There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

What A Character February 27, 2013

Filed under: Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 5:30 am
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K. L. Schwengel

Plot can drive a story, but without characters to keep it on the road, even the most intriguing plot can spin into the ditch. Not just any characters will do, however. They need to be vibrant, engaging, capable of either making us love or hate them. Two dimensional characters will flutter away in the breeze and leave us as flat as they are.
So, how to go about making your characters come to life?
First off, give them a flaw. Or several flaws. Even the most badass hero has to have a weakness. Internal demons, a physical issue, personality trait — without it, readers aren’t going to care overmuch about our hero. If he’s Prince Charming, perfect in every way, handsome, strong, intelligent, kind, noble, blah, blah, bo-ring. What if Prince Charming is insecure? What if he’s hiding some dark secret that eats at him? How does he handle that? How does it effect his ability to pass off the Charming charade, and what are the consequences of it? Now you’ve got a character we can possibly relate to.
Make it tough on them. Nobody gets to skate through life and avoid all the pitfalls. Throw things at your characters. Literally and figuratively. Show them overcoming adversity, or not. The most interesting characters are the ones that struggle to get to the end of the story.  And remember, they don’t always win. That’s okay. That’s why we can relate to them.
Show growth. If your heroine starts out as a spoiled, pampered girl and ends the story as a spoiled, pampered girl, you’ve got a problem. Nobody is going to want to stick with her to the end. She’ll be the character everyone is hoping will get killed off just to get her out of the way. That flaw I mentioned, those things you’re throwing at your character? They build tension and help move the plot (otherwise, they shouldn’t be there) which means they need to affect your heroine.
Make them individuals. No two people are the same. Even identical twins have something that sets them apart from one another. Use that. Study the people you know. What are their little quirks? Do they talk with their hands? Have a nervous gesture? Like to dress flamboyantly? Whatever it is, find it and use it.
Dialogue helps. A creature in its own right, good dialogue can be tricky. Read your dialogue out loud. If your tongue trips over it, you’ve got issues. Listen to how people around you talk. Most people use contractions and a lot of adverbs. They also tend not to use proper sentence structure. Yes, they dangle their participles all over the place, even in public. Give your characters their own unique voices. A fun exercise to try is to write an entire scene using nothing but dialogue. No tags, no action, just people talking. The reader should be able to distinguish between characters based on speech patterns, and word choices.
Now, while you’re creating all these marvelous main characters, don’t forget the minor ones. If they’re important enough to have a walk on role, their important enough to pay attention to. If you’re putting them in just for fluff, get rid of them. They deserve to be just as real as the main players.
Really delving into your character’s skin can be one of the most fun and exciting parts of being a writer. Readers will fall in love with your flawed hero, your sullied heroine. They’ll love to hate your psychotic antagonist. Nothing like a good baddie to get the blood boiling. But it’s up to you to get them there. To lift that character from flat and boring, to full-figured and intriguing. And always remember, how your characters view one another can also tell volumes about them.
So, what are your tips and tricks for character development? What makes a character memorable for you?

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8 Responses to “What A Character”

  1. Great post. This blog is always posting things I working through right now.
    I love Phil Pullman’s “Lyra” character. I don’t know what dimension it adds to your thought, but the “weakness” of the character is brought into perspective in two ways. Lyra learns to control her deceptiveness and become truthful to people she loves, while at the same time using the powers of deception and critical thought to save the world, so to speak. I think Pullman’s project fails in its overall goal, but definitely succeeds in Lyra (and other good characters). She reminds me of a transdimensional Anne of Green Gables.

    • kathils Says:

      Thanks, Brenton. I’m not familiar with Phil Pullman, maybe I’ll have to give him a look. I’m glad you’re liking the blog and that the posts are helpful to you. 🙂

  2. jcckeith Says:

    Interesting post. I’m always worried that my characters are too flimsy.

    • kathils Says:

      What have your readers said about your characters?

      • jcckeith Says:

        I haven’t had any negative responses just the usual things like they are interesting or it is easy to understand their motivations. Problem is, I don’t want readers to say things like “Yes, the character is interesting or identifiable” I want readers to not be able to stop thinking about the characters. I want them to care about the character’s problems. I want them to have strong reactions to characters not tepid ones. Interesting characters are easily forgotten. I want to create extraordinary, fascinating, compelling characters

      • kathils Says:

        Oh, is that all? 😉 Are there other author’s who have created those types of characters for you? Study how they did it, see how it compares to what you’re doing. Maybe that will help push your characters over the edge.

  3. Great tips! It can be so hard, but there’s nothing cooler than nailing a moment with your character. 🙂 My favorite character advice is from Donald Maass in his book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. He explains that–even though it’s counter-intuitive–the more specific and individualized you make a character, the more universal they will become to readers.

  4. deshipley Says:

    All excellent points. It’s the characters that will mostly make or break a story for me; if I don’t value them as individuals, I won’t want to read or write about them.
    Uncovering my characters’ personalities can feel a bit like an archaeological dig — lots of careful delving into their heads to see what they feel about their circumstances and how they’ll choose to handle them. It can be tough, slow going, sometimes, but letting their true selves run the show is what makes the story worth it.


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