by: Paul Hoisington
A few tips for writers on bringing to life a dynamic and relatable “person”…
Ever thought about what makes a good character? Ever struggled with making characters less limp and more lifelike? I have, too.
Let’s talk about dynamic characters. No one wants to see one-dimensional, paper-thin, talking heads that only move the plot along with flat dialogue and ceaseless gestures.
Thankfully, as I’ve been crafting characters myself, I’ve come up with some helpful tips to combat this tendency.
While everything, characters and all, revolves around a story’s plot in one way or another, it is up to us as writers to make the reader forget that there is a plot at all. They shouldn’t even be thinking about words like “character,” “motif,” “theme,” “foil,” or “boy do I love this storyline.” They should be waiting to find out why Norrzoroth didn’t aid his brother at the Moaning Tree of Stone (apologies if your name is Norrzoroth – I just picked one at random). The word “plot” literally means something planned by someone. Fiction readers want to immerse themselves in a world where fantastic and unplanned things happen. So where do we start?
With fantastic and unplanned characters, of course! And this leads us to the question at the heart of the matter: how do I create well-rounded characters?
It’s a popular question, and one I’ve struggled with as well. But I’ve learned a few things in my travels that I believe will help remedy this contentious point. Maybe they will be helpful to you.
1. They’re people, not characters.
The above phrase reminds me of Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace (cue hysterics and gasps of horror). Princess Amidala is meeting Anakin for the first time on Tatooine. She’s learning about him as he’s gushing about his life, and asks him a question:
“So you’re a slave?”
I’m sure we can all remember (or try not to) the look on child actor Jake Lloyd’s face as he snaps:
“I’m a person, and my name is Anakin!”
Hold that thought.
Have you ever crafted a character who utters three lines of dialogue? Perhaps a mysterious old man who points your hero in the right direction. Maybe it’s a minor character in distress who is really only there to, well…be in distress. Because if there wasn’t someone in distress, why is our hero even out of bed on a morning like this? It’s like Kurt Vonnegut stated, “make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.”
Back to Anakin. Imagine that maiden, or old man, or your coming-of-age hero, or whatever flat character you’re currently disappointed with, imagine that character shouting, along with our young soon-to-be-padawan:
“I’m a person, and my name is Anakin!” (Or whatever his or her name is).
They’re shouting at you. And me.
They’re indignant because we’ve left out parts of their past. We’ve all done it: made the fatal mistake of putting the people in our stories to death and replacing them with merely-functional “characters.” You may have noticed that I used the word “person” where many would use “character” in the title of this article. I never really liked that word, “character.” I think it detracts from the personality of the living, breathing entities in your stories.
There isn’t much practical application to this point. Just get yourself in the right mindset: your characters are people. Real people. This leads us rather nicely into the next point.
2. They’re real people.
Yeah, I said it. They eat, drink, laugh, walk, talk, curse, stab, and occasionally dance if they’re so inclined. Who’s to say they’re not real?
Ok, who am I kidding – you’re right. Technically (I’m rolling my eyes as I say that word), they don’t exist.
But then again, they do. Think about it.
Are there any traits you share with your hero? Same gender? Roughly the same age? Are they really just the better-looking (unfortunately, not many supermodels write fiction) version of yourself, set in another world?
Does your minor character have that sarcastic humor and witty snaps that your friend from college did? Do they smirk the same way? The way that made you want to give ’em the ol’ one-two right in the kisser?
Or perhaps your “wise old man” has that hint of craziness, mixed with a timely wisdom, that your grandfather did? Or your great-uncle? Or maybe they’re just the magical version of Mr. Rogers. Ever think of that?
I’ll say it again: Your characters are real.
They’re real because they’re bits and pieces of people you’ve met, in the real world, in movies, in games, or in books. Your childhood friend’s smile, your father’s chuckle, and your cat’s disdain for all living things. Use your experiences to your advantage. There’s no such thing as being one hundred percent, truly, perfectly original. It just doesn’t happen.
Great artists steal. That’s what creativity is: taking what already exists and rearranging it in a compelling way. That’s all you can really do.
You only know what a smile is because you first saw one on your mother’s face (if that was your experience; there are many reasons to scowl at a baby). You can’t think up entirely new facial expressions; they’ll always be based on the ones you already know. And that’s ok.
What you can do is add, subtract, or rearrange traits, attributes, looks, histories, and what have you, until out comes a person who is unique to your story and your experiences. Let your memories fuel what the person says and what they’ll do. Mix and match. Let your memories color your characters in tremendous ways. You’ll be well on your way to creating well-rounded people.
3. These people have history.
This is one I forget a lot. It’s quite useful to have a little old man who says exactly what I need him to say in order for the hero to head off on his quest. Super helpful.
But that’s not what real people (please see point #2) do. Real people take the present, temper it with their past, and then decide what they want the future to be. If the little old man tells the hero to get on with the quest, there’d better be a gosh-darned good reason for him to do so. Did his son, who died in the wars, once refuse to go on the same quest, and now the old man is trying to make up for not encouraging him more? If that’s the case, then that little old man is probably going to have some other things to say as well. Maybe he’ll have a sad, faraway look in his eyes, or maybe he’ll hide it and get defensive when the hero questions him. Whatever it is, it’s influenced by his past and the way he thinks.
Craft your characters generously. Make them crazy, laughable, huggable, spiky, dry, disgusting, handsome, and ugly. Let some of them have parents and some of them be orphans. Some of them fought in the wars and some of them have executed obscene gestures in the face of an ogre warlord. (Who didn’t notice).
Now throw them into your plot and see what happens. You can “aim” as you throw them, of course, and decide which ones are crazy and which ones are level-headed; it’s all part of your artistic license.
Now, most people write plot-first. I sure do. So how do we marry this plot we’ve thought up (which seemingly determines what the characters will do) and the characters (who seemingly determine what happens to the plot)?
The answer is simple. You can’t. But you can take a pretty good shot at it.
It’s my unprofessional opinion that you can’t write real life. Real life is what happens when plot and characters are perfectly married. You can’t separate them. In the moment, all you can see are characters doing their thing: fighting wars, marrying the wrong princesses, or stealing apples from the market. But when you step back and look, you can see the “plot” of history.
Take any bit of “real” history, for example. Grand events, like the Renaissance, the World Wars, or the Civil Rights Movement look like neat points on a graph. From out here, in the twenty-first century, we can see how those events form shapes and how they influenced each other. But if we were sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in that very moment when Rosa Parks refused to stand up, how could we have seen it for what it was, or what it would lead to? You can’t separate Mrs. Parks from what she did, or call them “contrived” (like we could call a plot or characters “contrived”); they’re part of who she was. That’s the most original storytelling of all: real life. It’s the impeccable weaving of characters and plot.
Let’s get back to characters and history. You get to create the history of your world and your characters. You can choose whether the old man had a son or he didn’t, or if he’s senile. That’s where the hard work comes in: engineering a story in which all these moving parts with different histories interact with each other and advance the plot. That’s why you should “aim” as you insert characters into your story. Introduce them at the right times and in the right places. Make sure their histories line up with why they’re there.
Will it be perfect? Never. Will it be real? Yes – being real is the best shot you can take at marrying plot and characters.
So go get your hands dirty!
Do a little dreaming. Put some flesh on your character’s bones and turn them into people. Don’t forget to make use of all the materials you have at your disposal. I’m sure you have more than you think.
Paul Hoisington is a twenty-something Software Developer who loves creating sprawling stories. He’s written Book One in his Portal series and is hard at work on Book Two. Read more from Paul at spartanfiction.