THE PLACE TO BE FOR ALL YOUR STORY WRITING NEEDS
BUT WHO MIGHT YOU BE?
I’m going to thrown down a challenge *cue oooohing* (Please, it’s just sad if I have to do the oooohing myself...)
Can anyone name me a book that doesn’t have any characters in it? I’m not talking just about humans either – there are some lovely books from animal points of view (find examples)
If you can, please post in the comments below!
Characters give the story emotional depth. They portray the feelings and the flaws of the story, and we relate to their emotions.
If a tree lashes angrily at the window we get a sense of the weather outside. We can even go as far as to identify pathetic fallacy (<---- LITERALLY the most intellectual thing I’ve probably ever said).
If a person lashes angrily at the window, we can empathise. We know what it feels like to be angry. Why are they so angry? What’s happened to cause this? What did we miss? Who’s going to pay if they break the window? (That one might just be me...)
Just one simple action from a person like the example above can open a “Pandora’s box” of potential.
Are they usually that angry, or is this something out of the ordinary? Perhaps they’re trapped there.
Perhaps they’re captive and trying to get the postman’s attention.
Perhaps they’ve lost someone.
Perhaps they’ve just stepped on the Lego. Again.
So character is important, I think I’ve laboured that point long enough. Not important, VITAL.
It stands to reason then that we need to really get to know our characters.
I spent a long time thinking my character’s were absolutely great. I knew their hair and eye colour, and I’d written their behaviour seamlessly into several scenes. I got their speech spot on and picked out the right sort of clothing.
I basically designed a bunch of flat characters - visual imprints of people with speaking and moving capabilities thrown in.
This, it turns out, is not enough. If your characters are flat to you, then you can bet your bottom that they’re not going to leap out at your readers either.
But how do we make sure we’re writing about people, not just designing characters?
What makes your friend who they are? If you had to describe them without using physical characteristics or confirming basic information about their current circumstances, what would you say?
If they changed their hair, appearance, way of speaking, location, social circle, clothing (I could go on and on) – what makes them who they are deep down?
This is what makes a character real. Eliza Doolittle is a great example (although, I prefer the Groundskeeper Willie version). No matter what she changes about herself, the person she is inside is still resolutely ‘her’.
Your characters may grow and learn, they will no doubt make countless mistakes, but they are still themselves.
So, now that I’ve beleaguered you with how important character is, how are we going to make sure that our characters have personal and emotional depth?
We’re going to quiz them with a set of very peculiar questions!
You don’t need to do this if you don’t feel it will help, but I like to put my characters through this when I’m feeling a bit stuck with them (once I remember they are in fact fictional and can’t physically stop me).
Character Traits and the too good to be true – Flaws
Imagine if you could solve everything. Spilled milk? Endless sponges. Late? Speedy transport. Argument? Talk your way out WITH a smile.
Now, imagine a character that never has any problems:
Oh no, the milk has- Oh, it’s okay she has another endless sponge.
Oh no, he’s going to be late- But it’s fine, as he’s got that super transport thing
Oh no! (I will stop I promise) They’re arguing, but of course he bats his lashes and smiles and everyone is skipping off into the sunset.
Real people have flaws and perfection is an ‘un-word’, so your characters need this. Otherwise, if they’re already adept at everything, how can the reader see them grow?
So let’s acquaint ourselves with our protagonist’s flaws, and also those of the supporting character?
The writing of stories is a tricksy little endeavour, as you really can be as manipulative as you like.
Why not have the supporting characters develop irritating habits that hinder the protagonist?
You could even have them be completely unaware of their irritating behaviour. Does the protagonist suffer in silence, or do they angrily lash out at a window (the peeps from Plotting will get me!)
What about the main character – what are their flaws?
Do they get hangry? Do they bottle up their worries? Do they hum when they’re distracted? (Bonus points if the humming is seriously off key!)
Don’t steal traits straight from those around you, I’m sure you all know that already, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be observant. Do people pick their nails while they’re waiting, or fiddle with their hair when you’re talking to them?
It is these individual traits and flaws that make us who we are. Make sure your character has these too (and not just a token sprinkling because they've smiled, smirked, looked and turned one too many times already in a chapter #soguiltyofthis).
If you know your characters inside out, they will come alive on the page (hopefully not off the page, that would open up a whole new can of holy potatoes).
Note down any that remind you of your characters, or even possible ones to bank for future characters!
WARNING: You will start to see these little habits everywhere when you start looking for them.
A Note on Villains
Ah the villain, we do love a wrong 'un sometimes.
I'll start by saying that the villain is a character in their own right. Often, Villains that are simply there to foil each plot point for the protagonist have less character depth. It's fine to write your villain in response to your character, but try to avoid the previously mentioned '2D design'.
Unless you're writing for comic effect or you specifically want to portray a certain stereotype, avoid the ubiqutous traits.
Not all hired goons look like thugs.
Not every pickpocket is a street urchin.
Some pirates really aren’t villainous marauders – they’re just dramatic, like the thespian Kraken!
Turn those common character points into something individual:
Did you know the Prince of Darkness knits his own horn-warmers?
The Evil fairy queen adopts homeless goblins and gives them a place to belong
The hostile dog is just protecting its owner (better example)
Your villains, nefarious and dastardly as they may be, are people too! By giving them their own traits and meaning, and avoiding the obvious 'the hero is good and the villain is just born bad' you're creating a more relatable character. This means the reader will be more involved with the stakes. We'll look at agency and character motivation separately, but when writing your villain it helps to give them as much impetus to do what you need them to do.
For that, we have our (not-so-patented) Villain quiz!
This can help you identify your villains behaviours and traits. You don't need to throw all of these in as proof of how evil your baddie is, but know them yourself and this can leak into your writing subconsciously. Extra vile for less effort!
Of course, even all our villains know the most important rule of all:
Rule Number 4 - ALWAYS SAVE AND BACK UP YOUR WORK.