Quick note: This article does delve into writing fanfiction and text-based roleplay. As such, characterizations touched on veer way into non-canon interpretations.
You know, the way I stumbled on All Ages of Geek the first time was kind of funny. It was in either spring or summer of last year when a tweet came across my timeline. It was somebody named Katya Stec talking about how you need to respect your characters and treat them as if they were real people, how you need to build a relationship with them. We had a little bit of a back and forth where Kat was being, well, Kat, and it was a conversation I really enjoyed. I thought it’d be a one-off thing, but then I discovered she did RWBY reactions some months later.
And, well, look where we are now.
The reason I bring this up is because this might seem a bit of an odd article to write for AAOG, but I think this might not be a bad read for writers. Granted, this isn’t something that’ll apply to all writers. We’re each unique in our approaches. Whether we be pantsers, plotters, meticulous worldbuilders, thriller specialists, or historical fiction enthusiasts, we can all learn from each other in some way.
Characters are the driving force in most stories. There’s an old adage that, “Strong characters can carry a weak plot but a strong plot cannot carry weak characters.” This is definitely true to a large degree in my own experience. I’m not really here to debate the latter part and more the former. (But I digress.)
There’s another stereotype of writers that we sit and talk to the people in our heads. For some of us (like me)…that’s an objectively true thing we do. We have our characters (or “muses”) living in our heads and it’s both a blessing and a curse depending on how we interact with them. Some of us have close, loving relationships with them, others of us don’t, and others are in between.
For those of us that live like this, perhaps the most important thing is for us to gain the muse’s trust. How we go about it for each and every one is different as they’re all unique people with their own life stories and experiences that shaped them into who they are. We need to learn to learn to trust these characters to commandeer and steer things in the right direction when they’re going wrong.
I know characters doing what they want is one of the singular, most frustrating things that can happen. Even if you think you know the character well, they might have other ideas.
The best example I can think of this in my own writing is Leo from Fire Emblem: Fates.
He’s pretty sick and weakly and Garon quite literally tortured him which resulted in a very timid, submissive boy.
I had worked with him long and deeply enough that I thought I knew him well enough. I had his trust, so I thought I was good in the Leo/Takumi slashfic I was writing. I had this short arc of about 4-6 chapters plotted out where there’d be a misunderstanding between the two. Leo was just going to take the abuse that Takumi gave him with things ultimately resolved by getting advice from Ryoma, Takumi’s older brother.
Also visual reference for Takumi and Ryoma for anyone needing them:
This was a case of me getting frustrated and ending up dead in the water. I really didn’t know what to do next in the fic so it just kinda…died. This does go to show the fatal flaw in allowing characters to do what they want. Sometimes, they can veer off the charted path so hard it can basically kill the story.
But I also have one very good example just how long and difficult the process of gaining a character’s trust can be. This is on the extreme end of difficulty, though, but it’s one of the best examples I have.
Blake Belladonna from RWBY.
My journey with her has been…a very, very long one.
Adam abused her in horrifying ways I can’t go into here. It’s such a huge, trigger-filled minefield that moving one inch will make you trip something.
My first attempts at communicating with Blake were through doing a character questionnaire I cobbled together from a much longer one. It’s about 40 questions and I’ve found it the most effective way to understand my characters in a short span of time.
However, I noticed that she…was not responding well at all to it. I could feel her resisting and it causing further damage to her already tattered psyche.
And so I stopped.
I realised then that I needed to write her in order to understand her. One of my biggest, traditional standbys would not work due to just how utterly shattered her mind and soul were.
In 2019, I put out an ad on r/Roleplay for someone to do a character study RP with because this was the only way I’d learn about her. Thankfully, I found somebody wonderful that agreed to do it with me. It ended up being slowburn, slice of life to the utmost extreme. After over a year…we’re into the second month of Beacon’s first year.
We started on January 13th and it seriously took me until April 19th to understand what was going on in her head. And we would literally write rapidfire responses for over 6 consecutive hours every day (at least where possible).
TRIGGER WARNING SECTION
Short section that delves into the effect Adam’s abuse had on Blake and gets into tactics abusers use. Just go to the SECTION OVER bit if you don’t want to read this. It’s kind of important but not necessary to read.
I’ll try to keep this brief and not technical, but I have to get into one term.
A lot of people have heard the term ‘gaslighting’ but may not understand what it means. At its most basic level, it’s basically a series of tactics to make the target doubt their own perception of reality and see the world the way the abuser wants them to.
Basically what was going on with her was that Adam had gaslit her so badly that he made her believe her old personality didn’t exist anymore. In her own words, “I [am/was] his bitch.” (Tense varies on amount of character development.)
The worst part was that she was acting completely as her authentic self once she could calm down and not be so focused on the trauma.
For those that might want more technical terms: he gaslit her so completely that her personality was compartmentalized into her authentic self and what he wanted her to be.
There is still so much more to her psychology and the situation, but that works for the sake of this article.
Because of the way she suffered, her trust in others ie extremely fragile and that includes me. It is so difficult to gain her trust, but so easy to damage. It took probably around 3-4 in-universe weeks for her to admit she saw Team RWBY as her friends. That might not sound like a long time, but we’re talking probably 6+ months in the real world.
I remember the one time I did hurt her trust. I think I pushed her a little too far during a smut scene so she was kind of wary of opening back up to me for a while. Thank God she did come to trust me fully again just through continuing to RP. (This was last year so I can’t remember what it was over especially with as deep into that RP we are now.)
Even writing this article, I’m having to be careful what I share about her. If I give away too much, then I’ll lose trust with her that I’ll have to regain.
Perhaps the biggest example of just allowing Blake to be herself is the fact that she’s managed to pull Team RWBY together. My Ruby really struggles with people, so her being in charge is…difficult. Blake, however, comes from a position of leadership. Kali, Ghira, and Sienna all taught her invaluable leadership skills that allowed her to step in where Ruby was unable to.
When Weiss’ anxiety overwhelms her, Blake almost always knows what to do because she did the research to try to make sense of what Adam did to her. Jacques did almost the exact same things to Weiss as Adam did to her psychologically. When combined with her training in the esoteric side of aura (headcanon that would take way too long to explain), it allows her to basically just know what’s going on inside Weiss’ head.
She’s also helping Ruby see where she can step in. Ruby’s best with logistics while Blake just understands people. Blake handles the team’s emotional needs while Ruby’s starting to get how to push the team toward working together as a cohesive combat unit.
In the end, Team RWBY came together quickly on a deep level with an environment that fosters communication and rewards honesty in a positive-feedback cycle.
So what is the point of this long-winded article?
I’ll try to wrap it up quickly.
As I’ve learned especially through this entirely free-form RPing, trusting your characters is beyond important. Sometimes, you end up with situations like me and Leo where things go off the rails and can leave you in a corner. Other times, you end up with situations like Blake.
Either way, you have to put your faith in your characters they’ll do the right thing that’s true to them. Forcing them to do things that they don’t want to do is a recipe for disaster. By doing so, you compromise the integrity of their own thoughts, feeling, beliefs, and experiences.
And, if you do that, you can compromise your entire story.
It is just like if you tried to force a friend to do something they may not want to. Sometimes, with enough negotiation, you can figure out a way for it to work even if they aren’t thrilled about it. Other times, you’ll end up just completely sabotaging your relationship with them.
So, get to know your characters. It might seem odd and crazy, but it might just show you a new route you might have never considered.