I think my favorite thing about the writing process, with dialogue running a close second, is creating my characters. Bad guys, good guys, and the extras; I think about every single character in a story in meticulous detail. I didn’t realize how detailed I tend to get until I started this NaNo insanity. A third of my outline was the main characters and their personalities. So, this post will launch a longish series of articles on creating characters and an introduction to some of the ones wandering through the various settings I’ve created.
Memorable characters are three-dimensional, which means they are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. Doesn’t matter what role they play, whether they’re bad or good, major or minor, all of your characters need to breathe for the reader to be able to fully immerse herself into their story.
To create a character that readers will remember, you have to incorporate little details that give the reader insights to these three dimensions. This way your reader knows the character didn’t just fall out of the sky the minute you wrote the story. Sure, that’s exactly how it happened, but for the reader he should seem like he existed before you introduced them.
Everything about your character—speech patterns, clothing, body language, etc.—shares something physical, emotional, or psychological with the reader that makes them both universal and unique. WTF? Exactly. How can one be universal and unique at the same time? Easy.
Universal traits are those most of us can identify with and feel empathetic toward, and they’re usually tied to our emotions. Not all of us have murdered someone, but we’ve all experienced a desire to do so, even if it’s only fleetingly. Never? You lie. Just to prove it, pretend you’re the mother of a small child. One morning you flip on the news and you hear that droning morning show voice telling you a convicted rapist, who’s on his second go-round in the prison system for repeated brutal assaults on women, has been released early. Oh look at that, he’s going to be living right near your house. Gotta love that early release thing, right? No room in the prisons, so keep the thieves inside and let the ones physically and emotionally scarring folks for life out onto the streets.
You let it go, because you always hear bad news on the radio. And besides, maybe the guy is reformed. The following week you’re enjoying dinner with the family, and you get a call from a friend. The police have issued a warning. Apparently the rapist is wanted for assaulting another woman, one the same age as you, and murdering her in front of her two small children.
Tell me, how do you emotionally react to this news? If it were you, your sister, your wife, or your daughter, could you understand the urge to commit a little torture? A little murder? Imagine the children. But wait, what about the parole board? How do you think the person who signed the release papers feels? The guard who let him outside? Imagine the frustration and rage of the community, the families. Imagine the guilt, the shame, the pure, red hot anger. How does a bit of lynching sound to you?
These are universal feelings we can all relate to, even if the story isn’t quite as emotionally charged or the feelings as negative as the scenario I’ve given. Our characters must feel the reactions that many of us human beings share so that no matter what the story is about, the reader can relate.
We simply don’t relate to experiences as much as we relate to feelings, because everyone experiences hate, shame, love, embarrassment, grief and fear. We understand that shit because we’ve all been there, even if the event itself is something we’ve never personally experienced. Feelings are the common bond that most humans share. They’re the universal traits we give our characters to bring the reader in, no matter what’s happening.
But none of this explains how uniqueness fits into the picture.
Well, unique traits are those applicable to us personally: beliefs, biases, ethics, social mores, and all of the other traits that come with our personal experiences and make us who we are. Unique traits are those that force us to take a stand, or that make us back down and cower in a corner. We choose which of these we emphasize in our character and this is what makes him unique, yet still relatable.
When you’re bashing your head against the keyboard trying to figure out how to make your characters unique, ask yourself if you’ve given them any quirks; the small details that make each person you know an individual. Giving each character a quirk or a tiny detail unique to them makes them stand out. Don’t go all crazy, just something subtle and believable. For example, I hate feet. My daughter smells everything. My brother won’t drink from a glass unless it comes from his own home. Even then, he won’t share glasses, not even with his girlfriend. Kurt scratches is back on door jambs. These are real quirks that would work with fictional characters. You might choose to incorporate emotionally-linked or less obvious quirks, and that’s fine too.
And let’s not forget that unforgettable characters aren’t perfect, they’re human. Even if they’re not actually human. Make sense? Of course. Find your character’s greatest weakness or vulnerability (internal conflict) and stomp the shit out of it (external conflict) using plot as your shitkicker. Flat characters have no conflict the reader can identify with, because they’re either too flawed or too perfect. Either way, the reader doesn’t get them. Three dimensional characters are easy to relate to, easy to root for and they have “real” problems.
So, how do you know your character is memorable? Some writers do character interviews and such, but you can simply ask yourself a few questions about each one. Determine what you know about your character physically, emotionally, and spiritually/psychologically.
When all of this is clear in your head, you’ll be able to judge the character’s reactions and motivations, and determine if you’ve made all of that believable.
Later you can think about the character in relation to other characters. How do they see him? And hey, if you’re having trouble with the emotional shit, look at the physical first. This will smooth the way into the intangible traits. Note the character’s environment, social and economic status. How does he speak? What does he say and how does he convey his thoughts, feelings and such? This helps get a little further into the right mindset for judging emotions.
The idea behind character interviews, no matter how silly they seem to a logical mind, is that the writer invests time exploring the story and its characters so that you know them inside and out, and learn a bit about yourself along the way. The more time you spend discovering your characters and understanding your own feelings and motivations for creating them, the more able you will be to write about each one. Each character will act, speak, and think in such a way that it seems to fit him perfectly.
And it does work. When you focus intently on something, you absorb a ton of information about it, without even realizing you’ve done so. Our sensory perceptions are always switched on, but we usually ignore this stuff. Good thing your subconscious ignores nothing and it forgets nothing. With every plot detail, line of dialogue, surprise twist or bump in the road, our subconscious uses the information we’ve gathered to correct little conflicts that we don’t realize exist as we write. Ever notice how you get to a problematic point in the story and have an epiphany? The plotting and events seem to lay out perfectly for just such a moment, and when you realize it’s there, and that you already shaped the story to suit this moment you never planned to write, you’re kind of amazed at your own skill, if a little uncertain how it happened. This happened because as you wrote, your subconscious mind was sensing what’s broken in the story, and then fixing it and spilling it out onto the page with all (or most) of the kinks repaired.
In spending time with our characters, climbing inside them to experience life through their eyes, we develop a bond with them. This frees the character to develop, and it makes the character breathe. It also helps us see the plot in a bigger way. It personalizes the story so that if we’d put any other character in that character’s role, it would change the story immensely.
Do this with every character, major and minor. When you create one that seems inconsequential, like a means to an end or a prop, spend a few minutes with him. If you could insert anyone into his role without changing the story, then he doesn’t belong. Nix him. A truly memorable story is full of memorable characters that belong.