Your Character’s “Thing”

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.