A Question of Character – an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay
This interview appears courtesy of the UK Sci Fi Channel website. The interview was conducted by Sandy Auden. Reproduced with kind permission.
‘I’d say complexity is one of the most important qualities for a good character,’ says Fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay. ‘You need to avoid oversimplifying their motivation, and not make them a placard for a plot element or motif.’
And as the author of several popular fantasy series, Kay has had a lot of practise building complex characters. His stories, including The Fionavar Tapestry, The Sarantine Mosaic and Tigana, are steeped in many intensive historical flavours, and exhibit a rich mix of politics, magic, feuds and epic battles.
Kay’s highly involved tales unravel through the eyes of the people who live in his worlds. So how does he go about creating his characters? ‘In general, I tend to start from setting and theme, and characters arrive out of research and thinking on these things. But there really is no set formula for me, different figures have emerged in widely varying ways. Some have literally ‘walked in’ to the books, surprising me with their first line of dialogue and making me stop to sort out ‘who the hell is that?’ Other characters, who I think of as minor to start with, grow in importance because I like their voice.’
And Kay’s books are full of many voices. ‘I’ve always said we write the books we’d like to read if someone else wrote them,’ he says. ‘As a reader, I’m drawn to complex, many-layered books and so I tend to aim for a crowded canvas with many figures. Why? I suppose it has to do with the satisfactions we seek in fiction. I like the all-consuming, wrap-me-inside-it sort of book a great deal. I also like getting a sense of an author’s intelligence, and subtle plotting and nuanced character are both windows into that. Having said this, I have a lot of admiration – and time – for the writers who can tell a spare, direct tale and move a reader with it.’
‘I also like to work with cross-sections of a culture or society, so I’ll tend to have figures from many different classes. I’ve been trying to offer the ambience or flavour of various times and places – like Medieval Provence, Al-Andalus in the ‘golden age’, and Byzantium in the 6th century – through the prism of fantasy. If you’re aspiring to do that, then a wide variety of characters becomes necessary. Over and above this, it’s simply that the opportunities afforded the author, and by extension the reader, will grow if you broaden the range of characters.’
As well as the flavour of time and place, Kay illustrates his central themes through his characters. ‘As a fast example of this, reading about the Late Antiquity period in Byzantium gave me all sorts of ways to make use of mosaics and chariot racing, the interplay of the rulers and their artisans and entertainers. Creating a character to be a mosaicist and a chariot racer became obvious for me. Some of the ideas I wanted to explore dovetailed nicely with this approach and expressing ideas like the ephemeral nature of art, and the ageless desire to do something to leave a memory behind when we die, became natural.’
His characters invariably display an emotional depth in his stories, especially in his depiction of the female psyche, but there’s no late night text book studying gone into this skill. ‘Some of the development is craft, ageing, and experience, I suspect. There’s also, over the years, a shift in what engages us, and in each book there are different underlying motifs, and that obviously changes how we approach character selection and evolution.’
‘As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not…ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.’
© SF Channel