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 =).
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.