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Last week’s blog told about creating characters who charm. Now that we have the hero and heroine created, it’s time for the rest of those who will live in your story, some not so charming.
Heroes are only one segment of the characters you need to create. Secondary
characters take some work too. There’s a danger they will be flat because you haven’t
spent enough time with them. So take the time to develop friends, the boss and family
members who will play an important part in the story.
In this gathering there should be someone who lends a bit of humor to the story,
someone else who looks at life with disdain, yet another who is paranoid. It takes all
kinds to make a book, but each one must lend something to the plot, not just be there
for window dressing. Don’t create anyone you won’t use in the story line.
WAYS TO STUDY CHARACTERS
Think of your best friend. Why do you like her? Make a list of all her good traits and her
flaws and try to see why you like her in spite of her flaws.
Now think of someone you dislike. Why? Again, make a list and try to understand why
you don’t like her.
Here’s a difficult one. Why do you think people might like you? Make a list of your good
traits. Then write down your worst flaws.
Chose some characters from books that particularly charm or fascinate you. Re-read
specific scenes that reveal their strengths and weaknesses. Write down why you
admire them and how they make you feel. Notice how much internalization adds to the
character. If a character doesn’t evoke strong emotions, then the writer hasn’t done her
If you’re a movie buff, think of some of your favorite characters. Rent a movie they’re in
and watch it again. Not because a movie can tell you how to write, but you are studying
what it is about this character that makes you like them or hate them. Make a list.
Include their flaws and their strengths.
Maybe you like a particular series on TV because of the characters. Why? Study their
actions, speech, shortcomings, strengths, goals, etc.
We can learn from these other forms of entertainment as well as from the work of other
writers without copying them. Call it research. Treat it as if you were using other
publications to research for an article or nonfiction book.
A couple of writers who are good at creating characters are LaVyrle Spencer’s. If you
haven’t read her novels, you should. She’s so adept at presenting her characters that
you either love or hate them.
Larry McMurtry created some of the best characters ever in Lonesome Dove. Re-read it
or read it for the first time and pay attention to the role each of these characters play.
You’ll see what I mean.
LAST OF ALL ARE YOUR VILLAINS:
Don’t restrict these studies to your heroes. Remember, without a strong and vivid villain
your character isn’t challenged and can’t show his strengths to good advantage.
If we think of Silence of the Lambs what character comes to mind? Clarissa, the hero,
or Hannibal Lecter, who is probably the best known villain in modern literature? And
author Thomas Harris was so adept at creating him that most of us secretly liked
Hannibal just a bit and cheered when he escaped, yet all the while we were terrified of
what he might do.
It’s fun to create a villain based on the person you dislike most in the entire world. Of
course, don’t use their real name. Then add even more traits that would make this
person truly evil. Get even with him by making him oh, so evil that the reader will cheer
when he suffers all the consequences coming to him. Make sure no one can recognize
Remember anyone or anything that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goals is
a villain, he doesn’t have to be overly evil, just set in his ways. In some books, of
course, the villain is the weather, or the setting or specific circumstances.
You plan a story, then build the characters to function within that story. I didn’t say plot,
I said story. An idea that you can fill in with the necessary people to get through to the
end. Good characters will weave a plot as they struggle with life’s problems and
Your goal is to create characters your readers will either love or hate, they can laugh
with them, cry with them, curse them, cheer for them.
We are all a maze of inconsistencies, but we do have a dominant impression. Don’t
load up your characters with the same dominant impression. One may be dignified, but
he could lose it when specific things happen to him.
Some dominant impressions are: dignified, cruel, sentimental, sexy, flighty, rowdy, dull,
bright, etc. Each of these can be hiding the true self.
Does dignity hide stupidity? Does cruelty hide naivete?
Try to figure out the dominant impression of some of your writer friends. Ask them what
yours is. This helps us learn more about creating characters.
Creating our characters is sort of like drawing some stick figures in a sketch pad, then
adding faces, hair, then moving on to personalities, weaknesses and strengths. What
motivates her, and again what does she fear and what does she want?
Don’t say to me: “Oh, she wants to marry the hero and live out on the hill above town,”
or “She wants to go to the prom with the football hero.”
You are telling me what your story line is.
What she might want is to find a cure for cancer, or discover a new animal species, or
something as simple as make her parents love her. This defines her character.
The main thing to remember is to get to know your characters very well, but don’t spend
hours and hours writing down everything about them and making endless charts.
Work with them for a while as if they were real, get acquainted, live with them for a few
days, then begin to write.
BEGIN TO WRITE: Ah, we’ve reached that point, so a few more things are important.
TAGS: Four categories 1. Appearance – hair color; 2. Speech – stutter; 3. Mannerism –
shuffling feet; 4. Attitude – apologetic.
Again, go to the expert Dwight Swain. He says that these tags should be used
frequently throughout the book so the reader can always tell one character from
another. But use them in action or showing, not in telling.
Example: Don’t write: Her hair was black and long. Write: She tossed a lock of black
hair off her face and smiled.
Don’t write: He stuttered. Write: Excitement colored his features, but he couldn’t get the
words to come.
You get the idea.
For a novel you will likely create at least two major characters. In most genres the story
will belong to one of them. Don’t add more secondary or minor characters than are
needed to tell the story. The rest of the people may only have first names and one
piece of general description. Like a bald bar tender, a bearded cab driver, etc. And their
tags will be very few.
Remember, your main characters should grow and change. Only psychopaths and
sociopaths are all bad.
THEY HAVE A SECRET and it will be hinted at but not revealed till near the end of the
book, at least not before the climax.
And most of all, they must charm the reader, enthrall him with a desire to find out what
will happen and how the character will survive.
Some information from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, a book
every writer should have.