Creating Characters That People Care About

October 22, 2010

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One of the most important aspects of any story is character development.  There’s a reason why you see may writers develop an entire series for a character – because people come to identify with characters and want to see what comes next.

The trick is to build characters that people can identify with and care about.  How can you do this?

Use the first person perspective

There are two major perspectives to use in fiction writing – first and third person (in theory, you could write in second person, but this is rare outside of the “choose-your-adventure” sort of novels).

Writing in the first person perspective lets the reader see the world through the eyes of the main character.  Since the reader is going to be force fed just the one perspective,they’ll tend to identify with the character and be sympathetic to the character’s struggle.  The reader will see the character’s biased view as reality.

The downside to the first person perspective is that the reader will be privy only to details that the main character knows about.  When you write in the third person, you can have the narrator be omniscient and know everything that is going on.

Writing in the first person can also be difficult if you have more of an ensemble cast.  Whose viewpoint do you use in this case?

Some successful writers use first person, while others do quite well with third person.  Play around with it and see what suits you.  I typically write in the third person (probably to subconsciously distance myself from the nasty nature of some of my characters), but I’ll be experimenting with the first person in my Halloween story (coming on October 29).

The quest

Many stories feature the main character on a noble quest. I tend to read a lot of mysteries, so my characters are often trying to bring bad guys to justice. I can easily see how the character is doing important work – catching a serial killer benefits society. The quests aren’t always quite so cut-and-dried, but a protagonist is usually engaged in some sort of meaningful work. It’s unlikely that a character who repeatedly tilts at windmills is going to garner a huge number of fans – unless he happens to be Don Quixote.

“Everyman” attributes

Let’s say your main character is tall, rich, handsome, enjoys opera, and has no personal problems at all – living the perfect life.  How can I identify with this character – we have nothing in common!  (Well, maybe the handsome part …)  Developing some traits that the character shares with “real” people will help make the character seem more real.  This can be something as mundane as a distrust of politicians or  a dislike of pet owners who refuse to clean up after their animals (I absolutely hate the people who let their dog poop on my lawn and then don’t clean it up – they give all pet owners a bad name).

Warts and all

If you find yourself developing characters who are absolutely perfect, this is a problem.  People are not perfect, and the most believable characters have some flaws.  Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr is a thief, while his Matt Scudder characters battles with an alcohol addiction as well as a slightly nonstandard concept of justice.  Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme (brought to the silver screen in the motion picture The Bone Collector) has a body that is flawed, and can be a bit of a jerk at time.  In the long run, all of these characters are good guys, but in the short run, they can do some bad things.

The best characters aren’t necessarily ones that you could hang out with 24/7.  The most believable characters are people who could get on your nerves from time to time.

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