To write a good story, we must develop characters readers care about. Without strong likeable characters, the best of stories fail.
Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, states that even the longest book can capture only a tiny segment of a human being. We humans are much too complicated for the writer to create in their entirety. So we must simplify, and develop our characters to the degree each needs to be developed in order to fulfill their function in the story. Give an impression and approximation of life rather than attempting to duplicate life itself.
As the author, you need to know something about your character beyond the story you are about to write. But don’t spend so much time analyzing them that you get bored and want to kill them off.
Here are a few basic questions you should ask that will help you begin:
- What do they want out of life, and what do they need?
- What do they want to accomplish in their life?
- What are their beliefs? A kind God? Life sucks or is unfair? Money is more important than love? Vice Versa. If we are very good we go to Heaven.
- Have they ever betrayed or failed anyone?
- Has anyone betrayed or failed them? If so, how did it affect their outlook on life?
I like to have my hero write letters to me about what’s going on in his or her life. Three or four of these missiles and I know a lot more about them. These letters can establish a firm back story on which to create strong characters..
Often we begin with a happy character and it’s up to you to not let up on her until she’s sad, then finally angry or frightened enough to fight back. Learn what she’s afraid of and hit her with it. What does she regret? Rub her face in it. Don’t let up. Eventually she will show her strengths and stand up to life. It’s just as effective to begin with a sad or angry character and drag her through all it takes to finally become happy.
Charts of character attributes simply don’t work for me. But if they do for you, use them. Usually, I’ve written at least three chapters before I begin to understand my characters. By then I know what they think and why, how they feel and react to adversity, why they aren’t content, who and what they hate. I will continue to discover things about my characters far into the book. Are they honorable? Do they keep promises? What are their weaknesses and strengths? First draft stuff.
Characters soon become real people. They take over the story line. You may have to rein them in once in a while, and that’s what happens in real life, isn’t it? We go off on tangents but life says whoa, you can’t do that. You, as the writer, must make them behave or in the least make them pay the consequences when they don’t. If you’re too kind to them your book will be dull and boring.
Some writers prefer to have the character keep a journal during the writing of the book. It isn’t included in the book, but will give the writer more insight into this character who has taken on a life of her own.
A character who is too dumb to live does not charm anyone, so while a flaw or shortcoming is necessary, don’t overdo it. On the other hand, she can be larger than life. Maybe she can’t leap tall buildings, but when cornered she can get herself out of a fix, be it by using her mind or her physical strength.
Be realistic, though. Create someone who can learn to handle what’s going to happen. It may take a while, but she will eventually succeed.
One of my favorite characters for flaws, strength and fortitude is Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. She takes a licking and keeps on ticking. She’s tough and believable and smart. And Barr never lets up on her throughout the entire book. Once in a while Anna does something so dumb I want to holler at her, but that makes her human. And boy does she have regrets. No one is perfect.
If you want to play a few games before you begin to write, think of your best friend. Why do you like her? Make a list of all her good traits and her flaws and try to see why you like her in spite of her flaws.
Now think of someone you dislike. Why? Again, make a list and try to understand why you don’t like her.
Here’s a difficult one. Why do you think people might like you? Make a list of your good traits. Then write down your worst flaws
When I created Katherine Kelly in Beyond the Moon, I knew precisely how strong she would eventually have to be to deal with Glen Tanner, a man damaged by war and torture while he was in a POW camp in Vietnam. But she doesn’t start out that way. Her strength grows slowly as she realizes that she can help him through their mutual artistic talents. Even then, she must have a desire to help him, have faith in her ability to do so, so that when he reaches out to her, she responds. She may have been the most difficult character I ever created, because the entire book was written from her viewpoint and the subject matter is so difficult to portray.
When we sit down to write a book, there are many things to consider. But first and foremost are the characters who will people your story. Remember, you are a creative writer, so turn that creativity loose and write. Let those thoughts and people who live in your head come out to play and think twice before you rein them in.
Next Month, let’s look into villains and how to twist and turn their personalities to make readers love to hate them.