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
This was an excellent article.! I’m so looking forward to reading and learning more about this subject!
I never realized the work that went into character building. It made so much sense after I read your instructions.
Is it harder to do initial character development development, or write the actual book?
I didn’t realize how much time was expended in character development. How do you keep developing different identities? I Know one of my characters would have something distinctive- say a lisp- and 3 books later it would show up in an entirely different chatacter. oops! 🙂
From the first post, I see that I would make a great dishwasher!
There is No ‘River Marked’ in my future..
The book is much harder and the rewrites are harder still.
Here is some advice from one of my favorite authors;
In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
This advice is for short stories, But I think it would also apply to novels.
Oh, I love plot-twists and surprise endings far too much to follow that advice.
I get a perverse, and yes sadistic, glee from seeing a reader slap their heads and yell, “I totally did not see that coming!”
Somehow, Vonnegut pulls it off in many of his novels. Of course, his characters are always bizzare, yet very human. And humans, as we know,can be very unpredictable.
Dammit! I Hate it when cockroaches eat the last few pages! 🙂
Me Too. I think somewhere there may be Kafka lurking about.
Scared of losing that last 3 page sentence? 🙂
LOL 😉 Maybe it is Joyce who’s lurking about.
KT, thanks so much for adding to the post. Great comments. And, yes, character motivation or “wants” is critical to moving the story.
My pleasure SB2. Have you ever subscribed to the magazine, “Writer’s Digest?”
I have indeed. Good magazine. I’ve explored the gamut of resources out there from books on the subject, writing clubs to conferences. At conferences I met a lot of folks who really like the idea of writing — sometimes more than the act itself.
SB2, WD is also on the web. I haven’t really checked it out yet, but will soon. I love discussions about writing. I have always been more of a “word,” person than an “equations,” person. Mathematics gives me a headache.
My problem writing is a lack of courage. My fear of rejection is more powerful than my motivation.
I have written two collections of poetry, but that is far, far different than writing fiction.
There is a lot for me to learn about creative writing and I hope to see more fine articles like this one, in the near future.
KT, thanks for the kind words. I consider myself a beginner, but will always consider myself a beginner. I’m glad you found something worthwhile in the post.
I was an English Lit major in college (poetry was my first love) and I always wanted to write novels, but something held me back — a lack of courage to be honest. What if the book is no good? What if people didn’t like it? What if…?
Alan Cole told me that my first novel probably wouldn’t be published in today’s competitive market… but, that ‘By God,’ it was a book!’ Something few people start and even fewer finish. He inspired me to try again.
The idea for the novel came to me from a picture of an underwater cave garden taken in Grand Cayman. From the garden, I conceived a city, then a world and then characters. The novel is about a world that has never seen the sun. Now the positive ‘what-iffing’ began.
I worked hard on developing the characters. The downside is that I did such a good job that there were numerous occasions when my characters refused to follow my outline. They were true to their now well developed natures, but gosh that was frustrating. Some professional writers scoff at the notion of rebellious characters. One said, “Of course my characters do what I tell them.” Oh, well. Maybe my characters will be better behaved next time.
The biggest gift writing gave me was that it changed me — how I looked at things — how I listened. It made me more attentive — and more assertive. You would not believe the questions I found the courage to ask people. For me, writing helped make the world’s colors brighter, its sounds more intense.
One of my life regrets is not starting writing earlier. That’s my lesson learned and one I’m happy to share.
And if you ever decide to share some of your poetry here, I’ll be sitting in the front row.
First, a big thanks and congrats SequimBob2 for christening Writers Corner with its first article!
Your description of your friend who cringed when you slapped a mosquito is also instructive about a great way to create the characters that one writes about.
An old saying about writing is “Write what you know.” When it comes to creating “real” characters, it can be helpful to think about people one has actually known. Indeed, characters feel real when they have a unique past and personality, with idiosyncratic aspirations, fears, loves, dislikes, etc.
And basing characters even tangentially on people you’ve known in your life can sometimes be an easy shortcut to writing “real” characters.
As for choosing a story, the same “write what you know” approach can make completing a first or early work much easier. Facing that blank screen can be daunting and driving a partially completed work across the finish line can be challenging.
However, writing a subject matter and genre one is familiar with and enjoys is a definite plus in ending up completing a story.
More to add on this later but thanks Bob for launching this section and category in such a thorough and thoughtful way!
I love the point about illuminating characters through interactions with other characters and situations. I do this too.
And yes, writing fiction is much harder. Especially writing fiction where you have to create an entire world in which the characters have to interact.
The smallest details have large impacts. when writing, I have floor plans, street maps, world maps, political systems and factions, names and naming conventions, etc. The sheer volume of details is overwhelming when one stops to think of it (which it is better to *not* do until after most of them have been nailed down).