4 Things Sword-Building and Character-Building Have In Common
Fun fact! I build swords. Ones made out of PVC pipe and camping foam and contact cement (hereafter known as ‘DAP’) and duct tape.
My husband and I met at a Dagorhir battle club at college, beating each other up with foam swords according to the rules of this national sport. The rest, as they say, is history. And since he’s an awesome elementary school teacher, he adapted Dagorhir into a youth activity and taught at recreational centers, after school clubs, and this summer, an overnight camp.
All of this means that
- We have an increasing stockpile of sword-building supplies
- We get to have an enormous amount of fun even though we’re adults
- We hold annual weapon-building classes for the students.
Like this week. We work with the kids to build their weapons well, from the inside out, starting with the core. Which brought to mind some comparisons with character-building.
1.) People Won’t Get Why You’re Putting In the Effort
We have a small sunroom stocked with foam weapons and supplies, which all comes out on build week. Some people who stop by the room think it’s awesome. Some are just curious. And some wonder why grown-ups are kneeling on the ground and explaining different ways of applying DAP or talking about a really cool axe they saw. It’s just a silly toy, right? Only meant for amusement.
In the same way, people may not get why you spend time talking about (and to) your characters. Your imaginary friends, as it were. Why it matters what eye color they have, why you spend time finding the right name, why their backstory is a big deal. After all, get the words on the page, and make sure you have good cliffhangers, and readers will follow, right?
But my husband and I believe in excellence. While we know our weapons won’t be perfect (and we certainly know the students’ weapons won’t be perfect), we do everything unto God and to bless others with safe, playable weapons. In the same way, your characters won’t be perfect–in fact, perfect characters are dull. But the more work you put into them, the deeper and more satisfying they’ll be, and that blesses readers with a memorable ride that they’ll want to go on again and again.
2.) Things Get Sticky and Messy
Sword-building involves DAP. A lot of it. FYI, it doesn’t come out of cloth. We still have a nice ‘battle-scar’ on the back seat of our car. It does come off skin (thankfully), but in order to build well, you end up getting messy, especially if it’s your first time and you use too much DAP on your pieces.
Characterization is messy, too. You dig deeper into your characters and find out new things that are awkward and can ruin perfectly good plots. Like your main character falling for your villain–or a destined couple that works perfectly in theory has no chemistry on the page. Or perhaps, you keep writing and whoops! That character just died. Or worst of all: your character is boring, because you nailed them to the page so hard that there’s no room for creativity or free interaction. Whether you’re a plotter (like me), or a pantser, in the trenches of writing, things happen. Characters die (tragedy) or get married (comedy) and leave you bewildered. Sort of like DAP on the backseat of the car.
3.) Sometimes You Have to Start From Scratch
Funny thing about building foam swords. If your base layer of foam is too skinny at one end, or placed on the pipe crooked, or not trimmed well, it throws off the next later of strips. And the wrap layer. And if you soldier on, you’ll end up with my first sword, which was distinctly curved and warped around the pipe. I could still use it, but people noticed, and it was a pain to cover with cloth. I made sure with my next weapons to be more careful, instead of just trying to finish quickly.
In the same way, sometimes a character does not work. You try to change the surface things–tweak the appearance, maybe give them different parents or a pet. But that doesn’t quite do it. Soon, you realize that something deeper is at work. Their core motivation is wonky. Maybe you thought they were fighting for freedom, when in fact, they just wanted some adventure. Perhaps you thought they would never cave into a situation–but their pragmatic attitude suggests the opposite. One major cause of writers block is ignoring or misinterpreting the key motivation of characters, and causing them to act against what is plausible and reasonable.
“But I’m the writer,” you say (especially if you’re a perfectionist plotter). “This is my story. They need to get with the program.”
This works about as well as yelling at a crooked foam blade and hoping it’ll straighten itself. Instead, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig into the characters, and if necessary pull a revision. Don’t try to cover up poor character motivation. Readers won’t be fooled, but they could be confused and even angered.
4.) Most of the Work Will Never Been Seen
Sword-building involves layers of cutting foam, checking measurements, applying just the right amount of contact cement, and placing pieces carefully. Then, all of it is covered beneath a tightly-sewn cloth.
In the same way, much of the work that goes into characterization is “useless.” You will know far more about your characters’ likes, dislikes, favorite colors, etc than will ever reach the page. And it’s easy to wonder what’s the point? But like a well-built sword, a well-built character will hold up under pressure and hard usage. When you place your character in difficult situations, they’ll reward you with unique, intriguing reactions and authenticity that will have readers cheering for them.
Speaking of advice, feel free to include any tips on characterization in the comments!