Writing unforgettable characters
Writing characters is something that comes naturally, to me. I’m one of these authors that have live people come to life on the page, and act like they want to, no matter what I intend for them. The most learning that I’ve had to do has been learning to predict their actions so that my plot can remain consistent, and I don’t have to work hard to make my characters believable. They’re alive, for me; I know them like I know my good friends, and I miss them dearly when I’m done writing a book.
But that’s not the case for everyone. A lot of authors are more story-oriented, which simply means they come up with the story first, and need to work on building believable characters to fill their storyline. This is not bad; I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is no one right way to come up with a story. There is only the right way for you, and whether you are story-oriented, or character-oriented, it just means you’ll have to put more work into the element that comes least naturally to you.
I’m only going to say this once; the most important thing you need to understand about creating well-rounded characters is that they are not you. It’s very important that you remember that for a few different reasons:
– How many people are you? It might seem like a dumb question, but think about it. If you want your characters to be believable, they need to be different from each other, because, as I’ve already said in another post, conflict is what drives your plot forward. How are your characters going to have conflict if they are all the same person? If they all agree on everything, if they all have the same opinion? If they all behave the same way?
– While it is true that most of us, being human, have conflicting aspects of our personality, it does NOT mean that by giving one of our characteristics to a character, and another to a second one, we are making them different enough to have conflict. Characters need to be well-rounded. They need to have a mind of their own. How many people do you know who have just one personality trait, and no other? It may be true that some people have more obvious personality traits than others, but it certainly does not mean that they have no others; nobody is that simple.
– Your characters need to be able to do different things. Your protagonist, in particular, needs to be able to rise above the rest and take control of the situation, he needs to be the kind of person that can solve the story’s main problem. How can he or she rise above, if he or she has the same relative capabilities as the rest? Also, how are you going to write villains, if they agree with you morally?
Fortunately, there are ways to become great at writing good, well-rounded characters. They aren’t so much techniques and methods as ways of being, and I think that is why some people have an easier time than others at writing characters that live on the page. But, if this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, don’t despair; these are all things that you can learn to do by putting them in practice as often as you can.
The first key to building unforgettable characters lies in your observation skills. It’s extremely important to become a skilled observer of other humans. And let me make it clear that by saying this, I am by no means telling you to “put other people in your book”. I’m sure that some people do it, but this practice is not exactly conducive to becoming a skillful character creator. What I mean by observing is to watch how different people react to different things, act in a different way, speak in varying levels of language mastery and at different times. I spent my life doing this; I was always curious about other people, what they were thinking, what made them different and particular. Hanging out at public places like food courts, public transportation, and other areas where people of all social backgrounds come together. This is important; you don’t want to go to a place that is too specialized. Try to diversify the crowd you observe!
The second thing you must learn to do, and this is the part where I find most people have a really hard time, is to have empathy. It can be hard, but it is the most important thing you need to learn, as an author. Empathy means truly trying to understand what another person is thinking, and why they are thinking that way. That doesn’t sound so hard? Think again; true empathy is achieved when you have learned to let go of any and all judgement. That means you need to learn to recognize and push aside any preconceived idea you have about anything, and you do need to put yourself in someone’s shoes and try to understand everything someone else does, says or thinks, even things that you completely disagree with, morally or otherwise. Yes, it means you need to understand people you find despicable. The simple reason is this; most stories have antagonists. Not all of them are evil bastards on the level of Baron Harkonnen, but a lot of them will be capable of doing despicable things. These things need to be believable; and for that to happen, you need to understand why some people do these things. I will write a whole post about villains, but for now, as an author, you need to start with practicing constant and consistent empathy.
Finally, learn to love learning about the human race! I read regularly about psychology anthropology, sociology, and behavior. If all your other research is strictly to fill holes in your story, and you read no other non-fiction, I highly recommend that you start reading at least a little non-fiction about human behavior. It will help you in your quest for empathy, and you will find that understanding the mechanics of behavior makes your character creation considerably simpler.
One last thing I can give you: there are three things, two of them exercises, which I highly recommend to my students when they are in the process of character creation:
– Do a character interview. This is an exercise in which you sit down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard, if you are so inclined) and actually have a conversation with your character. Ask them questions you would ask if you were conducting a real interview. Start by saying hello, and what they’re doing. Depending on their personality, some characters might tell you off at first, but be persistent, eventually they will talk to you. I find this a great way to get to know characters that are extremely different from who I am; I get to ask them what they think directly, and why they behave a certain way, and it makes things a lot clearer.
– Fill out a character questionnaire. This is more than just a biography; it asks questions about beliefs, past occurrences, and a lot of things that shape who your character is that you might not have thought about. And it is SO much more than a list of favorite things; this is to establish who your character truly is, deep down. You might be surprised at the answer you find for some questions! I have posted the list of questions I give my students here.
– Do some role-playing. If you have author friends, then do a session of role-playing with them where each of you plays the role of a character, and you ask each other questions, or play a game, but in character. I highly recommend that my students play at least a few sessions of a table-top roleplaying game, as these are great tools for understanding the dynamics of character (for the purpose of learning character interactions, I recommend something that is role-play oriented, such as GURPS, not the action-oriented like Dungeons and Dragons). You may think that this is too geeky for you, but it is one of the best ways to learn how to really act like a given character in a situation where you need to do some quick thinking… and, besides, one of the things you need to do, to be a good character creator (and author, really) is to learn not to judge… what better way to do this than to try something you’ve always looked down upon?