September 9, 2014

Character Development

I was recently asked by a young writer I met while guest-lecturing at a writing camp for some tips and tricks on how to come up with good characters that people would want to read about. So, after lots of mulling and reading on the topic as a refresher, I came up with a really long and detailed answer that I figured I'd then share with you. Just in case any of you might be interested :)

THE HERO/HEROINE;

Pick first a person or character that you truly admire, and write down the reasons why. Why do you remember him/her so well? What struck you?

Now think about the story you want to create. Think about the “inciting incident” and the “point of no return” in your story, and how both of those events would affect your character. This will flavor how you shape him/her.

Next, here are some pointers when trying to come up with your main character.

First, what are his/her characteristics, i.e. observable qualities that make him/her unique? (Physical appearance, coupled with mannerisms, style of speech and gesture, sexuality, age, IQ, occupation, personality, attitudes, values, where he/she lives, how he/she lives…). You don’t have to be super detailed about it, because the most important aspect is the second point.

Second, what’s your character’s “true persona”? This is what he/she truly is when he/she gets tested throughout the story on his/her way to what he truly desires (to help you on this point, think about what your main character wants, and why, though the why can remain a little mysterious too to account for the fact that human beings can be a little irrational as well). On that point, it’s important to note that most people want the main character to be someone who’s considered to be larger than life (yet feels real—which is why writers will attribute their heroes/heroines some flaws too). Think back to your first exercise and why you liked other heroes so much. What kind of qualities do you want to attribute him/her?

To help you in this regard, here are some key attributes to think about regarding your main character:
  • What’s his/her strength? Street smarts, compassion, intuition, wisdom, discipline, humor, hope, perseverance, humility, etc.
  •  Inner conflict. I mentioned above that your hero’s/heroine’s true persona will shine through, via actions, when faced with dilemmas. One source of such dilemmas is internal conflict—do I go find my one true love before he leaves for ever and we can live happily together ever after, or do I keep my promise to this little girl who doesn’t want to die alone? This point is really important, because readers are drawn by the struggles your character goes through. If everything was always peachy, it would make for one helluva boring story, don’t you think?
  • Self-regard. This too is important, because if your main character doesn’t care about what’s happening to him/her and around him/her, then why should the reader care? The more your character’s immersed in his/her own feelings, the more your reader will feel them too (I think that’s why the Twilight series did so well).
  • Wit and spontaneity. Again, make your main character greater than life, because he/she needs to do and say things we ordinary readers wouldn’t normally do. And again, actions speak louder than words.

 
THE DARK PROTAGONIST OR ANTI-HERO:

Though a lot of stories that have such as the central “anti-hero” figure, a lot of them have failed in taking off because the author made them too dark and despicable, without any redeeming qualities. You want to write about a jihadist? His love of his daughter and a (what he believes to be) a better world for her is what redeems him to the eyes of the readers. And make sure this quality that makes your anti-hero humane to a certain level is shown very early on (as in the first few pages)—otherwise your readers won’t stick long enough to see how he/she goes through the rest of your story.

In this case, having your anti-hero make a profound transformation at the end of your story can be very profound and mark your readers as well—but only if you truly show how he/she’s battled everything in his/her way (outside and inside conflicts) while working towards that change. Again, the larger the conflicts and the harder it is for your character to get to his/her goal, the more rewarding the ending will be.

A NOTE ON YOUR PROTAGONIST'S GOAL:

I don’t just mean “the treasure chest” or the “pile of gold guarded by the dragon.” It has to be something more rewarding (and therefore profound) than that. It has to be something your main character’s truly longing for, from the depths of his/her soul. Such as feeling the love of her family, being at peace with himself, accepting herself for who she is, etc.

CAST AND SIDE CHARACTERS:

What you want to think about when building your cast is contrast. That is, how they provide conflict for your main character—whether it’s by providing physical obstacles, or by contradicting your hero’s/heroine’s views. Once again, the more friction (and how your main character solves or doesn’t solve his/her issues) there is, the more your reader will be drawn in. I think a cute yet good example is given by Kronk (from The Emperor’s New Groove) and his shoulder angel vs. shoulder demon. They both provide friction by attempting to stop him from what he’s doing (his shoulder angel telling him to not kill Cuzco), or from going against his moral standards (his shoulder demon telling him to “go down the path that rocks”).



A pitfall writers may have is when they have too many secondary characters who then wash out. To avoid this problem, think about your cast and see if there aren’t any characters you can’t combine (say those who have similar views/standards). This will make that secondary character more focused, and therefore more memorable (vs. having a diluted point of view which then has less impact). When it’s hard for readers to differentiate between characters or even remember them, it’s because they haven’t been sufficiently individualized.

Your cast will also provide different viewpoints of your main character, and thereby help your hero/heroine get more and more fleshed out because your readers will be able to see him/her through someone else’s eyes (whether in a good or bad light).
 
THE ANTAGONIST:

The only thing I want to say about this point, is to draw him/her/it as well as you draw your hero/heroine. The reason being that the stronger your antagonist, the more it will elevate your own main character as well, and render their fight/opposition that much more epic.

HOW TO PICK YOUR MAIN CHARACTER:

The answer is by picking the character with the most conflict, the one who changes the most, who journeys the furthest, who’s the most captivating character.

And no matter which character you’re writing about, make sure to use yourself and your feelings to portray them (by putting yourself in their shoes). The more open and truthful to your own feelings you are, the more that sincerity will transpire on the screen/paper, and the more you’ll touch your readers.


I know some other writers who pretend to interview their main cast at a bar, to see how they would answer and get a better idea of their background and personalities to help them sort things through. But don’t worry if you don’t have it down immediately, you can play around with ideas until you feel satisfied you have a good protagonist in place. Then move on from there to show how he/she will change throughout the story (your character arc).

I know, this was an extremely long read, but I hope it has helped some of you when coming up with your own stories. Of course, please feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments section, and I will do my best to answer them :)

Happy writings!

P.S.:
For those of you who want to read more on the topic (and even more so on writing in general), here are two good books for you:

Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers

10 comments:

  1. I read your post with great interest. Congratulations on guest-lecturing on writing! All this applies to books that focus on a story and, as we have already established, most people want to read such books. I do not, and instead read books for the beauty of writing, character portrayals, and to learn something about the people or the world that I have not yet known about. I do not think one could have recipes for these aspects.

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    1. No. The types of books you read require life experience, a lot of introspection, and a love for poetry (even if written as a novel). But that's my take on it :) There are some books, however, that can contain both. I really enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicals, for instance.

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  2. Well, another Goodreads friend also recommends The Golem and the Jinni, so I will read it. It will be an ultimate sacrifice as, on principle, I do not read books longer than, say, 300 pages, and here we have almost 500 pages. My favorite literary form is a novella - not quite a novel, but not a short story either. I am going to order the book right now. Then I will look into Rothfuss' book.

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    1. I hope you like it!
      The two current books in the Kingkiller Chronicles are also long book though... :p
      Przepraszam

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    2. I have ordered both books from Amazon. Funny about the Polish language. My daughter does exactly the same. She says "Przepraszam" when she means "I am sorry". Yes, it means exactly that, when you do something wrong, say, "I am sorry I hit you on the head with a hot skillet leaking grease". But when you want to apologize that you force me to read a long book, then it is in no way your fault, and this is expressed in Polish as "Przykro mi, ze..." Bozena would have a field day, she is so much into translation.

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    3. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! I thought they were both very lyrical for fantasy stories.

      As for the Polish, please blame Google and my blind following of its own translation. Przykro mi (am I supposed to add the ze? I figured that was just to add to the sentence like "for not using the right Polish expression" or something...).

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    4. Thank you! No, you are right, one does not add "ze". "Przykro mi" is enough. You see, you know Polish better than I do.

      Another topic for conversation: Goodreads. There is a feature somewhere that lets one compute the average number of stars one gave to the books. When I was at my 200th reviewed book, my average was 3.01, which made me extremely proud of myself for averaging a perfect average. In recent months, though, I have had a tendency of only reading books that I know are very good, or re-reading great books from my youth. Thus, my average is creeping up. I am not sure what to do. Start reading Danielle Steele or James Patterson?

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    5. Ha! Only a true mathematician would be proud of hitting a perfect average! Did you amuse yourself calculating the standard deviation as well?
      I don't think it's bad that your average is creeping up. We only have so many hours in our (current?) life, so why would you want to spend it reading a ton of books you don't enjoy quite so much simply because you want to keep the average? I say, go for the top .00001% :)

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  3. You are right, of course. Life is too short. Statistically, I have only about 15 years left, so about 2000 books. But outliers exist and I may be on my last book right now (a two-star novel, interesting but poorly written) or I may be around for many more years (my Ph.D. advisor, Jan Oderfeld, got to 102; at 100 he was still quite sharp).

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    1. Well, considering life insurance companies are now projecting their numbers up to 120 years of age, I think you should shoot for that. In excellent health, of course :) So that should leave you plenty of time to tweak your average!

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