Reading Reccomendation: Character Voice in the Chronicles of Prydain

Welcome to the first of this blog’s reading reccomendations! In keeping with the theme of the month, each 3rd Friday, I’ll bring you a book that really shows off a certain aspect of storytelling that writers can learn from. Is this just a thinly veiled excuse for me to ramble about my favorite books? Absolutely. But there is something to be said for learning from other authors, so today, I’ll be sharing experts from The Chronicles of Prydain to show how Lloyd Alexander uses voice to introduce his colorful cast of characters. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a pentology of children’s high fantasy books that follow the life of a young man named Taran, an assistant-pig-keeper who stumbles into adventures where he helps protect his country from the evil forces of Arawn Death Lord.

[Image ID: The cover of The Book of Three, showing Taran hunkered down next to a tree root looking up at the Horned King. He’s a figure in red riding on a black horse, wearing an antlered skull mask and holding a sword above his head. End Image ID]

Summary and excerpts will be included to give context to the characters being introduced, but I will do my best to keep these posts spoiler free as possible, so that way if you like them and want to go read the books for yourself without knowing the end, you can. In the first book of the series, The Book of Three, the reader is introduced to Taran with this scene:

Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran’s arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.

“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!”

Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. “Lucky for the horses,” was all he said, glancing at Taran’s handiwork.

“I could do better at making a sword,” Taran protested. “I know I could.” And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.

The Book of Three, Chapter 1, page 3

From the first lines, we learn a few important elements of Taran’s character: he romanticizes warriors and wants to make a sword so he can be a hero like them, he’s a simple farmboy who needs to learn how to labor, and he’s enthusiastic, if a bit reckless. His language is also simple and straightfoward – unlike some of the other more flowery or eloquent speaking characters who you meet later in the story – which makes him a grounded and relatable main character. Who hasn’t daydreamed while doing a boring difficult task?

Soon after we’re introduced to Taran and Coll, the reader meets the other residents of their little farm, Dallben, an ancient sorcerer, and the oracular pig, Henwen, who’s just escaped from her pigpen. Oops. Taran goes chasing her down, only to unluckily run across riders of the Horned King – one of the warlords of Arawn. When he comes to, he finds himself being cared for by a strange man who’s kneeling beside him, holding out a flask.

“Drink,” he said. “Your strength will return in a moment.”

The stranger had the shaggy, gray streaked hair of a wolf. His eyes were deep-set, flecked with green. Sun and wind had leathered his broad face, burnt it dark and grained it with fine lines. His cloak was course and travel-stained. A wide belt with an intricately wrought buckle circled his waist.

“Drink,” The stranger said again, while Taran took the flask dubiously. “You look as though I were trying to poison you.” He smiled. “It is not thus that Gwydion Son of Don deals with a wounded…”

“Gwydion!” Taran choked on the liquid and stumbled to his feet.

The Book of Three, Chapter 2, page 16

And thus we meet the greatest warlord in all of Prydain, dressed in common traveling clothes and acting as babysitter and nurse. From the confidence, language (“it is not thus”), title drop, (and Taran’s helpful exposition in the next paragraphs), we learn that Gwydion is a distinguished prince and great leader. From his phsyical description, we learn that he’s also used to roughing it on his own, not demanding pomp becasue of his station. From his kindness to Taran and knowledge of medicine, he also learn that he’s compassionate and somewhat stern.

As Gwydion and Taran start traveling together, it doesn’t take long for our impulsively courageous young protagonist to encounter the next member of the party when he dives face first into a thornbush after a weird sound. That sound turns out to be Gurgi, a creature that’s somewhere between man and beast, with twigs matted in his hair and smelling of wet wolfhound. When Gwydion scolds them both for being reckless, this is his response:

“O mighty prince,” the creature wailed, “Gurgi is sorry; and now he will be smacked on his poor, tender head by the strong hands of this great lord, with fearsome smackings and whackings…”

” I have no intention of smacking your poor tender head,” said Gwydion. “But I may change my mind if you do not leave off that whining and sniveling.”

“Yes, powerful lord!” Gurgi cried “See how he obeys rapidly and instantly!” He began crawling around on hands and knees with great agility. Had Gurgi owned a tail, Taran was sure he would have wagged it frantically.

“Then,” Gurgi pleaded, “The two strengthful heroes will give Gurgi something to eat? Oh joyous crunchings and munchings!”

The Book of Three, Chapter 3, pages 26-27

Gurgi has one of the most distinctive voices in the book and I love him for it. The third person, the couplet rymes, the whining combined with well-intentioned action, and as we see later, the enthusiasm for doing what he can to help his friends, make him such a memorable and endearing character. He’s stuck between very simple motivations like food and comfort, and wanting the wisdom to be part of something bigger than he is and his language reflects that in an earnest childish sort of way.

After they meet Gurgi, the protagonists go through several misadventures and when we meet the next of the main cast, Taran is stuck in a dungeon. A small golden ball drops through the grating, followed by a girl with bright blue eyes.

“Please,” said a girl’s voice, light and musical, “my name is Eilonwy and if you don’t mind, would you throw my bauble to me? I don’t want you to think I’m a baby, playing with a silly bauble, because I’m not; but sometimes there’s absolutely nothing to do around here and it slipped out of my hands when I was tossing it…”

“Little girl,” Taran interrupted, “I don’t…”

“But I am not a little girl,” Eilonwy protested. “Haven’t I just finished telling you? Are you slow-witted? I’m so sorry for you. It’s terrible to be dull and stupid. What’s your name?” she went on. “It makes me feel funny not knowing someone’s name. Wrong footed, you know, as if I had three thumbs on one hand, if you see what I mean. It’s clumsy.”

The Book of Three, Chapter Six, page 50-51

And as their conversation continues, later we get this proper introduction…

I am Eilonwy, Daughter of Anharad, Daughter of Regat, Daughter of – oh, it’s such a bother going through all that. My ancestors,” she said proudly, “are the Sea People. I am of the blood of Llyr Half-Speech, the Sea King.”

The Book of Three, Chapter Six, page 55

Right away, we’re struck by her talkativeness and the long, somewhat rambly sentences. She’s a girl who says exactly what’s she’s thinking, and no less, which can lead to her being blunt with poor tied-up Taran, but she also starts by saying “please” and introducing herself politely, as if she’s been trained to do that before going off. We also find out later that she is, indeed, a princess, and was probably raised to be formal, even though she has a hard time controlling her tounge. She also has a penchant for speaking in simile, which is a really fun verbal mannerism that none of the other characters use and shows her cleverness for coming up with such analogies on the spot. She’s a friendly but awkward girl, and her contrast with Taran makes for some entertaining conversations and interactions throughout the series.

There’s dozens of other characters I could mention that come up throughout the books, but either because of spoilers or the fact that this article is already ridiculously long, I’m going to include an honorable mentions section instead to give you a taste of the variety of characters and voices Lloyd Alexander writes over the course of the series.

  • Fflewddur Fflam – an “unoffical” bard and who consistantly adds a little color to the truth, and each time he exaggerates, his harp strings snap. Catchphrases include “Great Belin!” and “A Fflam is [adjective], but this situation is ridiculous!” First appears in The Book of Three.
  • Doli – a gruff dwarf who fits the “jerk with a heart of gold” trope. Catchphrase is”numbskulls and idiots!” as he bails his friends out of a sticky situation. First appears in The Book of Three.
  • Gwystyl – another one of the Fair Folk, who tries to get out of confrontation by apologizing, excusing, and saying good bye dozens of times in a single conversation. First appears in The Black Cauldron.
  • Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch – three enchantresses who are kindly threatening, caling the heroes “ducklings” and inviting them into their cottage at the same time implying they might eat them. First appears in The Black Cauldron.
  • Prince Rhun – an optimistic and slightly inept noble who greets everyone with a friendly “Hullo! Hullo!” whether they be friend or foe. First appears in The Castle of Llyr.
  • Queen Teleria – Rhun’s mother, tasked with the practical side of Eilonwy’s education, who inturrpts herself to correct the younger girl on the finer points of being a lady before picking up right where her sentence left off to continue what she was saying. First appears in The Castle of Llyr.

Thanks for reading! I hope this case study could be helpful for you if you’re trying to develop your own skill in writing distinct character voices and clever introductions. Have you read the Chronicles of Prydain? If so, who’s your favorite character? If you haven’t, what’s another story with great character voice you love? Here’s your free excuse to ramble about your favorite books like I did 😉

My Personal Process: Developing Characters

Welcome to the first of the Process Posts! This is a series that will be going live on the 2nd Friday of every month talking about how I personally develop a certain aspect of the writing process. Sometimes, seeing a different perspective on part of the writing process can be helpful in figuring out what method would work best for you, so I wanted to share mine! Of course, this is just my way of doing it, and I’m not claiming it’s the best that it universally works for every project, so feel free to chime in the comments with your own suggestions so we can learn from each other. 🙂

Step 1: Brain Dumping and idea gathering

As far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to character creation – ground up and plot down. Ground Up characters are the sort of OCs that pop into your head with a concept or image or premise, but you have to figure out how to fit them into a story. Plot Down OCs are the sort that arise out of a need for a specific role to be filled in the story, and then you have to create a character out of a few required traits to fit that the bill. This part of the process is where I’m just gathering ideas on how to turn a concept into a person and collecting them in one place. I use a lot of daydreaming, making playlists, finding aesthetics on unsplash and pinterest, reading through prompt blogs and saving everything that catches my attention. This is also the stage when they get a name and the beginnings of a personality.

I don’t know about you, but I hoard ideas like a dragon haha. When you’ve got several years of pinterest boards and phone notes and screenshots there’s no lack of potential for plot hooks and backstory. One of my recent favorite methods is going through my “Everything Playlist” (2114 songs and counting lol) and picking out songs that fit their story arc and point of view on the world. For the Ground Up characters, they help brainstorm what sort of character arcs work for them and how they react to certain situations, and can be the start of a backstory for Plot Down OCs. If you want an example of this, I have the playlists for all my Storge characters linked on the WIP page. I’m building playlists for the Laoche characters now, and Weswin has proved amusing because in-story, he’s a wandering bard. Coincidentally, he’s also the one with the longest playlist. 😛

Step 2: Listing!

When I first started writing, a lot of writing advice websites pointed me to character questionaires. There’s about a million of them but I’ve found that a lot go into a lot of extra detail about what’s in their sock drawer, which isn’t that important to me or the plot. Lists can be a good tool for collecting information about a character, but I find them to be the most useful whenever I’m into the thick of the outlining phase and just need everything in one place. Going through the list allows me to make sure I covered all the important parts of their person, so that way I don’t end up blindsided later with “oh, wait, that backstory I originally wrote down is actually OOC now that I’ve changed the plot.” These are the important things I try to cover!

Character Name: (including nicknames/epithets, if any, and how they got said nickname/epithet)

Category #1: Basics

  • Age, Sex, and Gender:
  • Race/Ethnicity/culture: Especially if they’re form a specific fantasy race, worldbuilding that culture will be important to the character’s worldview. If I’m writing in our world, this means lots and LOTS of research to avoid tokenism and make sure the cast is really diverse, without just slapping labels on them.
  • Appearance/physical details like height, hair/eye color, and general details
  • Other important details like scars, birthmarks, mobility/accessiblity aids, ect.
  • Clothing – style can say a lot about the character’s personality and background, and doing some research/worldbuilding on fashion can help round out the realism of the story.
  • Voice and mannerisms: if they have favorite sayings/catchphrases, use slang, or talk like a textbook, the character’s background will affect how they sound in the narrative of the story, so I like to start brainstorming that here, and writing little snippets in their POV.

 Category #2: Relationships

  • I know the orphaned hero trope is really popular, and I understand the narrative incentive to just handwave annoying questions like “why are there no responsible adults to stop the 14 year old from becoming a war criminal and saving the world?” but I’ll be honest, I don’t really get it from a storytelling point of view. Most people have families and a home life that significantly impacts their worldview irl, and so do my characters, so that sort of discussion goes here.
  • I discuss (briefly) each member’s personality (if they don’t have their own outline) and relationship to the character. This is also where work out how their friendships developed with other members of the cast. This is a good opportunity to get info down for side characters who might not need a ton of background but do feature in the story in some way.
  • I also note how the MC is generally perceived by his/her acquaintances and strangers, and what sort of reputation they have outside of their immedieate social circle.

Category #3: Romance

I’ll be honest, I rarely write romance, but if that’s going to be a major subplot in your story, it’s probably important to develop that here. Important questions to ask might include: Does this character have any past experience with dating that might affect how they approach this relationship? What’s their orientation? Do they want a relationship, and if so, what do they want out of a relationship? Do they flirt, and how do they flirt? What sort of misunderstandings would lead to obstacles in the relationship and how would they work to get past them? If there’s other distracting plot stuff going on (like solving a crime, fighting an evil king, or saving the world from reality unravelling, y’know, typical Tuesday stuff), how would they react to The Feels and balance their time between their romantic interests and their duty?

Category #4: Skills

  • General Skills: if they know art, fighting, other languages, ect, anything goes here. explain WHY they know that.
  • Smarts: This would be a character’s general approach to solving problems, thinking fast under tough situations, and general background knowledge. I’d also include schooling in there if it’s relevant, but education doesn’t necessarily correlate to intellegence.
  • This is also where I touch on their occupation and hobbies. It’s a fun way to round out a character and subvert expectations if they have an interest in something you wouldn’t expect on first notice.

Category #5: Fundamentals – the fun stuff, where I start drawing connections to the plot. At each major decision, I come back to this section and ask myself “what would they decide to do based on the following? Why?”

  • General Personality Categorical Stuff: like Introvert or Extravert, MBTI type, Hogwarts House, Enneagram, Alignment like in DnD, an excuse to makeup fun uquiz questions and figure out their general behavior and voice on a day to day basis.
  • Strengths: there are many different types of character strengths and I don’t have the space to summarize them all here, so Here’s an excellent blog article on types of strengths. to give you some ideas! I try to make sure that I include a few for my villains too becasue they need to be effective in their villainy, and to include a variety of strengths so that the characters can play off of each other’s strong points.
  • Weaknesses: These usually reflect what the strengths could be if taken to their extreme, and connect with plot points where the characters fail to reach their goals because of a mistake or choice they make.
  • Goals/Dreams/Aspirations: The driving motivation behind their actions in the story
  • Beliefs/Affiliations: If they’re part of a religion or have a certain philosophy that plays into how they behave, it goes here.
  • Fears/Insecurities/Mental illness: the angsty part of this outline, where the tragic backstories come out
  • Role in the Story: Why are they here and what do they contribute to the plot?
  • What are they doing after the story ends? If the story has sequel potential, that goes here
  • Any formative memories that might be important go here
  • What would they die for? How much are they willing to sacrifice? How far are they willing to go with their actions to meet their goals before it’s crossing a moral line for them?
  • If I have any motifs for them at this point, they’d also go here.

Step 3: Repeat for each character and Connect the Dots

At this point, my characters have usually changed a lot from the original concept, and now I have to figure out how they change in the story. While I’m developing them, I’m simultaniously working on the outline (which I’ll discuss in next month’s Process Post!) and as I work through the plot in each chapter, I’m also working through the character’s arcs. This is my favorite part of the creative process – when I get to see how the messy, complicated people come together with a messy situation and how they clash and world together and make their way to The End. This is a process borne of a lot of trial and error on my part, and so I hope that by sharing it today, it helps someone too.

If you’d like, take this as an opportunity to ramble in the comments as much as you’d like about your favorite OCs. I’d love to learn more about my reader’s characters, and about the stories they live. Thank you for reading, and happy writing! 🙂

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash