’ve done bad things. In some cases the “right things” they did are even bad. The aforementioned murderer is evil for killing someone, but if our hero kills the murderer then it’s an act of good simply because we have judged and deemed the murderer to be someone who should be “stopped”. If he does it to defend whoever is in distress, it’s an act of heroics.
If someone were to ask me what makes a complex villain, I would say simply, “It’s a villain who has a visible point of view.” That may not mean you agree with why he’s blowing up buildings, or sending out undead armies, but you can still “see” why. You can understand his motivations and maybe, just a little, you might even sympathize with him or better yet feel sorry for him.
At the same time, my opinion of a complex hero is one who may not be doing things because it’s “right”. Most people are selfish creatures, no matter how much we try to fight it, and just as the villain does things because he thinks he has a cause, so to the hero’s cause is usually just as selfish. It might be revenge. It might be because a wizard told them they had to do it. It might be because they’re trying to get a hot female vampire hunter on their side. And while I want to cheer for the hero, I also want to sympathize with him or her as well, and I can’t do that if they’re too perfect. In fact, a perfect hero will usually make me stop reading.
I could cite several examples of this done right – and examples of this done wrong – and we might not agree. There’s a lot of space between the white, “You got it right,” and the black, “This is bad,” and just like morality, there is always room for a million shades of gray.
About Joleene Naylor
Joleene Naylor is the author of the glitter-less Amaranthine vampire series, a world where vampires aren’t for children. As a compliment to the novel series, she has also written several short stories, including the Vampire Morsels collection. In her spare time, Joleene is a freelance book cover designer and for-fun photographer . She maintains several blogs full of odd ramblings, and occasionally updates her website at JoleeneNaylor.com.
In what little time is left, she watches anime and pins recipes and DIY, all from a crooked Victorian house in Villisca, Iowa. Between her husband, family, and pets, she is never lonely. Should she disappear, one might look for her on a beach in Tahiti, sipping a tropical drink and wearing a disguise. The first book in her paranormal Amaranthine series, Shades of Gray, is available free at most ebook retailors.