Courtesy HBO

Fair warning, would-be writers: if you’re good at what you do, somebody somewhere’s going to want to hurt you.

Having finished George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords last night, more than once I wanted to reach through the pages, grab the man by the beard and give him a couple of shakes for what he was doing to his characters. At the same time, though, I understood why I felt this way and why it was a good thing. He’s introduced and developed these people in such a way that we can’t help but care about them. He also knows that tragedy is nothing without comedy, and balances the beard-throttling moments with ones that nearly had me in tears, either from heartwarming relief or genuine laughter.

This is, honestly, something toward which every author of fiction should aspire. Especially in a genre like fantasy.

The entire series of A Song of Ice and Fire is an evolving ur-example of several things writers should do, and at least one they should avoid. The problem with a lot of fantasy books and stories is that the fantastical elements take center stage. If your hero is only interesting because he’s “the chosen one” meaning he’ll be riding dragons, overthrowing evil sorcerer-dictators and making out with hot elf chicks (because every fantasy protagonist needs a hot elf chick, right?), he’s not all that interesting. Now, if he’s a disenfranchised son of a noble jerkass who didn’t raise him entirely right, or if the dragon he’s ‘destined’ to ride doesn’t want anything to do with him beyond perhaps eating him, or if he is, in fact, a she… that changes things.

I firmly believe that characters are the foundation of any good story. Sure, you might have a neat premise or background for your narrative, the idea of turning genres on their ears or taking an old story in a new direction, but without good, solid characters it’s going to be a lot of sound and fury. When you’re getting ready to start down the track of telling a story, take the time to develop your characters beforehand. Give them backgrounds, envision their family lives before the story begins, draw their connections to one another. As the story proceeds, let them develop on their own. Rather than determining every single reaction beforehand, try letting the reactions grow out of the action as you write it. I think you’ll find the results surprising, and it will let the narrative become its own creature, free of the expectations of whatever genre you happen to be in.

Of course, this could be an entirely backwards way to do things. I still don’t think fantasy should be all about the sword and sorcery. The story’s true power and magic come from the people weilding those swords, and casting those spells.

If you want to cast a spell of your own, look to your characters first.