25 November 2009

Story Elements #7: Character

So, a couple of weeks ago I took a workshop for a very awesome bunch of high school students on creative writing. The topic they had requested was 'characters', so in a meandering fashion I kind of got around to discussing how you create characters. Meandering. Kind of. Ha. O:)

Today, I decided it was time to dig out the old Story Elements series of posts (see here for the whole series) and do one on character.

What is character?

WordNet Princeton gives the following:

1) fictional character: an imaginary person represented in a work of fiction;

Yup, that's pretty straight forward. A character is a person you write about, a person who plays a part in your story.

But... That's kinda unhelpful when it comes to actually writing. I know what a character is; I want to know how to create one. So we read on:

2) quality: a characteristic property that defines the apparent individual nature of something;

This is a little more helpful: your characters have qualities which define them, which make them individuals.

Okay, so my characters have to be unique, and they have to have characteristics which define them. Last definition:

3) the inherent complex of attributes that determines a persons moral and ethical actions and reactions;

This is what we mean when we talk about someone's character. If we say such-and-such has a 'good character', we mean that the complex interactions that show us what their morals and ethics are reveal to us a person we like, someone whose motivations for making decisions is something we can relate to.

Here's the thing: good characters have their own characters. Bad characters don't.

What I mean by that - 'bad' characters (in the sense of poorly-formed, not in the sense of 'villainous') don't have unique characteristics that set them apart from others; there is nothing that defines them, as a person, even though there might be things that define them as a 'type' (eg the type 'mad scientist', or 'blonde cheerleader', or any other cardboard cut-out stock category of character you can think of); and the reasons for their actions and the decisions they make are shallow at best.

Real characters are motivated by real things, not because they have to behave in keeping with their 'type'. Real characters have faults and flaws as well as good qualities, and there is always a balance of the two. Real characters are sometimes illogical, often ..., and are always driven by their own personal motivations.

So how do you create a character like this?

Three easy steps.

1) Talk.

Talk to your blank character like you would any new person you meet. Start with the small talk, if that's what works for you, but dig deeper too. Find out who they are; spend time with them.

Character chats and interviews are fantastic for this. If you're doing it alone, you just write down to the question you want to ask the character, and answer in character. If you can nab a partner to perform the role of Inquisitor - uh, Interviewer, so much the better, because they'll think of questions you wouldn't have and take the conversation in a whole new direction.

2) Listen.

The key word above is conversation. There's little point talking at your characters, telling them who they are and how they're supposed to act. I mean sure, to some degree you have to keep a handle on them so that your chicklit romance doesn't become, say, a gritty thriller - but to a certain extent, you have to let go.

It's scary, but it works. My current WIP is a demonstration of its truth: by listening to the characters and thinking at every turn about what they would do, instead of outlining to the nth degree based on what would be logical for them to do, I've discovered some very nice twists and turns, and my story has infinitely more depth.

3) Cut to the core.

Which brings us to point 3: depth. What is the core? The core is the character's (as per definition 1) character (as per definitions 2 & 3).

I'm about to reveal a piece of advice that shocked me back when I was a way-new writer: A character's physical appearance doesn't matter. Yes, that's right, you heard me: the way a character looks is the least important part of creating them, UNLESS some part of their physicality ALSO impacts greatly on their core. For example...

*rifles through character box*
*pulls out large hulky dude with tattoos all over his arms*

See this dude? Massive guy, bald head, looks pretty intimidating, right? Guess what? His appearance ONLY matters for how it causes him to relate to others, and to himself. So:

a) Others: He's huge, he's frightening, ergo people are nervous around him, which makes him by turns nervous around people, and angry at them for letting his appearance get in the way.

b) Self: He was huge growing up, but it was the jelly-wobbly kind of huge that drew the taunts and bullying of kids much fitter than himself. As he got older, he vowed that he'd use his weight to his advantage, and the fat became muscle and he became the biggest bully of them all - until he got sick of it. Now, since he's big enough for people to leave him alone, he lives alone, and doesn't bother people unless they bother him.

...

Wow. I'm actually kinda interested in this guy now, yanno? And for the record, no: I've never seen this guy before, he's not a character I've previously met, and I didn't pre-plan this part of the post. I created an appearance, and legitimised it by making it matter.


The single most important thing you can ask your character is this: What is your deepest need? What is the one thing that compels you to act when otherwise you wouldn't, that stays your hand when you desperately want to move, the one thing that motivates you like nothing else in the world?

That's your core. That's your character.


EVERYTHING in your story, whether it's description, the weather, a plot twist, a setting, an item, a character - EVERY thing, EVERY detail, EVERY WORD YOU WRITE is there for ONE reason, and one reason ONLY:

To create conflict that will drive your story onwards.

If it doesn't change anything, it's not important.

If the fact that your character's hair is brown doesn't alter the way she does anything - even something as simple as comparing herself to blondes, favourably or not - if it doesn't change something, it Does. Not. Matter.

Period.

So go: Get out there and make those characters of yours matter - and you'll have characters that will grab readers by the throats and demand that they be dragged along for the ride.

And ultimately, that's what we all want, right?

Tell me: Who's your absolute favourite character in the world that ISN'T yours? Why characteristics of them appeal to you? What about characters of your own?

3 comments:

Merc said...

Great post, Inky One!

Re: favorite character... don't know. Can't pick just one. %-) *too tired to think of more than one example*

Also, the dude you used as an example of physical description? Yeah, him. I wanna know more too. O:)

Angela said...

I like this especially:

by listening to the characters and thinking at every turn about what they would do, instead of outlining to the nth degree based on what would be logical for them to do, I've discovered some very nice twists and turns, and my story has infinitely more depth.

I tend to be too logical when I think about how one should react. Maybe I should give over a bit more control, listen, and see what happens!

Inkblot said...

Merc - Yar, I think he might need a short of his own or something. Hmm...

Angela - I tend to be that way too. I've deliberately handed control over for NaNo this year, and I've had really, really fantastic results - so I recommend giving it a go! :D

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