For some of us–well, maybe just me, but I can hardly believe I’m alone in this–the idea of creating a rich, intricate character that appeals to the reader, pulls at their heart-strings, makes the reader root for/against, love and hate, talk to like a real person, want to become friends with (or just become), well, it’s pretty intimidating. I mean, how does one do that, exactly?
Yeah, I don’t exactly know the answer to that. The characters I have that are like that are created more-or-less by accident. Character building is perhaps my weakest skill, so I’m going to talk about the things I do to try to overcome that weakness.
I was inspired to write by early 20th century pulp fiction. Action heroes like Conan and John Carter are what I patterned my writing on as a teen/early adult (hey, what do you want, I’m a boy). These stories are long on setting and action, but the characters–even the main characters–are mostly objectified, cardboard cutouts. Multidimensionality is not a strong suit.
And, as a result, my earliest characters were pretty one-dimensional. The earliest versions of my favorite characters to write, the warrior Regnar and his friend, the wizard Belan, were completely flat: Regnar was strong and jolly, and Belan was smart and somber, and neither ever changed.
Over time, of course, I’ve improved. Now there is an arc to both their characters. Those old qualities are still there, but there’s a reason for them. They have goals, aspirations, trauma; they react to that trauma, heal, etc. So how did I get there?
Last October, at the MUG Writing Retreat, I talked about 5 questions I ask myself about my characters. I’m going to repeat those here.
- What does (s)he want? This should include both:
- physical (i.e. to escape the clutches of the 100-foot tall octopus-headed monster)
- emotional (i.e. to resolve their long-standing mommy/daddy issues and find love)
- How does (s)he get it?
- What steps is the character willing to take to achieve their goals, and how does that change over the course of the story?
- What will they do at the end that they would have considered impossible at the beginning?
- What is the inciting incident, i.e., the event that sets them on their journey?
- What is the character climax, i.e., the moment when they have to face their demons and conquer them?
- How is everything resolved? What is the character like *after* the climax?
This is a great place to start with character building (though note that, like me, you might end up doing this after the character’s already been on the page for several chapters), but it’s by no means an end. There are dozens of other questions you can ask about your characters, like “what is their favorite color?” or “why do they like cheese enchiladas?”.
What other qualities does your character have, maybe not important to the plot of the story in any way, that flesh them out more fully? For shorter stories, this probably won’t come out, and may be a wasted effort. For a novella or novel, though, such things are very important. A simple, throwaway line about liking cheese enchiladas because the character’s parents would take the family to a Mexican restaurant whenever an older sibling was successful at school or sports gives the reader insight into the character.
The next thing you can do to establish a character is give them a vivid situation to react to right at the beginning, when you first meet them. First impressions are always important, and you can do almost anything with a character once you’ve got the reader hooked with a visceral reaction. If it’s a hero character, this is often a ‘save the cat’ moment; for a villain, a ‘kill the cat’ moment is just as important.
Take, for example, the opening scenes of the movie ‘Payback’, starring Mel Gibson. Gibson is playing Porter, a criminal that was betrayed by his wife and friend. In the opening of the movie, we see Porter return to town, steal money from a homeless panhandler, pick a passerby’s pocket, and spend the day buying suits and jewelry until the man’s credit cards are cancelled. This is a bad man, we’re told. The next thing he does is go find his wife and attempt to save her from her heroin addiction; a ‘save the cat’ moment. Ok, so he’s a bad man, but he’s not all bad. He has redeeming qualities, and it’s this hope for redemption that has the audience rooting for him.
The last thing I try to remember is to be flexible. Your character concept may change as you write. I initially envisioned my character Iandoli as a sadistic, amoral woman who was sexually excited by violence. I dropped the sadism and sexual element later, replacing it with an internal conflict over right and wrong; I don’t expect many of my readers to be sexual sadists, but I do expect nearly all of them to be able to relate to her struggle to do what she thinks is right; and as the book progresses, that changes.
So, whether you start with building a character and letting that direct the plot as you put them in situations, or whether you build the plot and plug characters into it, you have to remember that the reader wants to love the person they’re reading about as much as the story they’re involved in. Know what your character’s path is, know details about them that flesh them out and make them believable, and make them relateable, and you’ll have your reader hooked.