Sunday, September 4, 2011

Characters are people too, dammit!

Because they are! And it’s our job as writers to make sure that our readers see them as such. My characters are very real to me. They keep me awake with their ramblings and suggestions for what they would like to happen as opposed to what I want to happen. When they start pointing me in various directions, directions that are way better than my original ones, I listen. Characters know best. Most of the time. (If you make it to the bottom of this post I have a great link you guys might like as a reward)

So here’s my take on creating characters in no particular order.

There’s perfection in imperfection
Don’t give me a perfect character. It would take away half my motivation for reading the story in the first place. I need characters with issues, the more complicated to deal with, the better. When you sit down and start carving out who he/she will be or already is, add flaws because that’s part of being human and it’s how you want us to see them. It’s easier for readers to sympathize with flawed characters.

Layers aren’t just for onions and winter clothing
By layers I mean more than just the obvious to what you see isn’t what you get. I want elements and aspects that will give the character so much depth that you think you’ve gotten him/her down as a reader only to be surprised at the next turn. The best characters are those with the power to surprise me even at the very end of the novel.

The why behind it, the reason and motivation
Give your character a motivation for doing what they’re doing. Give reasons for who they turned out to be. Mike doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder and seem angry at the world because he thinks it makes him look awesome. No, he probably carries a whole tree around with him because of childhood issues that he hasn’t dealt with yet. (My guess is that it has something to do with zombie clowns but I could be wrong. Apparently he doesn’t want to talk about it.) Oooh, now I want to write a short story explaining the Mike-zombie-clown thing.

Every single one of the characters in your novel has goals and desires, the major ones, the minor ones. Even the male sitting in the same coffee shop as your MC, reading the paper, who you’ll never see again. He might be just part of the scene but on some level, he’s there for a reason, one we'll probably never know.

Keep your characters real
I wanted the header for this one to be Don’t be ridiculous but decided against it for some reason. Fictional or not, let’s be realistic, you give me a totally ridiculous character and I’m going to want to slap both you and what you created. Okay sure, if it fits the situation and what your writing, fine. But let’s be honest. Who’s going to take Mike seriously when he talks about his issues with zombie clowns in group therapy while he’s wearing a bright orange shirt and repeats every third word he says while grinning? Not me. I might put his short story aside and wash dish because the character and the situation just don't go together and made me uninterested in finishing it. (Take note, this is totally my feeling alone and I know that a lot of people will not agree. That's fine with me.)

More seriously though. If your characters come across as real people, I’m more likely to grow attached to them and want to spend more time with them. I want them to be real people with real issues. It adds to the story and keeps me coming back for more. It's as simple as that.

That's all I'm going into, these things are the most important to me.

I leave you with a link to Jody Headlund's site and a character worksheet that'll help you get other aspects such as physical and personal info of your characters down. Very detailed and if you're struggling to get to know your character, this is a great way to do it. Go check out some of her other post as well, they are worth the read.

That's it, I'm out of here. Got rewrites to get to.



  1. After so many years of knowing what I want to focus on for my characters, I've made up my own worksheets on characters and the basic nuts & bolts of the book. However it looks a lot like this one of Jody's.

    But, yeah. If I don't like a character, I'm really not going to like a book. I think creating a likeable character who rings true, with the composition of say, a souffle', that if you get it wrong it can go flat. Wow. . . did that come out of me?
    Anyway, good post!

  2. Hi Jani, I love this post! Yes, please, characters that have issues.
    I am in you YA (13) campaign group just stopping by to say Hi!
    @blueeyedadri on Twitter

  3. Great post. I was nodding the whole way through. I particularly like this part: 'He might be just part of the scene but on some level, he’s there for a reason, one we'll probably never know.' I love the idea that it happens for a reason, even if we don't know what it is. :-)

  4. Lorelei, the Jody sheet is great for somebody starting out. I tried it but have my own way of building my characters as well. Hell yeah, those words came from you. You sound extremely knowledgeable.

    Adrienne, how I love a character with issues. The more messed up, the better. Thanks for saying hi.

    Cally, I love the no-reason-at-all thing as well. It works for so many reasons.