The Writing Life

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Writing 101: Creating Interesting Original Characters

To me, one of the most important things you can do in any story is create interesting, memorable characters. This is where the true heart of a story is. What can be done to make original characters enhance your story, whether minor walk-ons or costars?

One of the key things to remember is that it is more important to let the reader know what kind of person a character is, than his shoe size, or the color of her hair. I'm not saying physicality isn't important. Sometimes, your character can really come into focus from a physical trait. But even then, you're still on the surface. True characters are the sum of their parts.

BACKSTORY

Many writers fill in the backstory of a character (the things that made up his/her life prior to the beginning of the story) by writing up a brief character sketch. Here's where you can put the physical description, likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, education, ambitions, flaws, idiosyncrasies, childhood, etc. Chances are that if you fill in the backstory with enough detail, your character will nearly jump off the page.

UNIQUE TRAIT

One thing that I've found extremely helpful is giving all characters, from the tiniest bit part to the central players, some interesting or unusual trait, or 'hook'. For example, I wrote a story once where this very fierce soldier, a captain of the guard, appeared to be rather stoic and stereotyped. So to dispel that cardboard image (honestly, could it have been any more clichéed?), I gave him a gap in his front teeth. Every time he smiled, he had the habit of sticking his tongue into that little gap, giving him the appearance of almost childlike delight. This was so incongruous with his stern image, that immediately, I knew a great deal more about my captain than I had before he smiled. I knew he had a sense of humor, and a big heart, and enthusiasm. He was devoted to duty, but cared about people first and foremost. In fact, he grew all sorts of interesting traits, simply because of a gap in his teeth.

You can take these traits from any source, and the world is full of them. Think of a friend, for example. Ever hear anyone say, "Oh, that is SO like her!" Chances are, that's a unique trait being discussed, and fully stealable. Observe strangers in a park and make up personalities for them based on their walk, clothing, or gestures. Or think of an actor and use one of his or her traits. Heck, you could even use your pet as a source! Every animal has a distinct personality, so there's no reason your seductive villain can't slink like a housecat, or your villain can't bark his words.

JUXTAPOSITION

Like the gap-toothed soldier, the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous traits can be a wonderful source of material. Experiment a bit. Play against type and see what you get. A villain with a lisp. A heroine who likes to play word games. A nasty CEO who cares deeply for animals.

Another trick is to think of something unusual, a physical trait, a bit of background info -- any source will do -- and then use that as a starting point to build your character. You can even take this one step further by giving him a trait, let's say you have a villain who has beautiful hands, you build the character around it -- he is fastidious about what he touches, is always clean, manicured, dresses well, dresses his minions well, etc. -- and then you can take away that original trait (the beautiful hands) because it's no longer necessary. It was just a place to start, to get those juices flowing.

WALK-ONS

If the character is in a minor role, pick one characteristic and use that. Don't overload them. And keep it small, nothing too overt. In movies, extras learn to avert their faces, or try to become 'invisible', because anonymity is the bread and butter of extra work. So if you have a walk-on part, a laborer, make him a person, but keep it small. Maybe he has an unusual vocal habit (maybe he's redundant. "I saw them come in. They were here. Came in right through that door, they did." This would be annoying if overused, but in a small part it can be an effective shortcut to an original 'voice', and even make him seem a bit folksy, or dull). Just don't fall into the trap of using the same trick on every extra. If one laborer talks like a bumpkin, that doesn't mean every person in every story you write should speak the same way. Keeping it small doesn't mean getting lazy.

To use another illustration, let's say Annie the waitress enters wearing an enormous 3 foot high hat. She takes the order, apparently oblivious to the tower on her head, brings the customer her food then walks away. If that's Annie's only bit, the only thing she's there for, then the writer had better have a darn good reason for that frigging hat! Otherwise, it's annoying (the reader thinks s/he missed something) and it's also really stupid. (note: comedy is an exception. But that's another discussion)

Speaking of hats...

HAT COLOR

One of the most important things to remember about your dominant characters is complexity. Don't give your villain a black hat. Don't make him or her all evil, or just mean for the sake of mean. The closer they are to that description, the less interesting they are. Make your villain complex and conflicted. A nasty villain with sympathetic roots is one of my personal favorite types of villains. The more understandable and sympathetic the backstory, the more nastiness you can get away with.

Always keep this balance in mind when creating a villain, or a hero. Heroes need flaws, villains need good points. Let's take the example of the villain who loves animals. Imagine some despot running a small country, cutting down women and children without a thought, yet he goes to extreme lengths to save a bunny from being squished by a car. And when he pets a dog or mends a bird's wing we see tenderness and caring and genuine concern and suddenly our villain is a whole lot more complex. Humans aren't all good or all bad. We're mixtures.

Just as villains need dimensions, so do heroes. Don't make your leading man and/or lady be so utterly perfect that no one will be able to relate. Give them a bad habit or two. Put some chinks in their armor. Make them interesting. The more interesting they are, the more we care about them, and the more we want them to be okay. However, don't make the mistake of going too far. If your hero is handsome but so darned disagreeable, arogant, and hostile that no one would want to be around him, then why should anyone root for him?

NAMES

There is a general rule that not only do you never give the same name to two people in a story, you don't even start the names of your characters with the same letter. Keeping in mind that storytelling is communication, you want to give your reader as many breaks as possible when it comes to keeping characters straight.

Story One has Alva, Amy, Aaron and Allen as secondary players. They're all introduced at roughly the same time, and all have about the same size role. Ouch! Keeping them apart in your readers' minds is going to be one tough task.

Story Two has Betty, Calvin, Diana, and Eric. None of these names starts or ends with the same letter. They all sound distinct, but are easy to say and remember. The reader is in much better shape here, just from the names alone.

When you're writing about different cultures and places, and you want to use names generic to that time and place, names can be very confusing. Be especially on guard. Make them pronounceable, easy to tell apart, and memorable.

DIALOGUE

Your characters can really come alive in dialogue. The most important aspect of this is "voice". Everyone has a unique voice (and I'm not speaking of physical sound, but the way we say things, including accent, syntax, word choice, use of idioms, etc.). One of the quickest ways to delineate characters is to give them a unique voice.

Think of it this way: when you watched TV, each character's dialogue is distinct from the others. Phoebe wouldn't say the same things Monica would say on Friends. Capturing voice is about hearing the differences and translating that to the page. The things a character says and the way she says them, are very much a part of who she is. When writers don't mirror this in their dialogue, it shows. Ideally, one should be able to tell who's talking without giving an attribution (she said) every time. Often, this isn't the case. The lines are interchangeable, and the writer has lost one of their best character weapons.

Every character in your story should have unique a voice. This doesn't mean everyone should speak in dialect, the differences can be more subtle. For example: If what you want to say is, "The cat is in the tree and we can't get her down", there are a number of ways to get this information across.

A: "The cat's treed. No way to get her."
B: "The cat has managed to trap herself high in the boughs, and we've found her to be unreachable.
C: "Cat's up there. I'm not."
D: "The cat is in the tree, and there appears to be no possible rescue."
E: "Damn animal. Up in a tree. Well, she's gonna hafta stay there."
F: "What are we going to do? There's no way to get a cat out of a tree!"

And so on. Many ways to say it, many ways to shade it. Some have slightly different meanings, but most give you the same information about the cat, the tree, and the efforts to save her. But the voices are all different.

CHARACTER'S PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

When it comes to describing your characters physically, we all have our preferences. Personally, it drives me a bit batty when, after something has been established, it continues to be repeated throughout the story. Constantly describing the color of eyes or hair, the size of someone, etc. takes all the 'power' out of the description. It becomes something easy to ignore.

So how do you bring back the power into these descriptions? Use them when they're important to what's going on. When they mean something. Don't constantly repeat, "blue eyes met green" or some variation of the same. The writer really doesn't need to constantly tell us what color eyes each character has, once it's been established. If you want to make note of the eyes, it's far more interesting to tell us something we don't know. What emotion are they showing? Are they laughing, sleepy, worried, passionate, showing crinkles at the edges, squinting in sunlight, and so forth. If they have changed colors, that's worth mentioning because it often denotes emotion. (My eyes change colors very noticeably, and it's often a barometer to what I'm feeling.) Always think in terms of giving the reader new information, not repeating something they already know.

There is also debate about describing your characters upon introduction. Personally, I hate doing it, because it tends to sound like a laundry list of attributes. But sometimes, one needs to, because many readers like to get a mental picture. Make this description an important decision. Don't just describe them, think of ways you can work it into the story, or make it more natural. And if you can't, then don't overdo. Give the basics and let the rest come out gradually, as the story is told.

If your character has something unusual in his/her physical description, use that as a way to describe your character without that laundry list feel. As an example, if she has a bad leg, you can draw that mental picture with that as a starting point.

"Jane eyed the stairs, then took a deep breath. Holding the rail tightly, she placed her right foot on the stair, then brought the left level to it. The crease between her eyes, chiseled by years of pain, deepened as she repeated this slow progress, step by step. Soon, her left hand gripped the railing above her right, as more and more of her weight was held by her muscular upper body, freeing her weak right leg of its burden. Finally, with one last push, she'd arrived at the top step."

Sure, you don't get eye and hair color from this, but you do get the beginnings of a picture. Something you can add to when Jane meets other people, looks in a mirror, and so forth. When it's important, another trait can be mentioned. Maybe she has startling blue eyes, and although she's convinced all anyone sees when they meet her is her disability, in truth, the majority are struck by these wonderful eyes. A character could say as much, and Jane can learn something (and so will your readers). Much better than just saying "she has blue eyes."

SUMMARY

Building interesting characters is very much like building an interesting story. It's important stuff when writing. And it's wonderfully exciting when your readers start to talk about them as if they are real. Just as people you meet can be fascinating, each with their own life stories, so must your characters be. Give the readers a trail of clues and insights into who they are, make them interesting enough to care about, and you've succeeded in creating wonderful, original characters.

9 Comments:

  • This really helped me. Thank you so much :) Now I need to work on the plot.

    By Blogger Johnny Scharonne, at 6:15 AM  

  • This is a great help! Thank-you very much!

    By Blogger Splash, at 10:51 PM  

  • many thanks, this was nicely explained, awsome examples

    By Blogger joe, at 12:22 AM  

  • Very good! This is helpful, thank you very much. :) <3

    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:28 PM  

  • Great resource, I'm bookmarking it. Characterization is such a hard thing to get your hands around. Thanks!

    By Blogger aimlessthinkgirl, at 4:47 PM  

  • There is also another interesting I like to do when creating characters. Since a atory is primarily about internal conflict, I create this in my protagonist by using a formula: Emotion A versus Emotion B.

    Take, for example, Duty Versus Guilt:

    Suppose your story is about a soldier given orders to kill anybody wearing an enemy uniform. Everything is fine at first, until he realizes that the enemy has started recruiting woman and children.

    And by pitting a protagonist against an equally strong antagonist, the plot will write itself.

    By Blogger Johnny Tsunami, at 9:05 AM  

  • That was a very useful post! The points you made were amazingly helpful and I can't wait to start to integrate them into my writing. Thanks!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:34 PM  

  • That was a good article. I like it. You gave some good points. I have a superhero who struggles with flaws like lack of self-confidence and not trusting her instincts but she gradually gets over them, and a villian who is very smart, but wants to turn people into super-soldiers against their own will and clone them, plus a goth character who wants to protect her city and the people she loves, but enjoys kiling andf torturing bad guys.

    By Blogger Carly Tucci, at 7:50 AM  

  • I might've forgot to mention that I also have a character named BeamGirl who is my superhero StarGirl's mom, a girl named Mary who is smart, but didn't train with StarGirl like Vance, who is very loyal and protective of her, which could lead to some romance, as well as a character named Sam who's based off of my cousin Alex.

    By Blogger Carly Tucci, at 7:54 AM  

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