Characters

7 March 2015

From Dave Farland:

Of all the topics on how to write, I suspect more books have been written on how to create solid characters than on anything else. So there are a lot of great resources out there on how to create characters, and I can’t even touch on every topic that I would like in the space of an article this short.

Let me just say a few things, though. We are often told that our characters should be “round,” rather than stick-figure drawings. If you were an artist and you painted a picture with stick figures, people would say, “Well, that’s not very realistic. It is hardly recognizable as human.”

The artist tries to create characters who have the dimensions of real people. The same is true with people in stories. They have (but are not limited to) the following attributes:

1) Real people have physical bodies with inherent limitations and strengths. These bodies get hungry, hurt, and have urges all their own. They also have a history of ailments and injuries, various scars, and of course plenty of traits that we may or may not want to include in our tale—including things like foot size, ear size and shape, and so on. Trying to describe some of these traits is danged near impossible.

2) Real people have families and friends. In young adult literature, just about everyone is an orphan. That’s because editors don’t want authors to have to deal with family issues, just focus on the kids. Yet far too often, authors don’t create extended families primarily out of laziness. Similarly, each of us has various levels of friends, business colleagues, people we are attracted to, and people who are attracted to us at some level. We might include in this list of associations things like pets and plants. Does your heroine keep African violets around the house, and tenderly nurse her geraniums? A likeable character is usually one who show kindness to others, who seeks out deep and lasting commitments—even if it is just to her flowers.

. . . .

5) Real people have an internal life, invisible to the naked eye. This is a good category for a lot of things—emotional needs and phobias, ideals, and so on. These might include secret beliefs, hopes, desires. It also includes our own personal way of seeing the world, and includes how we cope with it. Sometimes our personal ideals are at odds with our public affiliations. For example, while most people profess some sort of religion, very often our personal beliefs might vary in some way from the official doctrine of the church that we espouse.

The internal life of a character is of course where we get the “meat” for our novels. A movie can easily capture the exterior of a character, but novels do a better job of capturing the internal feelings, moods, and beliefs. Yet that’s only part of the reason why novels are so popular and are often said to be better than the movies they inspire.

I’m convinced that we have an innate need to get to know one another from the inside out. You see, most people, if you look closely, seem to be rather odd and inexplicable. They act in strange ways and have crazy notions. (I, of course, am the exception!) So we learn quite early to distrust others, to fear them. As a child of four, I recall getting spanked in a grocery store by a cranky old lady. When I went to school, in the third grade I had a teacher who seemed bent on destroying the life of one little boy in our class. A couple of years later, I had a neighbor who tried to trap my little sister in his barn. I was able to stop him, and shortly afterward learned that he was the serial killer who had been haunting our town for years. In other words, people can be strange and scary.

Yet we have a biological impulse to “join the herd,” to find a mate, to interact with others, befriend them, serve them, and rely upon them. In order to do that, we have to learn to understand them, to figure out who is friend and who is foe, and the key to that is understanding why they act as they do.

So we spend a great deal of time analyzing the motives, beliefs, and actions of others. We compare ourselves to them, and sometimes we are changed by them—in ways that are rather dramatic.

Hence, the internal lives of our characters are the most fertile ground that an author may plant his story in.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Characters, Fiction Fundamentals

22 Comments to “Characters”

  1. Very true — but I do feel the need to point out that the roundness of your characters depends (both in art and story) on the style and purpose of the work.

    For stick figures, one need look no further than XKCD.com to know that stick figures can make for extremely effective art. (Or, for that matter, Klee.)

  2. And how quickly can you bore your reader into putting you down with info that doesn’t add/aid the story’s plot?

    One of the characters having a fear of spiders is only interesting if a web is seen …

    .

    He who laughs last hasn’t been told the terrible truth.

  3. I’m only commenting because I’m now writing a YA book with an orphan main character, so of course I disagree. I’ve written 4 previous YA books with MCs who had amazing parents, so I wanted to tackle creating a dumpster baby character who grows up in foster care. It entails a lot of depth of supporting characters and is in no way a lazy form of writing orphans. Writing about orphans can be even more dynamic than characters who have parents, usually even more so. Thank you very much.

    • Farland missed the mark on this. The more important aspect of a YA orphan is that when the bad things happen, the character doesn’t have parents to help her.

      • Plus, of course, throwing in characters that do not help the plot in any way is clutter and bad writing.

      • Felix J. Torres

        I took his point to be that one should take care not to default to orphanhood without giving it at least some thought.

        Obviously if the story requires it the story takes precedence, but he is right; in many genres (not just YA) the character being alone in the world with no relatives, few if any friends, isolated and alienated, is so over-used as to be cliche. Like cop procedurals with burned out, divorced, maverick detectives or action thrillers with ex-military loners running around finding conspiracies and terrorists round every corner.

        The best characters tend to be a combination of whatever is “normal” for their milieu and whatever the story needs them to be. If the story is about Oliver Twist or Tom Jones, then orphanhood is necessary. If it is about a street kid in a gang then maybe a hard-pressed single parent is in order. Or maybe not.

        Some caution is required in crafting the backstory because, Nicholas Sparks aside, most stories don’t exist in a vacuum and will be judged against the background of whatever is typical, common, or even overdone in its own genre.

        • I agree. I really think most of his advice is quite good. It’s just that craft is complicated, and any declaration is going to have nuance to it.

          • Uh-huh.
            All rules have exceptions and the best works are the ones that break the rules… successfully.
            The trick is knowing which rules to break, when. Which involves knowing when to follow them.

        • It’s cliche because it’s a classic. How else can you keep the others from cluttering up the story if they are not needed?

          • Felix J. Torres

            It is up to the author to decide if it is needed.
            But cliches aren’t necessarily classics; they can become cliches out of overuse, possibly out of convenience or (as he says) laziness. Like, do all noir private detectives *have* to be chain smoking alcoholics? Why not have one who is a happily married teetotaler? 😉

            And, just because characters exist in the backstory doesn’t mean they have to “clutter up” the narrative. A character can have dozens of cousins and nephews and siblings “off camera” that only impact the narrative through the character’s attitude. It might impact the story to the tune of maybe one line acknowledging it if it comes up in conversation. (“Holidays were always a mess at my house; I always ended up sleeping in a closet to make room for my uncles and cousins.” Or maybe, “we had a big family but they all died on the Lusitania.”)

            It’s just another choice to make but sometimes consciously avoiding the common choice will make the character more memorable. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but when it comes to detectives, I find the Castles and Remington Steele types more interesting than the Kojaks and Briscoes of the TV world. The latter might be the classics but the former are more memorable.

  4. To me, although difficult, writing secondary characters is the easy part. It gets hard when you need a main character who is so different than yourself. I wonder how many of us write main characters that are at least an exaggerated version of our own personalities.

  5. My protagonist in my series is male. But I have had female protagonists. On the whole I enjoy writing a male character more, perhaps because I know women too well and don’t find them challenging. However, I write historical fiction, and women tended not to face the sorts of extreme conditions men faced. They coped in the background, though the coping must have been enormously difficult in order to find some contentment in male dominated societies. Still, they tended to be preoccupied with home and children.

    However, I think it is absolutely true that characters will not come to life until you get into their heads.

  6. I can just imagine writing a character such as the Englishman mentioned in the excerpt above, subbing it to a trade publisher, and getting the R on the basis that the premise of the character’s actions is too implausible.

  7. Smart Debut Author

    Yeah, ’cause you really want to put your readers to sleep describing your characters’ hangnails, geranium fetishes, and second cousins once-removed, instead of writting riveting dialogue and a pulse-pounding plot.

    Advice from writing professors can usually be safely ignored — unless you want to impress other writing professors, not readers.

    Better Advice:

    Think about what you’d actually love to read. Then write that.

  8. So, orphans aren’t real people? You learn something new everyday.

  9. I’m a pretty round character myself. Winter sweets and meats have done their damage.

  10. Was I the only one who read this and hit the words “serial killer” — wait, what??

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