I want to put a disclaimer in front of this post. Characters are not my strong point. They’re okay, but in my novels especially they tend to be a little bland, a little bit cardboard, sometimes even two dimensional. I come out with the occasional real person, but it’s rare. So keep in mind this is written by someone who’s still learning.
I wrote a novel a couple of years ago, and it was decent, but the general consensus was that the characters were plain. I edited it, and they were still plain. At the time, I thought the problem was I was planning too much. I thought that maybe, instead of having the story set out before I began, I should just sit down every day and improvise. That way, when I wasn’t sure what was supposed to come next, I’d be forced to turn to my characters and their motivations to determine the next step in the story.
It worked okay, at least in the short story format, but what I learned in the end was not what I expected. The thing was, I found a pattern: whenever I focused on character in a story, I did a little bit better.
This might seem obvious to most, but you have to understand the way I’d viewed the whole thing until then. See, I’d always thought that as a writer, my ability to create characters was directly related to the people I met in real life and my mastery of dialogue. I’ve never felt any difficulty with dialogue, so the obvious conclusion was that it was something in my own thought process that was making characters difficult.
I started to research what the pros said about characters, and found surprisingly little technical advice on the subject. Treat your characters like real people. Remember that even a minor side character has a life of his own and can change the course of the story. They should lead the plot, not the other way around. Give them mannerisms, give them appearances, give them habits and ways of speaking.
It seemed to me that if I could just internalize the one overruling directive: Every Character is a Real Person, then I would be okay. I would be able to write a story and the characters would just ‘come alive on the page’ and ‘be masters of their own fates’, things I’ve heard authors talk about before.
A couple of novels since then, my ideas have changed somewhat. Yeah, all that stuff is true, but it isn’t that easy. Just thinking about characters in a certain way will not make you write good characters. You know what will? Trying really hard.
Bear with me, because this point was hard for me to really get. Even though you may, over the course of your novel, be thinking of each and every one of your characters and their motivations and their desires and feelings etc. You may still actually write a bunch of shitty characters.
There are lots of reasons for this, but I’ve only figured out a few of them, and I know there are plenty more. Consistency is one. In one book, I created a scrawny, nerdy kid who loved reading and shied away from conflict. Then, in the interest of development, I had him attack a monster who was endangering his friend. Now, if this kid was real, would he really be driven to such righteous violence? Maybe, but probably unlikely. My intentions were good, I wanted him to develop over the course of the book from a scared kid to a brave one. But I did it wrong, and the result was an inconsistency in his character.
Another one: I tried too hard to subvert a stereotype. I mean, people are real, right? So if I show you a musclebound guy who is easily given to violence, maybe I should change things up a little by making him really smart or making him super shy or awkward. The problem is, many stereotypes exist for a reason – certain traits go with certain traits. If you are a confident person in general, you’re unlikely to be super shy, and if you’re intelligent and rational, it’s unlikely that you’ll be given to fits of rage or animalistic impulses. The point being, it’s fine to give characters dimension by giving them traits that are unexpected – but they still have to make sense in regards to the character as a whole. Take the muscle bound thug. How can I make him interesting and real without breaking his stereotype beyond the point of plausibility? Maybe I could give him a simple set of rules that he follows, like a code of ethics that he clings to against all reason. Maybe I’ll make him interested in some specific thing, which interests him to the point of obsession, like guns or cars. He’s still dumb, still a thug, but a little bit more interesting. Now he’s Billy, the shaven headed lackey with two brain cells (Stereotype), but who has a strict code of ethics including such rules as ‘don’t hurt dogs or babies, but women and children fine, never betray, let the enemy have the first hit’, and can’t do his two times table but knows the mechanics of a .45 berretta (Added details).
What gave me the idea for this was thinking about the people I know in my own life. All most all of them suit particular stereotypes. I can think of ‘the scientist’ and ‘the partygirl’ etcetera. Yet all of them are also completely unique and individual in many ways. It’s just that the unique traits still manage to make sense with regards to the governing stereotype.
Anyway, I mention these lessons to point something out that may be obvious to many, but which to me was a revelation: learning to write characters is not a matter of seeing them in a certain way – that is only the necessary first step. The second step is you make a mistake and learn what you did wrong, and then try again, with a new character. No matter how you view people, no matter how much you give your characters permission to ‘take a life of their own’ on the page, in the end it comes down to the same learning curve: Write, Mistake, Analyse. Write, Mistake, Analyse.
Yep, that’s right, folks. Turns out that learning to write characters is actually the exact same as learning to write literally everything else. You just have to practice.
I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised.