This post is the first in a weekly series on the art of character writing. The Writing Better Characters series aims to give young writers a toolbox. Tips, tricks and techniques on how to write solid characters your readers will love and come back for more. We hope you have fun, enjoy and stay tuned for next week’s article!
Characters are the cornerstone of every piece of fiction (and nonfiction as well). It’s no secret that solid characters stay with readers for a long time. For good or for ill, they are why we read, even more than plot. They are the ones who will stay with us for the long haul. Our goal as writers: to make our next best friends become our reader’s next best friends.
Not only our protagonists, either — secondary, minor characters and villains as well. During the following weeks, we will explore different types of characters. This week, we will explore how to make characters solid.
But first, a quick background on me and what this is all about.
I’m an author.
More than that, I’m a reader and someone with an active imagination. That means my mind is full of imaginary people at all times of day and night. Some of those people I’ve turned into characters; some are other people’s characters. But they all have a place in my head, and it’s about them that I write stories, and it’s about them I will write today.
The genesis of solid characters
I often tell non-writing friends that these people (not all are human, either) pop into my head at random. It’s true: they do appear in my head at unexpected moments. Not all writers are the same, but in my case, characters often come before the plot itself appears. Oftentimes, I have a vague idea for a scenario, a person, and then I labour to make that into a plot. Another writer friend begins with plot and then the story, but my brain never worked that way. To me, it’s all about the people. Even (or especially) when those people are not human.
This might be because of my interest and past writing in role-playing games; but it goes even further back. As a child, I loved to make animals in plasticine, and I would name and make up stories with them. The same worked for dolls (which I never liked) and plastic figurines/stuffed animals. So, making characters is something I’m no stranger to. But what does it mean to write solid characters? Solid characters, to me, are those who feel real. They are not only words or drawings on a page; they have needs, wants, desires, and personalities. There is a lot of literature out there on writing compelling characters. I haven’t read most of them, but I know one thing: how to tell good characters from bad. Here’s what makes a character uninteresting to me:
They are not more of the same.
Characters that are more of the same, are exactly what you expect. It’s the curvy, sweet, curly-haired ingénue of romance novels. The rugged, handsome, tormented detective of crime fiction. The suave psychopath. We’ve all read and seen these characters. And while many of them are great, there’s a risk there in trying to copy them.
What works for some writers, may not work for others. Worse, you can look like someone trying to plagiarise these characters.
When writing a character, I try to figure out who the person I’m writing is. Who are they? What do they do? Enjoy? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they look like? Likes? Dislikes? More than that, I try to capture their minds. How do they think and react and feel about certain things? What are their opinions on various subjects, even when such subjects they don’t apply?
(This can provide surprising depth on their personalities. What one thinks about certain subjects can give precious insights on their values.)
One thing I’ve noticed is that every character has a voice. Some ask me to write them in the first person; others need the third person. A few even appreciate the second person! It all goes with the character itself, what it means and represents. These are the things you need to pay attention to when writing a solid (read: real) character.
It’s important to remember: not everyone has the same capacity for compassion, love and righteousness. Likewise, not everyone is irresistible and perfect. Not everyone is brave. Not everyone is a genius. Clumsiness isn’t a character flaw, it’s a quirk. It’s these things that give shape and body to a character, more than looks.
What makes fiction go from good and okay to great, is how raw it becomes, how much it hits home with people. Harry Potter resonated with a lot of young readers, not due to the magical world he is in. It’s because he acts, talks and reacts like someone in his situation. He commits mistakes and recovers from them; he can be crass and even mean to his friends. Harry feels like a real person, not a stereotype or cardboard cut-out.
There is a place for stereotypes. But not everywhere.
Yes, there is a place for stereotypes. They exist for a reason: they often have a kernel of truth. The trick is when the stereotype becomes everything.
A good, solid character feels real. And while stereotypes may fill a role, they are not enough. Not for any characters that matter.
The trick is: you can begin with a stereotype and spin out a person out of it. Because characters are — and should be — people. Real people, people you could see existing.
Even if you write science, historical, or fantasy fiction, these are still people. People who have struggles, responsibilities, challenges, hopes and dreams. They are, of course, tied to their environments. To their worlds: a person in Africa does not have the same struggles as a person in Europe. But, many of these challenges are the same. We all want love, shelter, security, things like this.
That’s nice and all, but how do I get there?
Well, throughout the weeks we’ll discuss how to make solid characters. Characters that feel and sound real. As an exercise for this week, however, consider this: consider the people you’ve known, the people you’ve met, and how they are like (and unlike) characters you’ve loved. Or how they could become characters themselves, with a little tweaking here or there.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s post!
We meet next week! 🙂