What A Character!

I’ve been asked a lot since the release of my novella, Malakh, how I come up with my characters. It’s kind of a funny question to me, because I don’t so much come up with them as they come to me and say “This is my story and for some weird, indefinable, probably insanity-related reason, I want you–of all people–to tell it.”

When I read, I take careful note of how other authors draw their characters. I’ve read books–a lot of them, unfortunately–whose characters were so bland, whose authors didn’t care enough about them to tell me enough about them, that I wasn’t willing to emotionally invest in them. Sometime their reactions are inappropriate to the story, or worse, inconsequential. Or they’re just plain bland and uninteresting. If a reader doesn’t care about your characters, they don’t care about the story, and that’s bad news.

I don’t write up massive character dossiers, and I don’t spend agonizing hours chronicling their lives from birth. You don’t have to either, if that’s not your bag. What I do is let them walk into my head and start knocking around. For me, characterization is so closely interwoven with plot that both develop simultaneously in my head. As the plot begins to gel, so does the need for certain character traits, which I assign to characters as they walk in the door, so to speak. Every bit of my plotting and planning and character-drawing happens in my head, and I very rarely get my characters’ traits confused. When I begin drawing a character in my mind, there are several things I use to define them: their actions, their reactions, their demeanor/attitude, others’ perceptions of them, and their perception of self.

Actions speak louder than words. A cliche, to be sure, but an accurate one. Ever heard someone say “I’m not angry” while this person is slamming things around? You don’t have to tell your readers what motivates your characters. In fact, it’s better if you don’t, because when you show instead of tell, you retain the ability to reveal the motivations slowly, with certainty, and most importantly, with plausibility. Questions to ask: why did the character do this? What will be the result/consequence of this action? How does it help move the plot toward the conflict or climax?

You are responsible for your own reactions. This one is closely related to both demeanor/attitude and self-perception. How does your character react when something happens or something is said that triggers an emotional or defensive response? This can be anything from an emergency situation to an accusation. Does your character panic in an emergency? Is he or she defensive when accused, even if innocent? Does he or she blow little things out of proportion? Drama queen much? Brick wall? Blame others for their own foolish actions or reactions? Too forgiving? Or does he or she sever ties and walk away when betrayed? Questions to ask: why did the character react this way? Is this one of his or her “buttons to push”? How will this reaction or trait be used by other characters? How does this help advance the plot? What affect does this character’s reactions have on events that drive the story?

Sporting a ‘tude. A character’s general attitude and demeanor can be used to great advantage, especially in a secondary character. Two fine examples of this are two of my favorite characters in fiction, Ronald Weasley and Pete Marino. Each has their insecurities, their specific attitudes about life or certain things in life, that drive their actions and set up pitfalls for their corresponding characters. The attitude of a secondary character can make or break a story as surely as the attitude of an MC. Questions to ask: Why does the character have this attitude–is it necessary to the plot? Does it drive the other characters to decisions that help set up the conflict or climax? How does this attitude move the plot foward?

What a schmuck! or How Others See You. What your other characters are saying about each other is instrumental in building three-dimensional, realistic characters. Our reactions to others’ perceptions of us, combined with our self-perceptions, build the traits that define us. Your characters are no different. Don’t love them so blindly that when standing them next to Christ you can’t tell the difference between the two of them. When you do that, you’ve shot your story in the ass, because no one is going to believe you. We all have flaws, and so should your characters. Sometimes your characters are blind to their own flaws, and so you have to use other characters’ perceptions to show those flaws. Questions to ask: Why does a character have this perception of another character? How is it important to the story? How does it affect the decisions each of the characters make? And yes, how do these perceptions affect the plot and move it forward?

Who do you think you are? Your main character’s self-perception is probably the most important to your story, especially if his or her perception is flawed. How your characters view themselves drives their reasons for making the decisions that they do, good or bad. It drives how they justify themselves,  which impacts how both they and other characters react, which impacts others’ perceptions, which impacts the actions all characters take. Let’s face it–none of us are comfortable facing our flaws, and there are a few out there who downright deny having any. Here is where you have the liberty of presenting a character’s self-perception as being perfect, as long as the other characters’ perceptions show the flaws. Questions to ask: What part in the story do the characters’ self-perceptions play? Why does the character have this self-perception and do the reasons affect the plot? Is the self-perception accurate? What impact on other characters or events does this perception have? How is this self-perception used to build the conflict and drive the plot forward?

Notice that the question “how does this drive the plot forward” applies to all of these? That’s because you really don’t want anything in your story that doesn’t have some impact, however small, on your plot. It might be great that Aunt Mildred left your MC a large sum of money, but if it has no bearing on the plot–even for reasons so mundane as to explain why the MC is the one all this is happening to–then any mention of Aunt Mildred should be avoided.

How do you keep this all straight in your head? Write it down if you feel compelled. Even I keep some rudimentary notes. You don’t have to work it all out in your head like I do if that doesn’t work for you. Just be sure that you think about all of these aspects when you’re drawing your characters, and they will come to life for your readers. And don’t short-change your secondary characters–they are in your story for a reason. Use them wisely! Think of your characters as the pieces in a game of chess: each has an integral, if small, part toward achieving the goal. If a character in your story has no impact on the plot or the other characters–even if it’s only to serve as motivation for the MC–then the character’s gotta go. You can always resurrect him or her in another story. No one is ever a waste, in real life or in fiction: some characters are there just to serve as examples to the rest of us.


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