Creating your characters
For those of you who have been following my blog for a while now, you may remember a short piece I wrote a little while ago offering advice about how to come up with a good plot for your story. At the time, I said that while there were many advantages to having a strong plot, it was not essential. After all, a great storyline is irrelevant if your readers don’t care about how it affects the people in your story, and for that you needed good characters for them to emotionally engage with.
So what makes a good character? Well, I think the best way to illustrate this is to first of all demonstrate what makes a bad character. But what do we mean by ‘bad’? Is that person weak? Do they lack distinctive personality traits? Do they fall within a certain stereotype? Does the reader fail to connect with them? All these things are certainly the warning signs of a poorly developed character, however I think the best example of defining this has to be from Red Letter Media’s video review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In this review, a group of people are asked to describe the main characters in The Phantom Menace versus those in the original Star Wars movie, without referring to what they do for a living, or what they look like. For the original Star Wars, the participants found this easy – Han Solo was charming rogue, who eventually demonstrated that he had a heart of gold. C3-PO was a coward, but endearingly funny in the way he fretted about the situations he found himself in. However, when it came to The Phantom Menace, the participants were unable to vocalise anything about two of the film’s main characters (Qui-Gon Jinn and Padmé Amidala) without referring to their occupations or what they looked like. So for starters, I would say that if you find yourself having similar trouble describing your own characters, go back to the drawing board. And by the way, if you haven’t watched Red Letter Media’s reviews of the Star Wars prequel films, stop reading this right now and check them out by clicking on this text that I have turned blue to indicate that it is a link to that website. If you disliked the prequel films as much as I did and need someone to articulate all that was wrong with them, there is no better place to go. It’s an almost cathartic experience.
But back to developing your characters. Anyone can tell you why a character is bad, but what makes them good? Well, ultimately there is no specific formula – I’ve listed a few things below that I try to consider as a guide, however it is important to remember that even if you do all the things I’ve suggested, there is still no guarantee that your character development will be complete. Creating a character is like cooking a meal – just because you’ve added all the right ingredients, it doesn’t mean the food will taste right – too much or too little of something can send things off balance and make things unpalatable. In truth, no-one can tell you when you’ve got it just right – but there should be a point where you just get that feeling that the character is fully formed. It’s that point where they become their own entity in your mind; you no longer have to think about how they behave – they just show you.
So anyway – here are some quick tips I try to use when developing the characters in my stories. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but I do hope it is of some use…
The most critical thing to remember when creating any character is that their existence should not be confined to the period of time in which the story takes place – they should have a history; things that have built them into the person they are when the reader is introduced to them. This back story may never be referred to in the story itself, however as an author you should be aware of the character’s upbringing, as it will affect how they come across. So when thinking of a backstory, think about their childhood. What it was like growing up. What experiences have they been through, good or bad, that have now shaped their attitude towards life? Ultimately, you may choose to explore a backstory in tremendous detail in the story, or it may simply be a throwaway line that reveals that extra depth. Or it may not get a mention at all. But even for your most incidental characters, it should still be there.
Think about how your characters speak
A common problem with characters is that no matter how diverse they might be in your mind, you are still the person putting words in their mouths. As such, it is easy to fall into the trap of all your characters articulating themselves in similar ways. I’ve read some books where all the characters use the same turn of phrase, or have the same rhythm to their speech, and it always pulls me out of the story, as it is clear they all share the same voice as the author. An easy way out of this is to exaggerate dialects or accents, or use idioms when they speak, however the better a writer you are, the better you will be at making this very subtle, so the reader hears different people speaking, rather than the same person talking through different mouths.
What are your character’s roles in the plot?
Some characters exist solely for the purpose of furthering or explaining the plot. Take every single episode of Star Trek for example, where the unnamed crew member accompanies the cast on an away mission down to the planet’s surface. Nine times out of ten, the only purpose of that character is to get killed. By a tentacle monster. So now the mission is for the crew to kill the tentacle monster. You also have what I call “exposition characters”. These characters have one job and one job only – to turn up and explain what’s going on a lot, like Donald Sutherland’s role in JFK. While this is not always a bad thing (sometimes things do need explaining), in many instances, a character that exists solely to tell the other characters what is happening is normally the product of a confusing plot.
Everybody does something unexpected now and again. Yesterday, I drank a tea with no sugar in it for instance. Crazy! The same can be true of your characters, and by far the best example of this is where good characters do bad things, and bad characters do good things. Why not have your villain rescue a kid from being run over by a car? Or have your hero shout at their kids? It’s a great way to add considerable depth the key players in your story, and since we’re all flawed individuals, it’s pretty realistic too.
I never realised I did that!
How often has someone told you something about yourself that you never realised? Maybe you have an annoying habit that failed to register in your mind, but annoys the hell out of everyone around you. Maybe you think you’re a great listener, but actually most people think you just politely wait for them to stop speaking before reverting the conversation back to yourself. Everybody lacks self awareness to a degree, as there is always a gap between how you intend to come across, and how people perceive you. Explore any instances of this in your story where possible, as it can often be used to lead into a confrontation that reveals even more about your characters.
So… what do you like doing?
Imagine you were introduced to a stranger at a party. What would be the first thing you would ask them, after the obligatory “what do you do a living?” conversation exhausts itself? Normally, you would start to explore common interests. Art. Films. Music. Bird watching. All that stuff. So imagine you asked someone what their interests were, only for them to say “nothing really.” What would you do? You’d probably try and escape that conversation as quickly as possible. Your characters need to be interested in things outside of their job and the plot they find themselves in, otherwise they are not people.
Most of us have an inner pain inside us – something traumatic that has happened to us in the past, like the loss of a loved one for example. Pain affects our attitude towards things around us, and affects how we are motivated. For example, a character who was ignored by their parents might now be someone who always wants to be noticed; an extrovert who gains strength from how others react to them. From this, you can usually get to a place where you understand what your character fears the most, which is one of the most important things to know when you are shaping them in your mind. The extrovert for instance, would hate solitude.
Appearances are important
It’s always good to make description functional – use it to reveal more about the character. For example, a character wearing brown shoes doesn’t suggest much, other than the fact that they are wearing a pair of brown shoes. However, if those brown shoes were polished to such a fine sheen that they sparkled, or if the toecaps were so scuffed they’d almost worn away, you get so much more information about the person wearing them. It’s also good to think about how the character’s appearance affects other people’s perception of them. For instance, an ugly guy might have always had trouble having the confidence to speak to women, which affects him to this day.
So there you go. As I said, there are definitely more things to consider, and following these rules won’t necessarily result in you creating the dream cast for your story. But I do hope it helps.