Thursday, 26 January 2012

What Do You Love About Your Characters?

When it comes down to it, it’s the people in stories that stay with the reader. You may be impressed and delighted by a plot twist or a surprise ending, but that’s not what you’ll remember years later. It’s the characters that will stay with you.

Some fictional characters resonate strongly with people. They stand out as remarkable. You want to know more about them. You want to read more books about them. You want to see the movie when it comes out. Why? What is it that makes a character stand out? And more importantly, how does anyone meeting your character for the first time know how wonderful they are?

A great character can make all the difference (whether you’re a reader or a writer), but they don’t arrive fully formed exuding greatness from their first appearance. And the thing that makes them great isn’t the same across the board. Some are likeable heroes, but some are fascinating villains, entertaining sidekicks, tragic lovers, etc. Anne of Green Gables or Hannibal Lecter, they both have their fans.

But you have to be careful not to just transfer your feelings about established characters onto your own creations. You love Elizabeth Bennet, so when you write your feisty heroine, you consider her to be in the same mould. She has the same attitude, same firmness of belief. But that’s all in your head. No one else is privy to that perfectly formed character.

Even though as a writer you may be very fond of a character you’ve created, you can’t assume everyone else will see them in that light. Describing what they look like and how they carry themselves can give a clearer picture of them, but so what? You could very accurately describe an unusual-looking rock, wouldn’t make a great lead character (well, maybe in the next Fast and Furious movie).

You have to prove how affable, terrifying, inventive, amusing, or whatever, they are. The advantage you have is that you can put them in any situation, anywhere, any when. Once you know what it is about them that makes them cool, you have the tools to highlight that side of them to the fullest.

But first you have to have an awareness of what makes your character worth spending time with. Some people find this so uncomfortable they don’t refuse to think about it at all, and just hope for the best. And sometimes that works (although usually by being very similar to pre-existing characters).

The only way for the rest of us to see your character’s interesting qualities if you portray her in a manner that reflects those values. And it’s very easy to sense those things when you’re reading a well written story by a good writer, it’s quite another to understand how that effect was achieved and then do likewise in your own writing.

The first thing that attracts us to a character is what they say (or sometimes what they don’t say). There’s a lot of room in dialogue to be funny, to be brave, to say things that catch a reader’s interest. But as in real life, just because someone can talk the talk...

What really tells us about a person is what they do. When someone acts, what they do supersedes what they say. By our deeds are we known. But does that mean whatever someone does it automatically becomes interesting? Obviously not. It’s the difficult things, the moments when fans and excrement collide that true character is revealed.

So, a person’s actions reveal who they are, but a person’s actions under pressure, in awkward circumstances, when they’re under fire from all sides, that’s when things get interesting.

And those situations, how they come about, how they are resolved and the consequences that develop, that’s called plot. In order for you to understand who a character is and what makes them great, they have to go through a plot. Good plot reveals what’s interesting about your characters.

It doesn’t have to be saving the world, because the plot goal for fictional characters is not the same as the plot goal of the reader. Jack McAdventure might be looking for the lost treasure of Fabulopolis, but the goal for the reader is to find out what kind of guy Jack is. And we learn by how he copes with his quest. But Maureen the checkout girl can have just as  revealing an adventure going home on a bus.

The job of the writer is to make it look like the story is about what the character’s do, but really it’s about who the characters are. And a good way to do that is through what they say. A better way is through what they do. And the best way is through what they do under pressure. Whether that pressure is in the form of a pit of vipers, or a lost bus ticket.

Because there’s no way for a reader to encounter a character and see them as great or remarkable or memorable, without seeing them in action, in a plot. How else would you know? Because someone else told you? Well, actually, yes, that can work. If everyone else acts like the Fonz is cool, people who have no idea who the Fonz is start thinking so too. But that’s once the ball’s already rolling. That initial push to raise a character from a guy on the page to someone you can’t stop thinking about has to come from the writer. It has to come from you. And you have to convince the reader it’s true.
If you found this post of interest, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

I don't really agree with that. For instance a book like "The da Vinci Code" I don't really remember much about the characters (except who played them in the movie) but I remember the plot much better. Books like thrillers and romances, oftentimes the characters are disposable and interchangeable.

Rena J. Traxel said...

"You could very accurately describe an unusual-looking rock, wouldn’t make a great lead character (well, maybe in the next Fast and Furious movie)." - I had a good chuckle over this. I'll keep this post in mind while I edit my manuscript for the 100th time.

mooderino said...

@Grumpy-most people remember very little about the da vinci code. Anything they do remember tends to be from the media coverage of it, not the story itself.


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Good post, Moody. In one of my early manuscripts, the crits mentioned that the main character - whom I loved - came across as wishy washy. Ouch! But once I stepped back, I saw how this could happen - her actions - or in-actions, in this case - did make her look that way.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Making my character likeable was the most difficult thing I ever did!

Mark Koopmans said...

Aloha Moody,
Found you via a retweet by Alex (above) and have done the same.

Thanks for a great post - you have a new follower - as I work to make my MC "more loveable" (and that's a direct quote from a reject letter :)

Caledonia Lass said...

Characters are awesome! I love each and every one I have created/written about. (Because I didn't create some of them...) I think you are spot on with this post. I have a couple of characters who, at first, were very likeable but when they showed their true colors during a stressful situation, they became very unloved. The ones that stand out the most in my story are the ones that are down to earth, brass tacks, tell 'em how you feel kind of people. They hold nothing back when it comes to their opinions and commanding presences. ;) Excellent post!

Munk said...

I still crush on Hermoine.

Angela M. said...

Hmmm, you just gave me a great idea for a character I've been struggling with. I know what I need to do with her. Also, for the record, romance is highly, highly dependent on the characters. More so than you would think. The two main characters are the primary plot, unlike other genres. Anything else external is secondary. Rule #1 of romance writing.

Jade Hart said...

Hey Moody writing ;) Glad I found you. I'm a new follower and in love with my MC. Even though I kill her three times in the one MS. :)

Look forward to your future posts ;)

mooderino said...

@Madeline-other people usually see things more clearly, especially early on when we're too wrapped up in the story.

@Alex-should have just based him on you.

@Mark-Aloha. Any friend of Alex is welcome here.

@Caledonia Lass-thanks.

@Munk-She only goes for gingers though (kinky).

@Angela-yes, but often it's the same two characters from book to book. Romance readers seem to know exactly what they want, and you better give it to them (at least that's how it looks from the outside).

@Jade-gotta love a girl who doesn't know she's beat.

Lots of new followers this post. Welcome aboard.

Lydia Kang said...

Brilliant. Exactly--what makes your character worth hanging around with for 200+ pages?

Tyrean Martinson said...

That's something I'm struggling with in my current WIP, my protaganist doesn't leap off the page for me, and I hope I haven't described a rock. At the moment, I like one of my secondary characters better . . .sigh.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I think there needs to be a balance between weight of story and character. When a character becomes the story, that is usually a snooze fest for me because it's all internal monologues and this and that with the character's love interest/job/or conflict. Example: I didn't like Twilight because Bella's voice is too strong. Obviously I'm in the super small minority, but again, reading enjoyment is subjective.

Melissa Sugar said...

First of all, the Fonz was way cool. My kids laugh at me when I make them watch reruns, they cannot believe I thought "that nerdy dude was cool" The world has changed.

This is a very interesting post. I agree that you have to make your characters worth hanging around for, but I do not believe you have to make them (even your protagonist or hero) likable . I don't believe that crafting a compelling character is the same as a "likable" character. I think it is important to create a character that your readers will root for and that character may or may not be a likable one. There are many heroes that I root for that are not likable so to speak, Dexter, Gordon Gekko, The Godfather, Tony Soprano, . The list goes on. In fact some of them are down right disgusting, but they are so compelling that we can't help root for the bad guy protagonist. We can root for them if we empathize with them, regardless of whether or not we like them.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I stopped reading and started giggling like a hyena at this line: You could very accurately describe an unusual-looking rock, wouldn’t make a great lead character (well, maybe in the next Fast and Furious movie).

I'm actually more into character-driver novels than plot-driven ones. So, seeing how the writer develops his characters into actual human beings never fails to fascinate me.

Margo Kelly said...

Great post! Thanks for the inspiration. :)

Misha Gericke said...

Hey there. :-)

The most important thing is to create an impression. Through what the character does or says, or doesn't do or say. Also, through how other characters react to him/her.

mooderino said...


@Tyrean-I would advise you to complicate. It's usually when characters are exactly who they appear to be that interest wains.

@Michael-It's harder to write a story from the inside (although perfectly possible).

@Melissa-likeable often gets to be taken as affable, but being interested in a murderer or a an alien or a fat guy with a lightsaber can bring its own kind of fondness.

@Darlyn- the distinction between character-driven/plot driven tends to be one of perspective. All stories have characters and plots, it's not really a matter of how prominent they are, but what they reveal about the people in the story.


@Misha-yes, but you have to know what impression you want to create in order to be able to create it.

Anonymous said...

I love most all of my characters. I might get pissed off with some here or there, but they are just being themselves. I think it is their faults that I tend to like. They are so human.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I put a book down if I can't stand the character I'm reading about. They can be evil, nasty and crude (hopefully crude), but if they're just whiney with no real gumption to do anything then they better have a pretty charismatic sidekick or I'm closing the book up and assuming an astroid landed on their head. Can't be a character without... character.
Wagging Tales

dopdavid said...

ill have to check it out, i really like anime I've really been broadening my horizons on the anime front

mooderino said...

@Rebecca-making sure the reader digs them too is when it gets tricky.

@Charmaine-agreed, you need to get that on the page.

@dopdavid-anime and manga have some of the best storytelling. Not relaly sure what it is you'll be checking out though.

Althea said...

I know what you mean by relating to them, I can really relate to Louisa Rey in Cloud Atlas, I think it's because we've got a similar character! Laughed so hard about you 'rock' joke! x

Jade Hart said...

Hey ;)
Just letting you know I left an award from you on my blog :)
Come and claim it. :)

Anonymous said...

I love characters who have self-awareness. They can still be jerks or selfish or make bad choices, but if they at least know they're being jerks but can't help themselves, that makes it so much more enjoyable. :-)

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