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.

A Guide to Character Development

November 18, 2009

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I have written a few other articles on the topic of writing fiction. Today, I’ll spend our time together talking solely about the development of characters.

Let them have a little fun

Characters are the lifeblood of any story. If your characters are dull, your story will be uninteresting. Conversely, an interesting character can not only captivate your audience, but also inspire you during the writing process.

Recently, Martin Kelly mentioned that he liked his characters. To an outsider, it might seem odd, but I also find myself relating with characters. With a short story, a writer doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, due to the compressed nature of the writing. For longer stories, though, many hours can be spent molding the character.

In order to explore various plot scenarios, I often will send my characters to the “back burner” of my brain to let them try out various experiences in and effort see what experiences are good fits of the plot and which are not.

The net result is that I create a nearly sentient being. These characters can run wild inside the imagination of an author, living very full lives as they rush to and fro, experiencing all that life has to offer. Do I sometimes wake up and wonder what a character did while I was sleeping? Well, um, sometimes.

Let your characters have fun, and you will have more fun writing about them.

Attributes of a character

One problem I have stumbled across is that many of my characters are quite slender. Why is this? Quite simply because I’m projecting. I stand a shade under six feet tall and tip the scales around 150 pounds. Not surprisingly, it is easier for me to write about slender characters than it is to write about characters who are 5’4” and 275 pounds. I simply don’t have as solid a frame of reference for the other characters.

I also have a habit of making most of my characters physically attractive. Most of my characters also have very engaging personalities. Many of them share the interests and hobbies that I myself enjoy. In short, they are people that I would get along with great.

So, by default, I have a bunch of Stepford characters running amok in my brain. In terms of their usefulness as imaginary friends, this is pretty nifty. Unfortunately, these happy-go-lucky characters make for a pretty lousy plot – because there is not conflict.

Thus, I am always compelled to roughen the edges on a few of the characters. Interestingly, it isn’t difficult for me to create truly bad characters such as murderers – I struggle more with putting a few necessary blemishes on the nice people. For the most part, I actually fail at this. The majority of my characters are still much nicer than I would like.

So, it’s OK to like some of your characters, but you should also dislike a few – and dislike some aspects of nearly all of the characters. Also, avoid using yourself as too much of a reference point. After finishing up the writing of Key Relationships, I was stunned to find out that the vast majority of the story is written from the male perspective! Even worse, there was no valid plot-related reason for this.

Names and Dialogue

If you write a lot of stories, it can be difficult to constantly find new names. You may find yourself using names of family, friends, and celebrities. Within the past year, I have begun going to the source. The US Census Bureau tracks first and last names and ranks them by how common they are. This is, in a word, SWEET. Not only does it provide you with names you may not have considered previously, but it also lets you know how common the name is.

As we segue smoothly from names to dialogue, we encounter the topic of names being used as part of the dialogue. It is important to avoid overusing the names of characters during the dialogues. If Mark and Bob are speaking to each other, you need not use “Mark” or “Bob” during each line of dialogue – you will drive your readers crazy.

It is also important to spice up the dialogue with a bit of variety. “Said” is a perfectly fine word, but people can also ask, shout, exclaim, whisper, hiss, utter, reply, or comment. Amazingly, most of the time you can simply avoid using any of these verbs. The presence of quotes already makes the reader aware of the fact that someone is speaking.

Finally, natural dialogue will typically be less formal than the prose that surrounds it. Spoken language tends to be less formal than written language – in large part due to the minimal preparation before speaking. If your characters’ dialogue sounds as if they are reading it from a teleprompter, it won’t ring true to your audience.