Creating Memorable Characters
I thought I might share some thoughts on creating characters. In writing My Fearful Symmetry, I had to stretch the creative muscles in bringing to life a character far outside of my personal experience. This is the kind of challenge that makes me tick as a writer. Writers are often told to stick to the familiar in creating characters. This is true in some senses and a good starting point for the new writer. However, speculative fiction is always stepping outside of the norm of experience. The author’s task is to build a believable world out of the alien, and this includes characters that are often vastly different than human beings.
The third book in my urban fantasy series is written from a different POV than the first two. The first books have an Italian-American female protagonist. She is a young actress in New York City. Her ethnicity and profession are somewhat similar to my background–but she was born in 1930 and becomes a vampire. Whoa, now the imagination must kick in. Then, out of nowhere, another character was born in my head and begged to step into the spotlight. He took me on a pretty wild ride.
I’m a heterosexual, American, all-too-human female, yet in this third book I write from the first-person POV of a bisexual, Scottish, vampire male. Is this too far out of my sphere of experience to write? Well, I don’t know any genuine vampires. That one is probably out of nearly everyone’s experience. Can an American truthfully render a person from another country? Do I, a female, have the right to get inside the male psyche? Does a straight person understand how a gay person feels?
The answer is yes. Every character written is part the author, part research and part pure imagination. I happen to think “typical” people don’t usually make for interesting characters. It is the extraordinary person that often becomes the hero or heroine of the book, even if he or she appears to lead a rather ordinary life. Jane Austen wrote about acerbic, critical Lizzie Bennett, not sweet, obedient Jane Bennett. Tolkien chose to write about the restless Frodo and Bilbo, not the peaceful Hobbit folk of the shire. The writer must find that person who for some reason stands out from the pack.
My training is in acting. The master acting teacher, Stanislavski, speaks of something called the “Magic If”. In other words, what would I do in if thrust into this character’s given circumstances? All people share common experiences and desires that allow us to empathize. Even if the writer is dealing with a fantastical creature like an elf, alien or an android, the character must be approached as a person with an internal conflict.
The trick in writing someone so “different” from oneself is to thoroughly think out what this character is all about. Stanislavski also said, “generality is the enemy of all art.” Make your character’s traits, likes and dislikes, and deeply held beliefs very specific. A character’s religion or lack of it tells a lot about that person. Give him or her a ruling passion or obsession, a family history and lots of emotional baggage. Everyone experiences these things.
First off, I create back-stories for all of my major characters. All of this is for my personal use and only bits will show up in a book. How the personal history impacts the character is the important thing. For example, I have a character in my series, Kurt Eisen, who as a teenager was in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. He lost his entire family and did some unsavory things to survive. His vampire master ultimately gives him immortality. This all adds up to a heavy burden that Kurt carries with him for a half-century. It fills him with a sense of wanting to right wrongs and spurs him to fight injustice.
There a many good exercises for developing well-rounded characters. I tend to fall back on those I learned in acting and keep a character “notebook”. This is always fun for me. I ask myself all sorts of questions about my character, even if the information never ends up in the book. It helps to do a lot of research. I also look for images, art, mythology, poetry and music that relate to this character. These I keep in a file, along with my research notes. Research need not only come from books. For my last novel, I watched a several TV shows featuring British teenagers to get the slang and rhythm of the speech. I then had a British beta reader check my manuscript for accuracy. You may not want to keep a detailed character notebook on incidental characters, but they deserve to be given a thorough look to give them some interesting traits in a brief appearance.
There are some who feel what a character looks like isn’t important. Wrong. While long descriptive passages of narrative slow down a story, a hint of the physical appearance of a character and his garb can speak volumes about who he or she is. Mother Teresa didn’t dress or behave like Lady Gaga. The way other characters treat your heroine because of her appearance says a lot about character relationships and informs conflict. A beautiful person takes for granted advantages that a plain person would love to have. Conversely a beautiful person may feel his mind and abilities are unappreciated. These hints come out in dialogue or action. Instead of saying the hero is very tall, let him drop that information by having him looking down to talk with a friend. The way a villain speaks to a woman he desires will be very different than one he hardly notices.
Another important consideration to keep in mind is gender, sexuality and race. These come into play in a person’s development through both nature and nuture. We all experience the difference in how the sexes are socialized. There are differing views on how men and women are hard wired, but as a writer it’s important to remember that not every man or woman will behave in the expected way. Every character, like every person, is an individual. A person’s sexual and racial identity is very important in determining that person’s place in a culture. Sexual and racial minorities face daily conflicts that the majority doesn’t. Experience will affect how a person of a different race or sexuality responds to conflicts. Things a heterosexual person takes for granted, like holding hands with a lover in public, becomes a taboo in many places. How a minority is treated a given environment may highlight the prejudice of characters.
An interesting way to define your characters is to give them a “job”, even if they are creatures of fantasy realms. This can add a lot of texture to the story and uncover conflict. Say you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy. If your character is a servant or courtesan in the royal court, it gives him or her a different perspective than the king’s closest advisor or a general of his army.
One final point I’d like to touch on is the character’s flaws and weaknesses. Don’t be afraid of a few warts. A character can be sympathetic and yet sometimes behave cruelly or like a complete ass. He or she can show poor judgment at times. Nobody is perfect. Don’t forget odd quirks and pet peeves. Remember that you want to show your character’s growth. I had a writing group member read an isolated, early chapter in my third book. She commented that she hated the hero for acting stupid and immature toward a woman who was teaching him. Well, in the chapter she’d read, this nineteen-year-old boy was acting like a spoiled brat. He was definitely cruising for a bruising. I took the reader’s comment and amended the chapter to show the teacher dealing the boy a well-deserved comeuppance. However, this group member hadn’t read an earlier chapter where we see the hero suffering through a low point in his life. He garners sympathy in the previous chapters through his struggles. There is a learning curve where the character faces obstacles and starts to care about the plight of others around him. The young man with a mission at the end of the book is very different than the vain, selfish boy in that early chapter.
In a story, the journey is the thing. Getting there is all the fun.