These are Your Characters; This is Your World

Hi! I’ve been working on a historical fantasy story (think Taisho era but with Caribbean influences). My issue is with two of the main characters: A morally-questionable “ronin” for lack of a better term, and street-fighter with the noble incentive of supporting her family financially. While it’s easy for me to picture what their relationship ends up becoming, it’s hard for me to decide how these two could end up working together without it seeming unrealistic or forced.

I have no idea what this means.

I’m vaguely familiar with the Taisho Period. This was from 1912 to 1925, and saw some early elements of the transition that lead to the Japanese Emperor’s authority being completely subverted by a military junta in the following decade. It’s a very significant era.

The problem is, Japan in 1925 looked nothing like Jamaica in 1656, and I cannot extrapolate exactly what you’re looking for here.

“Caribbean influences,” could be as simple as geological, or it could be an elaborate fantasy setting that melds elements of late Imperial Japan with the European colonial squabbling in the Caribbean that resulted in an authority vacuum, and the proliferation of piracy, both freelance, and state sponsored.

The result is, I don’t know your world, and that’s not a bad thing. It does make this question much harder to answer with any specificity.

So, yes, a unique world is a good thing. Not being able to boil that down into a single sentence is something you may want to work on. Though, the goal is to create a coherent one line description, not to simplify your world.

The problem with your characters is, I don’t know who these people are. The description of them is basic, but fine. However, because I don’t know your world, I don’t have a full frame of reference for what your setting’s ronin really are. This could be anything from a disgraced noble to a former military leader who’s degenerated into piracy when their place in the old order collapsed when the previous emperor died.

How does that interface with someone who has the, “noble incentive of supporting her family?” This could get really dark.

A couple years back I remember reading an article discussing the good/evil axis for D&D’s alignment system. The author used the concept of proximal empathy a litmus test for a character’s alignment. (Note that “proximal empathy,” means something very different in developmental psychology.) The idea is that a good person will experience empathy and exhibit compassion and altruism to a wide range of people, in some cases, even total strangers. However, as the alignment shifts away from good, that proximity will decrease. A neutral character may be apathetic about strangers, but they don’t stop caring about or protecting their friends and family. An evil character may either only care about their innermost circle, or themselves alone.

While I think it has limited value as a philosophical position, it’s something worth considering about your characters. If your character is willing to commit crimes and harm others in pursuit of providing for their family, that does not make them a good person. Further, even someone with noble intentions can be responsible for horrific actions.

This will be a slightly crude explanation, but when you’re plotting the relationships between characters, it can be helpful to think of it like a multi-act story, with a sequence of different stages or phases. Over a long enough period of time, many relationships are unstable. People who start as friends can become bitter enemies, and people began barely tolerating one another could come to respect each other, only for that to be scuttled later on.

There’s nothing inherent in these two character concepts that would automatically mean they couldn’t work together, or even become friends. Similarly, there are a lot of potential threads that could lead to a brutal falling out down the line. That’s fine. More than fine, that’s useful.

I’ve said it before, but your job is not to make friends with your characters. You are not responsible for handing them a happy ending. Having characters that end up parting ways because of irreconcilable differences can punctuate a good story. Conflicts between protagonists can be incredibly valuable for changing a character’s trajectory, or showcasing new insights into who your characters are, and how the story’s events have changed them.

In both cases, you have a the basic sketch of a character who could be a complex individual, and that’s something you will want to encourage. Character conflict lets you tease out that depth without requiring either character to be exceptionally self aware.

I can’t tell you how they met, or why they started to work together. I can’t tell you if there was friction or if they started out working together for purely pragmatic reasons. I don’t know. Those are your character and your story.

What I do know is, try it. If it doesn’t work, examine where and why it failed, and rewrite it until you’re happy with it.

-Starke

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