Writing is an Art, I Tell You!
Part 5: Creating Memorable Characters
Aside from the questions I ranted about the other week, one of the most common things an author gets asked is, “How do you come up with your characters, and how do you handle them once they’re created?” *cracks knuckles* Step aside, Stephen King, because I’ll answer this one! (mostly because I’m sure he has a very different answer that doesn’t involve gifs and memes—so blah!)
Characters can emerge from absolutely nothing, kind of like that Twilight Zone place in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (I think that’s the one?), where your thoughts create creatures out of the darkness and mist. Getting an idea for a character is the easy part—anything inspires me! But understanding them and knowing their purpose in your story is a completely different concept. This is the tricky part that can trip-up even the most seasoned author, because until a character becomes real to you, you’ll never break the surface of who they are and can misinterpret their reactions along the way. As a reader, this is just plain confusing.
Before you create a character, you need to keep in mind that it helps to have different “purposes” assigned to each one—the steady tree, the flighty rocket, ultimate villain, perfect protagonist, sympathetic antagonist—and keep this design in mind to make sure they don’t deviate from their design too much.
You can do this fairly easily by asking yourself a few questions:
-What is their purpose in the story? Hero, villain, martyr?
-Are you supposed to sympathize with them, feel distant from their pain, or feel
angry whenever they enter a scene?
-Will they have a change of heart, or should they remain steady throughout the journey?
Sarah, Will, and the gang began as simple concepts—a girl from the future, a vigilante with a broken past, the loving family next door, the steady best friend, etc.—and these general ideas worked as a starting point for their growth. Knowing where Sarah was from helped me to imagine how I might react to things a thousand years in the past, seeing everything in a different world for the first time, trying to blend in; because of Will’s history, I knew that he would be protective of those he cares for and more guarded, rejecting love when it’s what he needs the most. You will be amazed at how much growth your characters will take on, all on their own, when you give them a gentle nudge along the path they’re supposed to stay on. And be careful that you don’t fall in the trap of the “campy” character, where they’re always happy go-lucky and never seem to struggle with anything. Readers will always identify more with someone with human doubts and struggles and emotions who overcomes adversity—because that is relatable and hopeful—rather than a character who smiles and dances all. The. Bloody. Time. -_- Nobody can identify with this every day:
Now that we’ve established how to create your characters, and also to steer clear of making a dull, one-dimensional protagonist, you have to remember that it’s important to become acquainted with them, too. Go for a walk and imagine conversations your characters might strike up because of something you see, or think about how they might react to a situation in your own life. It sounds strange to listen in on imaginary conversations between fictional beings, but it makes them feel more natural and real to me to follow them throughout the day. Making this a practice honestly helps the writing process, because you’re becoming more and more familiar with them each second you spend with your characters, and this attention to detail will really benefit your novel.
You also have to understand and be accepting of the fact that characters can evolve, and it’s your job to know how to handle them once they decide to move away from your perfect little personality mold. It might sound like a contradiction, but I can explain, I promise! Take Damien Lisandro, for instance: he was originally Lord Bormeo, a tall, thin, middle-aged man with a hawkish nose and absolutely no charm.
While writing Chasing Shadows, I realized that, although his character’s purpose was necessary to the story, he was not. So, I took the general concept of him and the way he aided the plot and turned him into Damien, the dashing, blush-inducing Spaniard who plays a huge role in Sarah’s investigation at the castle . . . and a large role in why I giggled so much while writing his scenes. Also, I may or may not have fallen in love with him a tiny.
I will never regret making that choice to change, not a character’s role in the story, but some of his traits to make him more appealing to readers and *cough* myself. The A-typical protagonist or villain or antagonist can be so boring, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do some rewriting where your characters are concerned so long as they don’t deviate from their purpose. Make sense?
So, that’s it! There’s plenty more that goes into creating characters, but these are the basic concepts I follow when whipping up a new bloke or lady in my stories. The best piece of advice I can give for you aspiring writers out there is to know who your characters are, but that also comes from knowing who you are as a writer. Be bold and confident, and let your own passion play out through strong-willed characters who stand outside the box. Nobody likes reading about vanilla!