How to craft multiple characters: Lessons from Leigh Bardugo

Hello writers, and welcome to episode 7 of The Reading Room Podcast.
 
Today, we’re looking at Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows – an immersive heist fantasy with six focal protagonists. The prose is captivating, as are Bardugo’s characters and the Grishaverse she has created. Each chapter is narrated from one of the different perspectives of the main characters, thus drawing the reader fully into his or her individual thoughts and feelings. The characters are complex and fascinating in their own way and are seamlessly presented throughout the storyline. Told from third-person viewpoints, the plot bursts with action and overflows with suspense from the start – it was easy to power through the story and realise I’d been reading for hours!
 
For today’s episode, we’ll be looking at how Bardugo has crafted her characters through ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ characterisation. In brief ‘direct characterisation’ is where the author explicitly describes the character details, such as telling the reader a character’s desires, motivations or emotional state; Whereas ‘indirect characterisation’ is where the author shows readers a characters’ traits without explicitly describing them – this can be delivered through dialogue between characters or interactions with other characters.
 
We’ll be reading Chapter 2, which introduces the first of the core protagonists – Inej – to explore these methods in detail by looking at how Inej’s individuality has been constructed and how we learn of the additional characters through her eyes.
 
As you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about the narrative voice used for Inej and how the additional character threads are introduced.
 
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin.
 
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Close Reading
 
There is a seamless blend of direct and indirect characterisation throughout the prose. We have Inej’s description of the ‘long-limbed Zemeni sharpshooter’ that is Jesper, the ‘raspy’ voiced criminal mastermind that is Kaz with his ‘gloved fingers’ and ‘crow headed cane’, and then we have plenty of dialogue illustrating each of the various character traits (such as Jesper’s light humour, Kaz’s rationale and then his icy change of persona, the bullish bravado from Geels). By combining the two methods in this way, the prose retains its fluidity as we move through the chapter. We are being shown each character and how they interact with one another. I love how the scene starts with the two versions of Kaz as Dirtyhands and Brekker as it ties into the scene’s duplicity – what people know and what they think they know – and comes full circle with Big Bolliger’s betrayal.
 
Returning to Inej, what have we learnt about the Wraith, in this chapter? We know that she is a spy for Kaz Brekker and that she is loyal to him; while she is not made aware of all the steps in his strategies, she recognises his ability and respects what he has achieved within the ranks of Ketterdam. As a result, she will continue to protect him. There is also a layer of warmth and tenderness from her (despite her frustrations with him for only providing half of the information she requires), which we can sense from her unease that there is a trap in place for them, that some of them may die, whether she would stay in Ketterdam if Kaz was to die.
 
We know that Inej is alert and assessing; her eyes are always seeking a path, gathering information and processing it. “It was her job,” to be well-informed on all the connecting threads of each rival gang and to move among them unseen. This makes her a force to be reckoned with, and both she and the gangs know it. Inej’s unease throughout the chapter is rooted in a honed instinct for danger and risk that we quickly respect. We are as blind as she is with Kaz’s secret confidence during the parley, but we trust her assessments and ability to move quickly.
 
Though her physical description is not explicitly presented to us, we infer that Inej is small and light, with ‘questing feet’ from her practical education in the ‘highwire’ as a child. Whilst ‘even [she] hadn’t mastered the art of squeezing through the plumbing’ we can assume she is a master of most small spaces.
 
We are informed that she joined the Dregs as a matter of survival “less than two years ago, just after her fifteenth birthday.” She is not yet seventeen but her weapons of choice are knives and small blades, each of which has a name, and are practical for someone who needs to weave swiftly and noiselessly; assigning names to them creates an attachment of comfort that they can be depended upon. What has happened in her life that she would place her trust and feeling of security in these items?
 
While we were prepared to read the story from Inej’s viewpoint, we also have the introductions to Kaz and Jesper, plus a small selection of rival gang members which sheds light on the darkness that engulfs Ketterdam.
 
We’re presented with two sides of the same coin in the perceived perception of Kaz Brekker by the gang culture of Ketterdam. ‘Raised in the Barrell’, Dirtyhands is a legend to be feared, a criminal mastermind and business puppeteer with eyes and ears everywhere. He is very young, only seventeen with a target on his back. But this is a persona he has created for himself, a mask layered over time in order to survive and thrive. What did you notice about Kaz’s physical appearance through Inej’s eyes? What did the dialogue reveal to you about how he is perceived externally?
 
And what of Jesper? “ The Zemeni sharpshooter [who is] long limbed’, brown-skinned [and] constantly in motion.” With a love of guns and gambling and a restless disposition, Jesper is a joker with a disruptive side but we get the sense that he has a thrill for the danger; he is also Kaz’s second and that will have been earned over time. His sense of camaraderie is also tested with Big Bolliger’s betrayal, but he, like Kaz, was quicker to leave the wounded bouncer on the ground than Inej.
 
The gangs of Ketterdam are also given a collective characterisation – the Dregs, the Black Tips, Harley’s Pointers, the Liddies, the Razorgulls, the Dime Lions – where the common goal is that everyone wants a piece of the Fifth Harbour pie. Currency is a motivator and, it seems, anyone can be bought. There is also a master leader in the form of Perr Haskell who expects the gangs to operate in a relatively civilised manner which is illustrated through this Parley.
 
There’s so much to take away from this chapter, not just about the characters but the world that has been built. If you’d like to explore Bardugo’s Grishaverse in more depth in a subsequent episode for Season 2, just let me know at contact@awriterslighthouse.com
 
Today’s Exercise
 
For today’s exercise, I’d like you to first brainstorm or list as many character traits from this chapter. Start with Kaz, Inej and Jesper and, if you’re feeling the flow, do the same for Geels, Oomen and Elzinger. Mark each trait as a direct or indirect characterisation.
 
As a secondary exercise, I’d like to suggest you create character profiles for each character in a story you are writing. You can either list or mind-map as many details about your protagonist, antagonist or sidekick as you can within a timed window. Start with 15 minutes and see how you get on. If you have uninterrupted flow, keep writing!
 
You may already do this as part of your story planning. If so, spend 15 minutes writing out a scene for your character or characters, bringing their personalities, motivations or backstory to the page.
 
Happy Writing!

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