When asked why he robbed banks, the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” If asked to explain why I like books, the answer would be equally simple. “Because that’s where the characters are.”
I do not think I am unusual in my motivation. People read books to be with characters – to enjoy them, to admire them, to be thrilled or frightened by them, but mostly just to share their experiences.
The natural evolution of this motivation is something referred to as character-driven fiction. But what does “character-driven fiction” really mean? It means that the characters drive the story. I know, I know. About now you’re saying, “Duh!” Okay, so how exactly do we create strong, driving, interesting, multi-dimensional characters? Answer: We build them from the ground up.
Once I have an idea for a storyline, I start with a one-inch 3-ring binder that I use to build my characters. Each character has a section and a four or five page character profile. The character profiles take up only a portion of the binder. Behind each profile, I include articles, photos, clippings – things that I’ve read in newspapers, online or in magazines, or collected from the library that might help me bring my characters to life. Bottom line, I steal (correction), I borrow things from everywhere around me — my neighbor’s penchant for beer, another neighbor’s smoldering anger, as well as some of their mannerisms and physical attributes.
What do I mean by bringing to life? Well, let’s say your protagonist’s parents were alcoholics – or maybe he or she was an abused child. There is a tremendous amount of material in your local library and on the web addressing the effects of child abuse or growing up with alcoholic parents. In the examples I mentioned, both children and adults who grew up in these circumstances react to life situations very differently than other people. I have a friend who, as a child, was physically abused. One day I reached up quickly to swat a mosquito and noticed that my friend had recoiled in fear. My unexpected action triggered this person’s ‘I’m gonna get hit’ reaction. Even as an adult, this person was hard-wired to react to sudden gestures by others.
Obviously, we build our characters physically. Readers want to know what the hero and villains of your story look like. In the character profile, we record appearance, height, weight, build, hair color, eye color, skin color, complexion, scars, piercings, tattoos, etc. This is the obvious and easy part. But we also have to build them in depth. To do this, we go back in time … all the way back to school days. What were their favorite subjects? Were they part of the “in” group or were they nerds or geeks? Were they “cool” or socially awkward? Who did they hang out with? Were they a cheerleader or a member of the band? What forces shaped them as they grew up? What are their habits, good and bad? Knowing your character’s history will help you shape and give depth to the emotional and personality traits of your characters.
So, enough talk. Let’s work with a fictional-world example in the form of brief dialog: “Oh my God, Brittany! So what did your dad say when he found out about your nipple piercing? Did he ask to see it?”
OK, think about this situation from the sixteen year-old friend’s perspective. Think about it from the seventeen year-old Brittany’s perspective. And, yes, think about it from poor ol’ Dad’s perspective. If this was your kid, what questions, fears and angers are bouncing through your head right now? Or does Dad simply shrug and ask his wife to fetch him another beer? Did Mom give her daughter permission for the piercing or did the daughter lie about her age? How does dad’s little girl feel about talking with dad about this and everything that it implies? As the author, these are all questions you must answer (once you stop blushing, of course). But fully developed characters will help provide you with richer, more satisfying and more true-to-life answers.
Opposites attract (and retain) readers. When building your story’s cast of players, think about the juxtaposition of characters and how they will interact. Tension attracts readers. Recall the quintessential “Odd Couple,” Felix and Oscar. A sitcom about a compulsively organized character like Felix probably would not last past the pilot episode, but toss this person in with his natural opposite, Oscar, and you have tons of conflict, tension, and comedic opportunity. The thing I like most about the pairing of Felix and Oscar is how their interaction reveals as much about the characters themselves as it does the other person. (What other famous opposites can you think of that made great pairings? Hardcastle and McCormick maybe… Neal and Agent Burke on the new hit show, White Collar? Your turn to name a few.)
As one of my former professors would say, “Teaching Point:” The contrast created by pairing opposing characters provides deeper contrast / conflict and will give you, the author, a lot more to material with which to work.
In my fantasy novel, my main character, Pella, stands in stark contrast to most of his fellow characters. He is gentle boy, poor, shy, and socially awkward. He also has a lot of pent-up anger. Life has not been easy for Pella. He lacks confidence and is politically naïve and these traits stand out each time he interacts with other characters in the book. In other words, the cast of characters provides a backdrop against which Pella’s personality and character are illuminated, contrasted and compared. As each of the cast members steps onto center stage, they too are illuminated; this contrast makes for a richer, and hopefully, more interesting story.
Ebon Melanos is Pella’s opposite. He is wealthy, powerful, handsome, tough, violent and ruthless, but in many subtle ways he is like Pella. Both characters are vulnerable and both have their demons. Pella’s gentleness is best seen when in contrast with Ebon’s harsh, combative personality. But as Pella’s character develops and is molded by the events that unfold in the novel, he and Ebon appear to have more and more in common. As Pella hardens and becomes more like Ebon, this is a form of danger. A classic rule of novel writing is to put your characters in danger and keep them there.
So where does this leave us? It is not just enough to build solid, interesting, complex characters with strong motivations; the author must analyze and understand how the characters’ chemistry reacts with one another. As I built my story’s cast, I carefully examined how each of the characters would react, not just to the main character, but to each of the other characters in the novel.
Think of your characters in terms of a chemistry set. When I was a kid, and after I tired of running traditional experiments, I would combine random chemicals just to see how they would react… always hoping for something exciting to happen. I do the same thing with my characters, only there is nothing random about the process. Every character is there for reasons — to reveal, to react, to assist or oppose, to contrast and, yes, and to cause something explosive to happen. Characters that do not ‘react’ when placed in proximity with other members of the novel’s cast do not make it into a story.
Another tip about character building: Hopefully your characters will not remain static. Each will grow and evolve as the story progresses. As the author, you obviously have to chart this path for each of your characters. So, as we move beyond blue eyes and bulging biceps of character development, we need to ask: How does this character grow in the story? What life lessons does he or she learn as the story progresses? How are they molded by their mistakes and the forces that the novel’s plot brings to bear?
Author’s note: This is new section on PlanetPOV. If you find the FOR BEGINNERS ONLY Writing Tips helpful, I would love to hear from you. Jot a note and share your thoughts and ideas — or maybe pen your own FOR BEGINNERS ONLY piece.
About the Author: I have written five books – two wine travel guides and two fantasy novels, and one thriller. (In case you are wondering, fiction is much harder.) When working on the fantasy novel, a favorite author, Alan Cole, was of great help to me. At the end, I asked him how I could ever repay him. His response: “Don’t pay back – pay forward.” This posting is a humble attempt to honor Alan’s request. Cheers!
Photo Attribution: CaesiumFlouride at the English Language Wikipedia