Neutral character rant
1) The Helpful Stranger’s been done. I’m borrowing otakukeith’s term here, as far as I know, but I think you know what I mean: the mysterious personage who, ooh, just happens to meet up with the protagonist after she flees her village/abusive family/destroyed home, and to know odd things about her, and to murmur phrase like “Orb of Azhenath” and then smile when she asks what they mean. Of course, the stranger is not really a stranger at all, but a guardian or a mentor or a trainer of some kind.
These people are Annoying.
-At this point, it’s been done so often that the moment the stranger starts muttering mysterious phrases, I know the jig is up. It’s not a surprise any more.
-The character has the most common problem of Wise Old Mentors: keeping secrets from the protagonist for no good reason. (This, as a source of supposed plot tension, has also been done, and overdone, and is now charred to a crappy crisp).
-I always want to know why said Helpful Stranger didn’t get to the protagonist earlier, and y’know, prevent the suffering that will now lead to pages and pages of distinctly unhelpful angst.
Can we please stop this? I think it’s more interesting, entertaining, and all the rest to have the protagonist meet up with people who honestly don’t know the first thing about her. If you have her traveling with prior friends, or people who know her when she doesn’t know them, at least be honest with the reader and say so.
2) Give strangers a reason to care. Of course, if you have real strangers, then you run into the reason that authors employ Helpful Strangers in the first place: trying to get companions to go along on the protagonist’s quest otherwise is hard work. Why should a total stranger she meets up with give two hoots that her village was destroyed? Or, if they do, why should they leave their own comfortable homes and travel with her to world’s end to retrieve the Mysterious Object or defeat the Dark Lord, rather than simply adopt her into the village and give her a new home?
There are tons and tons of reasons, really. Yes, even if this stranger has never heard of the protagonist before, or doesn’t care that much for her kind in general.
-The stranger could be altruistic, helpful, or kind. People who are genuinely like this tend to be rare in fantasies; it’s as though authors believe that everyone must either hate the protagonist or have a prior concern with her, like being her real parents. Huh? Surely your world is not bereft of those who will try to help anyone out. The only thing you need to do is show the person being that way, and consistently show them being that way, throughout the book. The stranger who gives the protagonist a warm welcome and another helpless traveler the cold shoulder is suspect.
-Have the stranger see the protagonist as an opportunity. Perhaps traveling with her would get him out of his own boring hellhole of a village.
-Have the stranger help her because it’s not much trouble to do so. Perhaps helping her is less trouble than sending her away, cold and hungry, would be.
-Self-preservation is also a motive. If the protagonist really matters to the saving of the whole world, then the stranger will presumably want to save the whole world, since he also lives in it.
-Have him be around her for a while, and perhaps they’ll build a friendship on some other ground than simple need.
So, yes, they need a reason to care, but reasons aren’t really all that hard to find.
3) Remember that ‘acquaintance’ does not mean ‘friend.’ I’m continually seeing fantasy hero/ines who supposedly “don’t have any friends,” only for the author to tell me that the owner of the local bookshop or the nearest neighboring witch knows everything about him or her, dreams and hopes included, and cries for him or her in secret, and admires and encourages his or her talents. That, to me, screams “friend.” Of course, an author might point out that the bookshop owner or the neighboring witch doesn’t try to help the hero/ine out of the horrible life the author has undoubtedly condemned him or her to lead. Yes, but that’s usually because the author prevents them. (The motive for not helping in that case is weak, such as “not wanting to rock the boat” even when the hero/ine’s life could be in danger, or nonexistent; it’s never occurred to the supposed acquaintance to help).
Acquaintances whom the protagonist sees and nods to, casually, on a daily basis, or occasionally chats in line at the market with, should remain acquaintances. They might know what the protagonist typically buys at the market. That hardly means that they’ll know her as well as a sidekick is supposed to. The author is once again plucking hard at the harpstrings, trying to create someone who gets the “Woe, for I am alone!” angst, but can miraculously summon deep personal connections with other people when she has to because she is Just That Speshul, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work times ten.
Perhaps the most important factor of an acquaintanceship is not to decide where this person lives or how she knows your protagonist, but to decide how much they know about each other. And remember that one person’s “friend” can also be another person’s “acquaintance.” I’m a deeply private person, and I’m often surprised by how much people will tell me in daily life, while I don’t tell them much about myself. A relationship may not be reciprocal. A heroine could expect somebody she nods to every day to come and risk his life for her if that’s the closest human contact she has, while he would only consider dying for his wife and children.
4) You can build friendship or common ground from neutrality, you know. Romantic relationships often seem doomed to start from bickering couples who hate each other on sight.
Been there, done that.
Neutrality is a fine footing to begin from. Your hero could hate your heroine on sight, but why? If he hasn’t heard anything about her and doesn’t expect anything from her other than, perhaps, the requirements of a role, such as her being a teacher, he’s essentially beginning cold turkey, just like she is. Dashed expectations are one foundation of a relationship, but I wouldn’t consider it neutral; I’d consider it dashed expectations. Nor is hero-worship neutral, so the hero who’s enchanted with the notion of the heroine as the savior of the free world is not going to be neutral towards her (whether he winds up loving or hating her). A true first impression is what I’m talking about here, something where the characters have no reason to suspect that the other person is going to be their worst enemy, the love of their life, or even a good friend.
Start out with distinguishing characteristics that will make your hero/ine—or viewpoint character, I suppose I should say—notice the other person. If we spend a lot of time around someone, we usually do make up our minds, slowly, while we have no need to reach deep and profound conclusions about someone we see for five seconds on an elevator. Does he remind her of someone she once knew, and will that, rather than any expectation actually related to the character himself, start prejudicing her? Does she meet his eyes directly, which most women in that culture won’t do? Does he have a little nervous tic that she can decide is irritating or adorable? Does she seem confident enough that he starts relaxing a bit, because they absolutely need someone who’s not a pushover in this situation?
Have the characters feel around, talk each other out, and, above all, be able to change their minds. I’ve done a bit of thinking, and I believe this is one of the major factors that makes so many fantasy relationships ring false to me. The heroine makes up her mind about another person on the spot, and either she is dead right and need never change it again, or she has her conclusions blown to pieces by some traumatic event, and thereafter she’s as fanatical about her new perceptions as she was about the old.
Is this kind of absolute certainty realistic? I don’t think so. How many people in your life do you absolutely love or utterly loathe? For that matter, how many people have gotten you to loathe them by committing murder or rape? It can take quite small things to get us to change our minds, and to create a gloriously mixed and muddied impression that will shift as we learn more about the other person. In cases where you’re starting everybody out on the level ground of neutrality, there should be even more opportunities for that shifting.
5) Not all relationships will deepen, either. Nodding acquaintances can remain nodding acquaintances for years. That doesn’t mean they won’t influence each other’s lives, or that one of them wouldn’t feel sad and horrified if the other suddenly died, but they aren’t destined to be BEST FRIENDS FOREVER AND EVER OMG because they live next door or in the same town, or because one sells apples to the other.
Hell, they don’t have to become deeper friends just because they spend a vast amount of time together. Imagine two people who get together to track a fleeing criminal. They’ve never met each other, they don’t know each other—they’ve just been assigned to this—and they have different personalities. One is bubbly and talks about herself all the time; the other remains calm and quiet and reserved. When they part, they never hear from each other again. The bubbly person tries to keep in touch, but the reserved one lets the connection lapse.
Yes, that can and does happen. Supposedly, it’s harder to make happen in fiction, because every relationship has to be significant or your readers will wonder what it’s doing there. Oh, bullshit, again. There can be relationships like this left in the story but mostly undeveloped, just as there are often minor characters left in the story but mostly undeveloped. The most common mistake an author makes with them is thinking that the universe revolves around her protagonist and she must matter to everybody, even if not everybody matters to her. Total strangers will throw themselves at her feet. Anyone who works with her will find themselves thinking about her. Enemies will hate her personally, while she regards them with a distant pity. And, of course, if she loves someone, that person is the ultimate in cruelty if he doesn’t recognize that she exists.
Please to be giving everyone in the story their own personalities and levels of interest in each other. No, we don’t get to hear from all of them, and the heroine may never know why that person she was sure was Mr. Right just looked at her blankly when she invited him back to her boudoir. But if you, the author, know him, and know he’d never accept an invitation like that, and, anyway, can’t for plot reasons, don’t forcibly shift the relationship off neutral ground on his part just because your heroine wants him. It takes two to tango. One person interested and one person not just results in one person standing alone, or, at best, lots of feet stepped on.
Aaand the other worlds/alternate worlds rant is next.