Characters: Are you doing it right?
One of the number one compliments that Dissolution of Peace has received, has to do with the characters. I even started receiving emails through this page from people asking how I made my characters so enjoyable. That was a really tough question for me to answer, I just created them. I didn’t set out to have excellent characters. Let me rephrase that. Every writer wants believable characters with a strong presence in their story. Not all stories are character driven, but without believable characters the story always seem to fall flat. So when I say I didn’t set out to have excellent characters, I simply mean that I didn’t actively sit down and think about how to make people love and/or hate my characters. I just developed them into “real” people and told their story.
You essentially have three types of character types in story. There are the protagonists, in most stories this would be your Main Character (often abbreviated MC). Next you have your antagonists, these are the adversary to your MC. Finally you have you ancillary characters. These are the other characters that support your MC quest. Some might argue that you have a forth group her, the background character, the extras if you will. But, if a character is not in support of the story, I find it best to eliminate them. If you have a bustling market in a movie, there needs to be extras. But if you describe the market in your novel, the reader’s brain provides the background characters.
Antagonist and Protagonist
The Antagonist and Protagonist are often confused with villain and hero respectively. But this is not true. In some stories, your protagonist is the bad guy (though they may not think so). And his adversary, or antagonist, would be the man in the cape. And in some stories, the label of good and evil is not so cut and dry. In this case your MC (protagonist) might be a poor, underprivileged track star who must overcome a leg amputation to win a race again his rich, well to do, rival (antagonist).
It is better to think of your Protagonist as the main star of the show. The person whom we might spend most of our time with. The person who is trying to overcome some obstacle and achieve the goal that is your story. Essentially your novel is the protagonist’s story. You can certainly have more than one protagonist in a novel. I feel my novel has three, and perhaps four, protagonists. But they are also all trying to overcome different obstacles. Ask yourself whose story you are telling. The character you choose is your protagonist.
Think of the antagonist as the person in the way. The person who must be “defeated” in order for the protagonist to advance. In Dissolution of Peace, there is one clear cut antagonist, but I would argue there are at least two more. But in many stories, there is no clear cut bad guy. I’ve read some great stories where the antagonist is a faceless group. Ask yourself who stands in the way of my protagonist and his/her goals. The answer is your antagonist.
These are the people that help tell the story. They could be the protagonist’s friends, family, and allies. They can be related to the antagonists desire to stop the protagonist. Or, they can be other characters that provide help, inspiration, or motivation for the MC. They can also provide despair, discouragement, and other negative emotional impacts for the MC. These are the characters your MC meets along his journey one way or another, and propel the story further in some way.
So you know what the characters are, now what? Well now it is time to make them real. Real characters are what people want. Readers enjoy character they can relate too, are comfortable with, and feel like the are real people. That is where the real challenge comes. Anyone can take a character, plop him into a story, and name him George. But real characters are a lot harder to craft. And they do take some work. That is where character development comes into play.
You may be an outline writer, where you need to outline the specific structure of a story on paper. Or you could be like me, and just let the story take on a life through your fingers on the keyboard. But no matter what way you plan a story out, you need to develop the characters. You can do that in your head or on paper but always put some thought into your characters.
What does your character look like? You may not write out this description in your story, but I find it helps to have a mental picture of my character in place before I start working with the character. Of course, many argue that leaving your character’s description vague in a story allows to a reader to better relate with a character. The logic is that they can imagine a person who fits within their comfort zone. Again, you may not describe the character outright in the text, but you should have some idea of the basics of your character. If you have trouble with getting a mental picture, look at ads and other images and see if you find a picture that suits your characters just fine. (Note: I do not suggest using that image as anything more that a mental building block. Using the image for promotional purposes such as book covers can get you into trouble.)
Name: It may seem obvious that your character needs a name, but this is often the hardest part. I find I like more unique names, and I always struggle with male character names. Just imagine the struggle my wife and I had naming our three boys. Find a name that works for you. I disagree with the idea that it is okay to put any name in place and then change it when you think of one. This is because I believe a name is an identity. And a character with no identity is lost. I suggest Behind the Name to search for all types of fist names for your character.
Descriptors: Think how the police describe a subject: Ethnicity, gender, age. Those are a great start. How about height, weight, build, and clothing they like to wear. Are they even human? These are all important attributes for you to understand your character better. Again, you might not write these out in a text of the story, but they are important. Besides a name, this is the second way we recognize someone. Think of it this way, you ask a friend if they know Greg and they say they’re not sure. What is the next thing you might say? “You know Greg, the really tall white guy. He always wears a tank top. You know, with the really big arms.”
You character has to have a personality. Everyone in real life does. They may be outgoing, they may be a fitness nut, they may be afraid of confrontation. Even someone who seemingly has no personality, does. You just have to know them better. So get to know your characters better.
Likes and Dislikes: What does your character like? What does s/he hate? Do they have a fear of spiders? Do they love to work out? If your character wasn’t stuck in the story you gave them, what might they do for fun? What activities would they avoid? Not only does this build a character’s personality, but it might give you an idea to create a little tension for them at some point down the line. Put me in a room full of spiders and tell me to go get the million dollars on the other side, and I might well wonder how important money is.
Traits: Does your character love to talk? Are they just chatty or very charismatic? Would your character prefer to be left alone? Are they well spoken or more the type to drop an f-bomb? These are all traits readers of one type or another can relate to. Figure out what it is about your character that makes them far more unique than every other five-eleven woman, who likes to work out, but loves chocolate more. Dig deeper and deeper until you’ve created a monster, or a hero, or even better… an unlikely hero.
Now it is time to really make this character into someone. Make them more than just a person in a book. Make them someone real. Give them a bio.
Friends: Who does the character hang out with? What are their friends like? Why would your character choose these people as friends?
Partner: Romance may not be a theme in your story. Though my editor of Dissolution of Peace pointed out that he felt it was the romantic tension in my novel that would sell copies. But not every story needs it. But I do think it is important to take a moment to think about who your character would choose for a mate. It may even be determined that your character has no interest in romance of any type. But why? If they wouldn’t choose a partner, then explain to yourself why.
Family: Where where they born? Who are their parents? Where is their family now? Siblings? Cousins? I know some authors that have an entire family tree for their characters. But also think about how this character relates to his/her family. Remember you can choose your friends and your spouse, but not your family. Your character might be the black sheep of the family, or they could be the family matriarch. Regardless of how we feel about our families, our relationship with our family relates to how we are as a person. The same will be true of your character’s family.
The Past: Consider your character’s past. Where have they worked? Schooling? Did your character witness something that changed them forever? Did they always want a certain job, but they could never have it because of some reason or another? To know where your character is going, you have to know where they came from.
The setting: Consider where your story is taking place. Military and police are all unique individuals, but there are common traits among these people. Same with regions of the world. Where this character is at now is just as important as the past.
Growth: Your characters, especially the MC, need to grow as the story progresses. We all grow as our own lives progress and major events sculpt who we are. They same should be true of your characters. They should grow as they go through the life changing event you have set out to tell. The growth of a your character through the story is just as important as the development you do before the story.
Tips and Tricks:
Walking Cliche: Avoid making your character a walking cliche. The villain who was never loved by his family. The hero who was born to be one. The tall, dark, and handsome MC. They nerd in glasses and a lab coat. I could go on forever with this. There is a world of cliche characters. And I would dare to say there is a bit of cliche in all of us. But, the walking cliche is not going to relate with readers.
Find Examples: Take a look and some of the books you’ve read. What are some characters you really enjoyed? For me, more recently, I love Kara in S. M. Boyce’s Lichgates, Sonata in Beyond the Cell by Sara Tribble, Guile and Kip in Brent Weeks’s The Black Prism, Katnis in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Hank in Robert S. Wilson’s Shining in Crimson are all very strong characters for me (I could list so many more). I rooted for them, felt for them, prayed for them, and wanted desperately to see them succeed. These are the kinds of characters that I enjoy and so when I write characters they are likely to possess some of the same traits as the characters I mentioned. Please don’t take a Gandalf and drop him into you novel, but only call him Ron instead. People will notice that. But if there was something about Gandalf that you really held on to, a character trait of his you admire, then you might put that is Ron the wizard.
These examples don’t have to just come from fiction either. I have an old supervisor of mine that has always stuck in my head. There are traits about him that I think are great, and I use them in my characters. When I look to create romantic chemistry between characters, I draw from real life romantic situations I have seen or been in. In fact, I bet most of our larger than life characters came from traits real people have shown an author.
Characters Talk: One of the big benefits, in my opinion, of not being an outline writer is that I simply let my characters tell the story. I know where the end game is, but I let the character take over the keyboard for me. I let them tell their story through my fingers. I know that sounds like a multiple personality disorder, or at the least the rambling cliches of a writer. But the truth is, when I am writing in a character’s viewpoint, I simply have to become that character. I have to let them talk. I am telling their story, if I don’t listen to them they won’t talk to me anymore. The bottom line here is that if you want to have a believable character you have to treat them like a real person.
Even if you do write outlines. Don’t be so rigid with it. If your characters tell you they want to go on a side quest, perhaps you should let them. I have often found that my characters know a lot more about where my stories are going than I do. And they teach me something new about themselves all the time.
Overly Evil: We often associate the antagonist with evil. This is because if many stories they are the bad guy. But don’t over do it. I’ve heard it said many times, in a variety of ways, so I’ll repeat it: Readers should love to hate your antagonist. They should be able to connect with him on some level. S/he has to be a believable character. They may even be convinced they are doing the right thing. If evil is an element in your antagonist, keep it in line. An overly evil antagonist can be believable, after all there are some incredibly evil people in real life, but too much will turn off a reader. Use the same advice above for creating an antagonist and you will find you can create one with just as much “punch” and the diehard villain, and they will be better for it.
When you go through all these steps you will get great characters. Add some great story telling and you will have characters that are memorable, and worth every moment of the readers time. Each character is different, and their roll in the story will determine just how deep you go into the development of them. But the more you make them real before you start writing, the stronger they will be in the readers head.
If you are looking for more on the topic of character, I strongly suggest you check out Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters and View Point by Orson Scott Card. I learned a lot from that book and reread it often.