Like many beginning writers, I started my fiction career by simply sitting down behind my computer, happily typing away, without knowing where to start or finish.
I didn’t know about plot or structure, let alone ever hearing about ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’. Neither did I know that characters need to be real, as otherwise they become as flat as cardboard cut-outs.
I was lucky that I ‘only’ wrote 50,000 words before a friend told me that my stories lacked depth, conflict and structure and that my characters were boring.
Of course, I wanted to strangle her at first for telling me all this, but I soon realised that she had more experience with fiction writing then I did, and what’s more, that she was setting out on a career as a developmental editor.
If she said something was wrong with my stories, then something was wrong!
I was glad that she also saw lots of good things in my stories. ‘Real potential’ were the words she used, and that kept me going.
I still had to go back to the drawing board, but that was okay. At least she had stopped me from publishing bad books that, even with real potential, simple weren’t good enough yet to be read by other people.
I decided to start again – at the beginning, building a world and populate it with characters. And this time around these characters needed to be interesting as hell.
Characters become interesting when they feel real to the reader
Funny enough it was participating in an Indie Blog Hop that made me think about my characters as living creatures with lives they had lived before appearing in my story.
One of the things to do that week of the blog hop, was interviewing a character. I chose Paddy the Rat, a character that wasn’t even a major character in my stories at the time, just a rat freaking out the humans.
It was not only the start of a completely new world that I needed to add to the already existing human world, but also the start of two complicated storylines that run through the complete series of nine books, one for the humans and one for the rats.
Those complicated storylines couldn’t see the light of day without backstory and some knowledge on my side of what the characters should look like, how they act and why they act like they do.
To write characters that feel real, you need to delve into their backstory and the reason why they do things
I asked my friend, who by now had become my developmental editor, how to create interesting characters and she advised me to read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, where he explains the creation of real characters in great detail.
Main characters need backstories, which comes down to figuring out what has happened to them before they appear in the first chapter of the story.
- Where did they go to school?
- Who were their friends?
- How was their home life?
Questions like that. These don’t have to be answered in excruciating detail, but the writer does need to get an idea of what shaped the character and how they turned out to be who they are in the stories.
Asking questions about the character might give you an idea of who they are, so you can make them real
- What matters most to this character and why?
- What does he resent?
- What lessons has your character not yet learned in life?
- What lessons has he experienced but rejected or failed to learn?
- Does your character have secret? Who would he least like to discover it? Why is this secret so important?
- What is your character’s most secret yearning?
It takes a lot of effort to answer all of the 35 questions, but by the end of it I know my character inside and out.
That’s when I can start thinking about what he believes he wants, but also about what he actually needs. I can also figure out the lie he tells himself to keep the status quo, and the emotional wound that he carries around, that makes him act like he does and who he is.
It’s the answers to all of these questions that make a character real.
Giving the character some positive and negative traits makes him complete
Then comes the most fun part of it all: figuring out which traits your character has.
Everyone has things they like and don’t like about themselves. These are the positive and negative traits.
The characters in a story are the same. They need positive and negative traits, in order for them to react to the situations the writer throws at them.
I couldn’t figure out these traits without the help of two excellent thesauruses: The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Both books provide long lists of traits, each of those explained in detail.
I scroll through the lists and write down the traits I think suit my character best. I then choose the four most important positive and the four most important negative traits, to get a really good idea of what makes my character tick.
For example, Paddy the Rat’s positive traits are: loyal, adventurous, perceptive and imaginative. His negative traits are: nervous, obsessive, irritating and impulsive.
It can sometimes take me a day or more to answer all the questions and get the traits right. I know this might seem like a waste of time, but I have noticed that doing the job thoroughly, specially at the beginning of a new series, creates a very strong foundation on which to build the story.
Of course it’s not necessary to do this for all your characters. Only the major ones, like the hero and his sidekick, but also for the antagonist or the villain.
In four years I have come a long way from simply sitting down behind my computer and believing that typing away was the way to go. I have learned about structure and plot, but above all I have found a way to make my characters as real as possible. Whatever way you chose for yourself to create interesting characters, remember that it takes a lot more to make them jump of the page than just a bit of backstory .
What techniques do you use to make your characters real? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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