Badass does not equal Badass Characterization

We’ve all seen this, I know we have. There’s a woman, usually young, usually beautiful. Or a man, young and handsome: we’ll go with a woman here because I’m a woman, and I write a lot of female characters. This woman has a sword, an axe, some daggers, whatever. And she kicks ass. She kicks attitudinal, full-blown orgasmic ASS.

But that’s all she does.

This character (who we will call, for the purpose of this post, Griselda) has a smart mouth, serious skill, level-headed cool. You can count on her to deliver a pointed remark (or a pointed object) to a much-needed destination. She often falls in love with (or, worse, IS) the main character of the story. Her backstory is traumatic in some way–family killed cruelly, husband/wife murdered, sexually abused, raised by a press-gang of flesh-eating priests, you name it. She has ‘grown strong’. Whatever happened will never happen again.

Cue my problems.

While it’s certainly interesting in a movie to watch the bloodbath boil, it gets a little boring in a book. There are only so many fight scenes I’m prepared to read per chapter. And Griselda–well, Griselda kills a lot of people. For justice. Because that’s what makes a strong character, right? Killing people for justice.

And this justice-killing bombshell, who has some adorable flaw tacked on for the sake of salving the writer’s conscience (“it’s all okay if she’s clumsy too, right? As long as it doesn’t affect the plot, or that feast scene where she has to dance…”), well. For some reason, she’s otherwise lovable and kind, and not at all bothered by the fifty or so people she’s ended this chapter. She’ll be a great Queen someday, whether she knows it yet or not.

I know Griselda’s type. That type, in reality, is called a sociopath.

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t just a girl thing. People do this to men all the time too. (Usually, okay, minus the dance scene). But characterization, my loves, is all in the consequences. There are some things that have happened in Griselda’s life, some things she’s done, that would have an impact on her character. Badasses aren’t usually the most pleasant people to know.  And they certainly aren’t the prettiest.

Some things to think about, before you decide your character is a badass warrior motherfucker:

1) This is probably not a pretty person. Unless your badass is just starting out at Badass University, there are probably a couple of scars here and there. I imagine armor leaves some pretty interesting tan lines, and I imagine spending any time in armor in semi-tropical climates leaves you sweating like an ice cream bowl in a sauna. This person has been knocked around, kicked, punched in the face. This sort of thing leaves marks. It just does.

2) Why the hell is this person the way they are, anyway? Sure, Griselda’s husband/wife/child whatever was taken away in a murder most foul some years ago. This is horrible, and if I ever saw it played out convincingly I might believe it. But it’s also cliche. What on (insert name of fantasy land. here) could make this otherwise ordinary person bend to a life of camping on hard dirt, constant weapons maintenance, and wading through foetid puddles of liquid effluvia after a battle? Is it a desire for heroism? A need to be different? Otherwise unattainable sums of money? This is probably a grey person, a grim person. Or, if not, tell me why not. Better: show me why not.

3) All that killing to do, and you’re also a Prince/ss? If you are ruling the realm, and not just figureheading it, I imagine a lot of your time is spent in council rooms, shuffling around exciting things like zoning ordinances and building permits. Or learning to shuffle around building permits. You probably don’t have a lot of free time in which to pillage, murder, and otherwise raze the countryside. Sure, you might ride in a campaign or two. But if you’re out heroing it up constantly, why? Are you a shitty prince/ss? Do you have an inescapable longing, which your mother the Queen most definitely does not approve of, to see the Harkening Hills? Or maybe you’re just shy, and killing is easier than state dinners. At any rate, I need reasons. Characterization always needs reasons.

To put it simply–characterization is a string of cause and effect, in which the fantasy badass is caught up just as firmly as any other character, even in real life. A fantasy writer must be, of all the ironic things, a realist. If you’re not a realist, your world exists in the realm of smoke and mirrors, and that is precisely where fantasy should not exist. A believable world exists in a net of believable actions, even if those actions involve three-headed dragons and a duchess whose finest weapon is an enchanted tongue depressor. For example, if Griselda is Princess of the Realm of Forgotten Asafoetida, here’s how it might go.

A) Griselda is a warrior princess, and she is very pretty. This is feasible because:
1) She is still very young, which implies that
2) She probably isn’t all that good yet, so
3) She feels the need to prove herself on the field of battle, which is NOT going over well with Queen Mum, so
4) She’s been shirking her Princessy duties to practice, which both scares the hell out of mum and means she’s just THAT much worse at being a princess.

And you can see how, out of that, all sorts of questions jump out at you. Is it common to be a warrior princess, in good old Forgotten Asafoetida? What happens to Griselda when she finally princess-fails so hard her mum disowns her? Would the queen do that–or is the queen hopelessly doting? Maybe Griselda, following her warrior princess dreams, has to disown herself.  And what happens, anyway, when someone finally knocks out one of her front teeth? Is she embarrassed? Or could she care less? Maybe her father, the King, played around with a sword in his youth before he was tragically murdered by whoever. Maybe this is part of the reason Griselda’s so fixated on it. Maybe it’s part of why her mother hates it.

This is how you craft character. Character isn’t a matter of blue eyes or brown, position in society, identifying powers. It’s a matter of situation and reaction.

Characterization, worldbuilding, plot, are all interconnected. If you start to do one well, the rest will follow, because everything makes sense together.

Here’s to your warrior. May he or she win a lot of fights, in and out of the arena.

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5 thoughts on “Badass does not equal Badass Characterization

  1. Excellent post. One of the few that keeps me reading to the end.

    You have made me doubt the job I did characterizing. Luckily, I haven’t begun the first round of editing, yet. Just one more doubt to gnaw at me.

    But please keep it up. It will make me better.

    1. Heh, well. Don’t always trust me. I can be totally wrong, I promise.

      But characterization, I do feel, is best dealt with as a matter of cause and effect–a person who reacts to a spider by squashing it with a shoe, for instance, is a very different person from one who scoops it into a glass and takes it outside. And what if that spider is actually Aractoactyl, Nascent Spider God? Then you start getting a story–the world responds to your characters and their traits, not the other way around.

  2. Now I want to read about poor Griselda who is so shy she finds killing easier than state dinners. Please make this happen!

  3. Sociopaths make great game-changers in a world at war. Anyone who raises the priority of their own issues (revenge/sex/power/publication) above the accepted social “norms” constitutes sociopath. Unless the social setting is, you know, revenge/sex/power/publication-based. Then she’s just being an upstanding citizen.

    1. Precisely. The problem, I feel, is that people occasionally forget it ISN’T a societal norm to plot elaborate revenge, devote your whole life to said revenge, etc. It’s difficult to make readers identify with someone who falls noticeably outside societal norm–even if that outside is normal in the world of your story. Hence a point I made in the next posts about fantasy not being a matter of invention as much as it is innovation. Someone has to be relatable if you want readers. Not likeable, notice–but relatable, yes. 🙂

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