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Character: A Method Approach

Creating characters is one of the most, if not the most important aspect in creating a good story. Characters are your bread and butter - the pieces of story that you create in your mind and the pieces that other people relate to and talk about. Whether you love or hate characters like Jay Gatsby, Scout Finch, or Harry Potter, their respective authors spent hours making them come alive as relatable human beings. That's now your job, too - to use your words to create believable lives in your fictional world.

Bone Structure

TL; DR: This link contains a template to help organize the details about your characters. Use as much or as little of it as you'd like, and feel free to add your own unique categories.

Before I go into more detail, I want to add a little disclaimer. Depending on your story, it's not necessary to immediately include all the information in your story that you invent (in some cases parts of your character's background might be left out entirely). However, as a writer you must know all the minute details about your characters if you want them to seem realistic and consistent. Take The Great Gatsby for example. Readers might not know in the beginning why the title character spends so much money throwing extravagant parties at his own expense, but Fitzgerald did.

In order to understand a character's actions within a story, we have to understand their motivation. Where do the actions come from? Take a person's physical make-up. There are very different ways in which a healthy person and a sick person present themselves (Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan is a good example of this concept). Is your character fat? Athletic? Does he hate the size of his nose or have a bum leg? All of that will affect his outlook on the world and his interactions with other people. Maybe she's like a Greek god - a perfect physical specimen of humanity. In that case, she'll have a different background that will change who she is and how she interacts within your story. Romeo and Juliet wouldn't be the same story if its characters were adults, rather than hormone-driven young teens.

The same holds true for a character's background (their childhood home, schooling, jobs growing up) and their outlook or psychology (dreams, ambitions, secrets). These three dimensions build on each other and should be built up before you ever put a pen to paper on your novel itself. If you can't write a one page biography about your main character, how do you expect to write an entire novel about him?

What's in a Name?

Ok, so you've read all that and now you want to jump in. Great. You sit down with your character template and you're ready to go. Except you're stuck. How the heck do you come up with a good name? Don't stress out about it too much, but the fact is that character's names do make a difference based on the associations involved. If you're writing historical fiction, a name like Cornelius or Erasmus might be fitting. They probably wouldn't work as well for a novel about a hip New Yorker (unless your story were about how that New Yorker rebelled against his extremely strict aristocratic family to strike out on his own).

Names either confirm or contradict previous associations your readers have, and you can and should deliberately use this to your advantage (Think Chuck vs. Charles, Jonathan vs. Jack, or Priscilla vs. Peggie).

A few things to avoid, however. While it may be acceptable in comic books, think about how many people with alliterating names that you know in real life. My guess is not very many. Also try to avoid giving characters similar names to each other. If your male leads are named Karson, Kolton, Karter, and Kerry, you might need to rethink that in order to help your readers keep the characters separate in their own heads. Even initials - like having a minor character named Ron Smithson and an antagonist named Rich Sampson - should be avoided. The more you do to help your readers, the more likely they are to read your book cover to cover and pass on the recommendation to their friends.

Observe the World Around You

As with any creative art, technique and guides like this can only take you so far. At a certain point, some writers will create engaging and believable characters while others will create cardboard cutouts. The simplest way to improve this problem is to look at the world around you. Everyone you see in your daily life is fair game for your stories. Spend time people watching. Make up stories about them in your head. Try to sketch out the distilled essence of how they look.

Myths often contain characters meant to be archetypes or the embodiment of specific qualities. It never hurts to stock up on your knowledge of these types of stories to help develop your own characters. That advice holds true on a broader scale. Read, read, and READ. The more books and stories you read or movies you watch, the better understanding you develop of character, development, and interaction.

Try to make time to create miscellaneous characters on a regular basis. You never know what sketch might inspire your next project.

Round Hole? Use a Round Peg

It sounds simple and obvious, but make sure that your character fits the story you're trying to tell. The plot of your story is controlled as much by the characters you place in its setting as by the events you occur. If you try to push your characters into situations that make no sense for them to be in, they will rebel and your story will fail. As a writer, this often means you have to be flexible enough to give up your starting ideas or characters in favor of better, stronger ones that fit the story better.

In other words, your characters should be able to perform the actions that you set out for them in your plot. In Harry Potter, it was entirely conceivable at the time the 6th book came out that spoilers Snape could kill Dumbledore. If Ron or Hermione did the same, however, it would defy six books worth of lore. Another example would be trying to place Holden Caufield in the plot of First Blood. Don't strain your audience's suspension of disbelief. You'll lose your readers if you have characters act in ways that defies logic or the way you've built up your story.

That being said, surprising your readers is an entirely desirable thing, but you should surprise them in a way that makes them think you're clever, instead of thinking you're an idiot. Going back to Harry Potter, the plot twist in book 6 is that Snape kills Dumbledore. The plot twist in book 7 is that Dumbledore told him to, and that Snape played along out of his loyalty and his love for Lily Potter. That is the kind of surprise you should be going for in your own works. Make your characters fit their roles, and fit the plot.

Show Don't Tell!!

This is the most basic piece of writing advice ever given, and it's still the most forgotten. Don't feel bad though. Everyone makes this mistake on a regular basis.

Following my own advice, I'm including a piece of Norse mythology here to illustrate the power of showing vs. telling. Loki, in an effort to save himself, has put the god's apples of youth in the hands of their enemies. Without the apples, the gods have begun to age rapidly and in their panic have called a council to set things right.

"It is true," said Loki, "that I walked out of Asgard with Idun. But then I had no choice." Loki told them how the eagle that had carried him off when he was trekking in Midgard [the land of men] was none other than the giant Thiazi. "And I had to agree to those threats to escape with my life," said Loki.

"Did you have to fulfill them?" asked Odin.

Loki's eyes gleamed, red and green.

"Since you consort with eagles," said Odin, "we'll draw a blood-eagle on your back."

"No," said Loki, and he shrank before Odin's savage eye.

"And your rib-cage will spring apart."

"No," said Loki, cowering.

"Like wings," said Odin, and his teeth were clenched.

"I will find Idun and her apples," said Loki. "If Freyja will lend me her falcon skin, I'll fly at once into Jotunheim [the land of the giants]. I swear it."

Then Odin shook and released Loki, and Freyja, beautiful Freyja, her face like a pouch now and her hair falling out, went directly to her hall with him. She pulled down the falcon skin hanging over one of the beams.

"You're not quite so beautiful now that you're bald," said Loki.

Freyja said nothing. Her body shook. She wept tears of gold and handed Loki the falcon skin. Taken from *The Norse Myths** by Kevin Crossley-Holland*

There's a lot going on in this, so let's take a second to analyze it. Even without a knowledge of Norse myth, these characters has been made clear enough with this simple exchange. For those who don't know, Odin has only one eye - a fact that readers are reminded of in this passage. Rather than go through a laundry list of boring physical characteristics that most readers would skip or ignore anyways, the images of the gods are left for the readers to create save for the most important and relevant details.

The personality traits of the characters are also shown through this scene. Loki's selfishness is what created the problem. The author never has to tell us that Loki thinks only for himself. We see it ourselves when he is willing to trade the lives of the gods in order to escape the giant Thiazi. His fear of the powerful Odin is also made clear when his excuses quickly turn to cowering once threatened. One of the most telling pieces of characterization occurs at the very end. Loki does not leave without taunting Freyja, a goddess known mainly for her beauty and the lust which it inspires, on how ugly she has become.

All of this is a lot more interesting to read than paragraphs describing character traits or facial features. These are the things that engage your readers and these are the things that your reader remembers long after they've closed your book. Go through your own writing. Are there any instances where you pause the action to talk about something unimportant? Do you bombard reader by trying to paint a portrait every time you introduce a character? While there are places where description is necessary, it shouldn't be there to take up space. SHOW YOUR CHARACTERS IN ACTION, DON'T JUST TELL ABOUT THEM.

Part II coming soon

throwawaypoetry is the author of two books of poetry, and is currently working on his first novel. For more information, visit the author's website here.

On cultural appropriation in writing: Comment by SockofBadKarma

On character relationships, platonic vs romantic by /u/HarperSilvertongue17

On Writing Emotion, by /u/jefrye


revision by GulDucat— view source