Q&A Day: Building Character… the fictional kind

From Aliya (Who’s letter cracked me up. Thanks Aliya!):
As an avid reader and a hopeful writer I find something that really makes or breaks a story is the characters. So many times I find a book that has a sturdy, interesting plot, with flimsy little characters whose only purpose seems to be to carry out said plot. What’s something you found helpful when building the characters in your books, as well as keeping them from seeming too similar/one-dimensional? Was it something that came easily to you? If you could provide a little insight that would be awesome =).

My answer:
Characters are my favorite thing, except maybe for dialogue. I won’t say it always comes *easily* but it’s something I don’t remember having to learn how to do. I had to sort of retroactively figure out what I was doing with my best characters, so I could do it consistently do it with the rest.

A good main character is three things:
1) Multi-dimensional (They aren’t just one thing, they have facets and layers)
2) Relatable (You can put yourself in their shoes, even when they’re making mistakes.)
3) Internally consistent and internally logical. (Their traits mesh together and make sense as a whole).

When I create a character who’s going to get a lot of page time (a protagonist like Maggie, or major supporting character, like Lisa or Justin), I start off with the character "hook.” I like that term, because it’s the thing that the writer holds onto, and the thing that grabs the reader. If you had to describe ONE THING that told you the most about a character, what would it be? I knew, before I put my fingers on the keyboard, that Maggie was going to be plucky and inquisitive: the girl detective type who won’t let a mystery rest.

Everything else has to work around this core trait, whether it supports that trait, compliments it, or contrasts with it. It’s the thing that drives your character’s decisions, gives them direction like a compass. If you think about it like drawing, it’s a bold, dark stroke on a clean piece of paper: you can’t erase it, so the whole picture must be build around it.

Then you add other lines to make a more complete picture. These are secondary characteristics, quirks, hobbies, history, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses (never forget weaknesses!). Add shading: dark and light areas, fears and flaws as well as good stuff. But they all have to work with that first bold stroke. If they don’t relate to it, that’s when something rings false and fake. Going back to Maggie: she’s very determined, but the flip side of that is she can be a bit pig-headed. She’s extremely loyal, but she can be blind to her friends’ faults.

See how every trait has a positive and negative side? That makes them seem natural, like a real person, and not like I’m just giving her random strengths and flaws as the plot demands it.

While many stories concern the growth and change of a character, what’s actually changing is the outer layers: perspective, feelings, and how they express their core trait. For instance, Luke Skywalker starts off as a idealistic farmboy who craves action. He’s a hothead, but he basically wants to do good: save the princess, join the rebellion, etc. He struggles with that hotheaded impulsiveness and when it is expressed as anger, it tempts him to the dark side, but his good nature wins out. (He’s still a ‘doer’ but he learns to "let go of his anger.")

Stories with a major change to the character (i.e., a bad to good redemption) mean you have to think ahead and give them a core character that can be expressed in different ways so it the change is plausible. For example, if character who has a focused iron will realizes his goal is wrong-headed or even ‘evil,’ and then repents and changes, he’s still iron willed. (It takes a lot of willpower to change.) Alternatively, you may hide the characters TRUE core with a lot of layers of other stuff. (A fearful character may find his backbone, for example.) If you don’t want this change to come out of nowhere, you have to make those layers logical–why is the character fearful, and what would motivate him to change?

By playing with the core character, and all the layers and contrasts that you add to it, you can come up with a character who is textured, but in a way that seems plausible, logical, and realistic, so that all their actions, reactions, and changes ring true.

So, here’s a writing assignment. Take a character from a favorite book, whether your own work in progress or someone else’s, and say what is their ‘hook.’ My example above was Luke Skywalker, the hotheaded but idealistic boy who controls but never loses those core traits.

Post in the comments and discuss. On Friday I will randomly choose a poster from all blog comments to receive a copy of my (RITA® Award winning) book HELL WEEK.

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13 thoughts on “Q&A Day: Building Character… the fictional kind

  1. Hi :)Thank you for a terrific blog post on Characterization.I really related to the art image.I cut and pasted this advice for my permanent Writing Advice Folder.I am going to make sure my characters meet all three requirements.Thanks for sharing.Love from Northern Ontariotwitter.com/RKCharronxoxo

  2. Thanks for the great post! My problem is that every time I write my characters I focus on one thing instead of focusing on all three characteristics you mention. Slowly, but surely I've gotten better and try to leave the nitpicking for later.Thanks for sharing!-Priscahttp://onceuponabook.wordpress.com/twitter: pm_rodriguez

  3. Hi RK! Good to see you here.Prisca, I hear you. I definitely find it easier to think of the one main thing and everything else building on that, rather than a bunch of random pieces I have to try to make fit logically together. Good luck to you!

  4. Thank you! I love the way you explained this, I can see it in my mind so clearly and it's not a tip I'll keep forgetting (as I seem to do with everything else =P.) I think this will definetly help me with my own characters, while giving me extra insight into my favorite authors characters as well…hmm…interesting…. So, in response to your writing exercise (that, if we're being completely truthful here, I started thinking about at eleven this morning when I first read this post and only came up with an answer now…): I'll choose Cassie from "The Year of Secret Assingnments" whom, though I read the book like two years ago, seems to be stuck in my head as the girl who needed to fix everything (and everyone) while keeping things in perfect order… a bit of a over-acheiver actually. By the end of the book she learns to focus all that energy into more willing subjects, and stops wasting her time (there by, stops hurting herself) on people who refuse to be helped/don't need to be. (Now that I think about it I really have to re-read that book….)Anywho, that's my surprisingly simple answer that took me over eleven hours to come up with (and I'm damn proud of that! lol) Thanks for being awesome and therefore sharing said awesome-ness with us ~Aliya P.S.: Can you imagine all the food analogies that could go with this lesson? I mean, all the layers…seven layered dip…lasagna…that-cake-with-the-delicous-stuff-in-the-middle…pizza…. Oh, dear. I think this is a warning signal that I better go to bed now. Or get a snack. =)

  5. Ack! I totally forgot to congratulate you on being the proud new owner of a RITA award!(!!!!!!) I totally squealed when I heard (or read if you want to get technical.) I swear, next you'll have me barking or quacking or somthing equally alarming to the poor people I share my house with. And for that, I thank you. Sorry for taking up so much space, I just couldn't stop myself ~Aliya

  6. Ailya, great comment. :) A character that sticks in your head so well two years after you read the book is a great one to pick to analyze. She obviously has a very strong hook! And well dissected. Gold star, and not just or saying I'm awesome. ;)(And thanks for the Congrats! I'm tres excited, and very honored.)

  7. This blog came at a time when I most needed it – my MC wouldn't do what I wanted him to do, and he seemed like every shallow person I'd met. Now, if he insists on being shallow, there will be a reason for it, something hidden.*Many hours later*Exercise: My WIP MC, Bertrand. He is shy, but intensely curious, always trying to figure out how things work and how people relate to one another. Its what leads him to a major discovery that could kill his King. Something sekrit happens (its too good to reveal), and he has to learn how to relate to others in a leadership role instead of as a follower, something he's never thought to do – figure out how he relates to others.Does he need more work? I think so. Any [more] suggestions would be GREATLY APPRECIATED.Congrats on the RITA!^_^

  8. I too congratulate you on your award! That's so awesome, I was at Mythcon presenting while you were there and in a panel on Young Adult Fantasy I totally plugged your series to people. Gotta rep the Texas! To the point I think maybe this is the block I'm having. I can't write much more until I really figure out what makes my heroine tick.Anyway the character I choose is from Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need duology but it's in the first book Mirror of Her Dreams that Terisa. Those books have always haunted me since I first read them and for years I couldn't remember the author until I randomly refound them in my used bookstore. Rereading them now that I'm a writer I can see EXACTLY how brilliant he is and why it stuck with me so much.About Terisa, I think her core characteristic is her sense to do right. But this is masked by a life of being downtrodden by her father and not believing in herself. To the point of being literally. She surrounds her apartment in mirrors to convince herself of her own existence. It's sadly beautiful the beginning of the book. When she gets transported to Mordant and they think she's supposed to save everyone she has to arch very quickly because everyone is trying to influence/manipulate her. Ooops. I've gushed long enough!

  9. Marisol — It sounds *to me* like you're figuring Bertram out. He seems like an intellectual/analyzer guy. Maybe the type who takes stuff apart to see how it works. Then when the threat happens, he has to learn to deal with people as people, not just another experiment. What you call shallowness may just be detachment. Maybe that's how he deals with his shyness–but now he has to get invested in the situation for the first time. (That's part of leadership.)Anyway–That's probably just restating what you're working out. But I had something similar with my current protagonist. I was thinking she's such a hypocrite (I trait I cannot STAND) so I had to sort of go to the drawing board and figure out WHY she seemed that way. Turns out she's not hypocritical, just hiding something. ;)So "why" is always a helpful question to ask your character, when they won't do what you want them to. :)Lola– Ah, Stephen Donaldson. He is the king of the damaged, angsty protagonist. I won't say I loved Thomas Covanant, but I read all those book, and he's definitely a character that has stuck with me. (Also, if we weren't going to say you can't have typos on the blog, I'm just going to have go give up on the Internet. :-D)

  10. Thank you for the food for thought! I'm bookmarking this for later perusal. (Also, let me add my congrats on your shiny new RITA.)

  11. That's a very good, deceptively simple approach to characterization–I say "deceptively" because while it's incredibly important, it's also easy not to think of it and to clutter up our ideas of characterizations with things like the person's favorite movie or eating habits or hobbies or…whatever. Whatever works is fine, of course, but that's really kind of backwards–you really do need a hook to hang everything else from. Of course, having said that, I'm realizing I'm having a hard time figuring out what my favorite protag's hook is. His story's more or less a sci-fi retelling of Oliver Twist (no, really) and he's the Dodger character, so mainly what I knew at first was that he was an extremely talented thief who was really good at reading people and lying, and while there's a lot more to him now…I doubt I started off with a hook as such. But then, thinking about it now, I suppose his hook–or at least his deepest, most essential character trait–is an intense sense of empathy with others. As a thief he uses that to understand, predict, and manipulate people and their actions, but it's also what kicks off his redemption arc when the Oliver character comes into the story. And, come to think of it, that empathy is probably responsible for what was basically an impulsive mercy-killing he did a long time ago that has informed pretty much all his actions ever since.And…wow, long comment. But that may have helped me understand more about my character, so thanks for that. ;)

  12. Kyra — LOL! Happy to have helped. I admit, it sounds simpler than it is, because it's a process. Usually it goes back and forth. A stock type ("girl detective" for example) is just that until you put some dressing on it, but dressing without some stable core will just fall apart. So for *me* it works best to start with the hook, then shape the character into a unique individual through the addition of values, preferences, quirks, history that goes with it, rather than having to try and knit those things into a cohesive whole after the fact.That said, when I'm still figuring things out, sometimes the character's quirks and mannerisms will tell me something really important about their inner nature. So "Backwards" has value, too!And FWIW, I love an Artful Dodger character! Oliver Twist in Space. I'd buy it. :)

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