Sunday, June 19, 2011


Yes, as you may have guessed from the title of the blog, it is time for me to talk about character!

While this blog is focused on how to create a character, if you are an avid reader it is useful in making the process of creating a great character transparent.  If you ever wondered what "character-driven" means, here it is.  In the future, it can help you judge a rich character when you see one, or understand why you find a character flat or illogical

Characters are where I start.  I may have a vague notion of how I want to use them, such as:  Weaver, sidhe and bassoonist, meets Jamie, vampire, who is there to protect her and help her find her twin brother.  But it really exists when I create my characters.

I suggest character worksheets.  You can find many of them on the web.  I would share with you the one I use, which is a single typed page of things you should expound upon, but it actually belongs to an old proff of mine--Leonard Chang (whose books I suggest you look up)--and I don't know how he'd feel about me sharing his intellectual property.  Instead we'll work off ones that I have written for workshops.

The first thing to know is that you can never know enough about your characters.  The goal is to be as complete as possible down to nitty gritty details.  You may never use half of this in your actual novel.  However, your knowing your character inside and out will help the book write itself.  This is because of the cause and effect rule.  Everything your character does should drive the novel.  And every choice that character makes changes your novel.

Just think of this as a big example.  Most choices aren't this exaggerated.

A host of enemies comes to destroy your character's village.  Does she a) take up arms and fight back. b) run away.  From there your character has further choices.  Does she a) dispatch the enemies with daring-do.  b) kill kill kill and then swear vengeance to seek out and destroy all of her enemies c) kill someone, but immediately start puking and swear she will never kill another again.

If you really know your character.  You won't even blink, much think.  The character will write what she does for you.

Characters run a book.  If the plot impinges upon a character's natural make up because you want that plot point, you will break both your character and plot arcs.  The book becomes faulty.

So how do you create a complex character?  Yes, there are the average things:  name, age, appearance, type of creature if not human, the powers a being may be imbued with.  If you've ever been a rpg, you've filled out that sheet before you start playing.  Only this time, you don't have to role dice to find out if you have an 18 or 8 in charisma.  You get to make up your character's scores.  There are a lot of character worksheets out there on the web.  I'm just going to be highlighting how to fill it out for the maximum effect.  For instance, the meat consist of longer, more involved answers such as:

1.  Who has been influential in your character's life and why?  Spend some time here.  Don't just write "mother" because that leaves so many possibilities.  Mom could be influential because she was the paragon of both sweetness and the ability to fight like a whirling dervish and your character wants to be exactly like her.  On the other hand, Mom could be a drunk who verbally abused your character and her siblings and your character spent her young years protecting her siblings and cleaning up vomit.  He has sworn never to be like his mother and never to drink.  These are just two possibilities, but there are thousands.

2.  What events in your character's life shaped her?  Again, go into detail here.  Why and how did these events shape him?  What changed?  What didn't change but should have?  Maybe after all that swearing he would never be like his mother, he becomes exactly like her.

Don't forget you have to round your character out.  This involves going through a lot of likes, dislikes, aspirations, and seeming trivia to make yourself a full character.  An important thing in making a full character is that not every single thing should mesh.  Your character is a warrior.  When you write down their favorite game as a child, you might be tempted to write "toy soldiers" or the like.  A true, complex character does not align every single characteristic with the next.  We are quirky and contrary.  It's what makes us human (or whatever else).  So a great answer here might be "my warrior enjoyed playing tea party with his dolls."  Now he has some depth, and some questions.  How did he get from dolls to warrior?  Did his father beat him out of the dolls and beat him into being a warrior?  If so, even as an adult, does he have an ashamed thirst to buy dolls and carry them around with him?  Is he great with children?

Sexual proclivities:  Again, this may never, ever come into the book, but sex is part of our make up, so look at it.  What does he like?  What does she hate?  Is he an innocent virgin?  Is she jaded and experienced?  How many people have they been with?  How did these meetings affect her?  How did they not effect him?

One I love that quite rarely comes into the actual book is for you to pick out a piece of music your character would like (this is anacronistic.  Your twelfth century monk does not actually have to like chants.  Maybe he likes Dolly Parton).  Put on said song, and picture how your character would dance.  Is she extremely graceful, but can't get down and dirty with her hips?  Does he flail or do the robot?  Is anyone crumping?  Not only is it a fun and silly trait to come up with, but it can tell you some things about how your character moves in general.

Actually, a game invented by a friend of mine and me when we were wee ten-year-olds and attempting our first novels, was, when listening to music, examine the words and the sound and proclaim, this is something (whatever character) would sing.  It has her story.  It has her sound.  It has her point of view.  Point of view and sound mattered more than directly linking it to the story.  But it is a fun, absent habit you can get into whenever you are listening to music.  Then every time you hear that song, you will think of your character.  Create a music video for the character in your head.

Believe it or not, I'm giving you the bare bones of what you should be thinking about when you create a character.

Here are a few links to character creation:

Just by typing in "character worksheet" to google, you can find a lot more, and one that might suit your particular taste more than what I have given you so far.

Whatever you do with your characters, for god sake, don't make them perfect.  Perfection does not exist and it is boring.  There is also little room for a character arc.  My super fiction tutor and fellow horror movie buff, Victor Lavalle, taught me a valuable lesson:  Good people do bad things.  So let your characters, good characters, do bad things.  It will be a growth process for them.

To recap:  Characters are so damn important because every choice they make, good or bad, big or small, will affect their development, but more importantly, your entire plot and story.  You may build a great car of a world, and set it on an awesome plot road, but your characters drive, not you.  You get to backseat drive.  Just like real life, the progression goes, situation, choice, consequences.  It needs to work that way in your book.

1 comment:

  1. so, do you pre-plot your characters bad choices, or do they sometimes turn on you, grab the wheel, and go off into the ditch or giggle weeds?