Settings are like ocean currents — rough, raw, unhinged — and characters are droplets of water — intricate, refined, polished. Fundamentally speaking, they come from the same thing: the world of fantasy in your mind; however, to put them down on paper, there are no universal formulas. This week, we don’t dive into waters, but instead, we fetch from the ocean and take what we find upon land, where we can study them under the glistering sunlight.
The depths of a character can be analyzed using the physique of a water droplet — something so easily overlooked by the vast majority, yet adored and treasured by the few. After all, when was the last time you paid attention to a character that wasn’t your favorite? Because a character is quite a lively, complex element, it is rather difficult to convey the method of construction through just words on a piece of paper; thus, I will be using William Allingham’s The Maids of Elfin-Mere to explain this model step by step. Instead of diving in, let’s just sit by the waters today, shall we?
When one is sketching out a water droplet, the first they do is the outline. Fantasy is a genre that heavily utilizes archetypes — royalties, magicians, heroes, jesters — you name them. By labelling characters with words that already have connotations, you’re ultimately making it easier on yourself and on your reader. Instead of describing how all-powerful and majestic a man is, just use the word King. A big part of poetry is concision: using brief, unforgettable descriptions to depict deep themes that the reader can ponder on for the rest of their life.
There is, however, a fine line between an archetype and a stereotype — the former is a concise description of a character, while the latter is a generalization of something about the character based on said description. Put it this way: an archetype is the shape of your water droplet, be it round, long, flat, curved — you name it — while a stereotype is the exact shape you would find if you google the word “raindrop.”
The maids from The Maids of Elfin-Mere are described as damsels in the lines:
When the spinning-room was here
Came Three Damsels, clothed in white,
With their spindles every night;
By directly labelling the maids as damsels, Allingham not only gives the readers a vague idea of what the characters look and act like, but also plants in a foreshadowing that would be overdone without the usage of archetypes. The concept of damsels paints an image of impending doom, of helplessness and despair, of a beautiful heart about to be ruined, and that corresponds to the end of the piece, where the three maids appear to have died.
One that night who wander'd near
Heard lamentings by the shore,
Saw at dawn three stains of gore
In the waters fade and dwindle.
If this were foreshadowed using something different from the archetype damsel, the narration in the beginning would’ve most likely given out too much information, and the maids’ death would come off as underwhelming to readers.
2. Highlights, Shadows
Now that the outline of your droplet is laid, it’s time to bring it to life. Characters in fantasy are usually more predictable — but that doesn’t mean they have to be simple. Most people find water droplets beautiful under an angled sunlight, where highlights and shadows are formed on the clear surface. Likewise, characters become more intriguing when readers see their best and their worst; and by this, I don’t necessarily mean a distinct paragraph where the reader can point to and identify as the best or worst day of a character’s life. Sometimes the most subtle nudges leave the deepest cuts: the hero’s mask slipped in a moment of anger to reveal that they were corrupted all along, the jester turns out to be a façade for a prodigy who just wanted a normal life, the ice-cold queen has an affair with the eccentric witch in the woods; write about characters’ bests as moments when no one is watching, and their worsts as they are closest to human…the possibilities are endless.
In The Maids of Elfin-Mere, Allingham writes from the perspective of a lover of the three maids:
Most of all, the Pastor's Son,
Listening to their gentle singing,
Felt his heart go from him, clinging
Round these Maids of Elfin-Mere.
Sued each night to make them stay,
Sadden'd when they went away.
Between lines 4 and 5 in this stanza, there is a strong shift in emotion from an eager, romantic mood to a disappointed one — the best moments of the maids were bright, beloved, and the worst, alone. This shows that their personas go beyond damsels. They are their own complex persons with glimmers and hollows in their lifetime. In fantasy, not one main character is flat — as the saying goes, “villians will burn down the world for a last kiss goodbye.”
But a water droplet isn’t just black and white — what are your character’s true colors? When you strip them out of their shallow desires and frivolous motives, to the point where they don’t remember their own names, until the past and the future overflow into each other’s waves, what color does their heart beat in?
In The Maids of Elfin-Mere, two lines are repeated at the end of every stanza:
Years ago, and years ago;
And the tall reeds sigh as the wind doth blow.
On the surface, the couplet adds the dimension of time — a pretty face becomes one’s goddess, and a quick summer love turns into a lifelong loss — which deepens the theme of this piece. However, there is more to these lines. Looking back, are the maids merely damsels to the reader? This intensification of theme also grants a veil to the characters involved. The maids are more than the three women sewing in the moment, they are more than the beautiful faces adored by the pastor’s son — they are people, with thoughts and dreams and regrets, who had their time in this world before being taken away. They are alive in words, in tales, as people with pasts beyond being damsels in distress. Most importantly — they are human.
With that being said, write down that character you’ve had in your head for years but couldn’t find a way to put down. I promise they will come out exactly like you’ve dreamed of. Like last time, here are some songs that correspond to the discussions in this article: Darkside and Diamond Heart by Alan Walker, Take You Down by Illenium, and I know Places, I Did Something Bad, and Getaway Car by Taylor Swift.
A few years ago, Taiwanese writer Yun-Fei Wang had begun using fiction as an escapism from the overwhelming sadness of being alive. Now that she's 16, falling deeper than ever, she can fortunately affirm that literature has been, is, and will be the only fragment of sanity in her life. Find her at a silent midnight, or at @immortalrainpoetry on Instagram.