Guest Post: Creating Characters That Drive Your Story by K.C. Berg
Who doesn’t love a good story? Through the magic of books, we can witness epic battles, visit faraway lands, and fall in love for the first time—over and over again. As an author, it is our job to create these worlds—to enable our readers to embark on adventures without ever leaving the comfort of their homes. Perhaps you intend to present your readers with a mystery that begs to be solved, or maybe there’s an adventurous tale within you that demands to be written. Perhaps you simply want to convince the world that love conquers all. Whatever genre you choose to write—adventure, romance, mystery, fantasy—one challenge will be the same. It will take strong characters to drive your story and bring it to life.
Successful fictional writing is a compilation of many things. Even if you temporarily set aside the huge elements of genre, talent, and writing style, you still have to grapple with your physical setting, plot, and what time frame you want your story to take place within (past, present, or future). Any successful author can tell you that it is no small task to create a heretofore unimagined world in full detail, and then embed within it a plot that relies on unique twists and turns. This takes long hours of work and immense attention to detail. Beyond these tasks, though, lies an even more important challenge—the act of creating characters that will bring your story to life.
Before you introduce any character into a story (and ultimately to your readers), you have to do your homework. This means that you should know that character inside and out. Age, gender, height, weight, personal quirks, and religious beliefs are just some of the items you’ll need to establish for your characters. Some writers fill the pages of a spiral-bound notebook with an outline of their characters ‘details’. If you don’t like creating a list by hand, there are many online tools that can help you to record all of the personality traits and background data that will give ‘flesh out’ your characters. One such source can be found at: http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html. It consists of a multi-page form where you can enter every detail imaginable about every character you want to create. Yes, it is time-consuming and it does take work, but well-rounded and believable characters aren’t created in a matter of minutes. They need to be given a personal history in addition to a current identity, and that takes time.
Also, when you are considering what personality traits your characters should possess, be careful. Beginning writers are often lulled into thinking that their ‘good’ guys need to have good characteristics and their ‘bad’ guys simply have to be bad. These writers rush to make their heroes strong, compassionate, honest, and loyal—all traits that we admire, while their villains are the exact opposite—evil, conniving, dishonest, ruthless, etc. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t work very well.
Why? Because writing should mimic life—and few things in life are that ‘cut and dried’. Think about the people you know; few people are all good or all bad. Typically, humans are a mixture of these two extremes. What does this mean to you as an author? It means that the characters you create also have to be a mixture; your protagonist, in essence, has to have flaws, and your antagonist should also have some positive (if not endearing) qualities. For example, you could give your hero some deep, dark secret that forces him/her to distrust and be openly rude to all authority figures—even those who are trying to help, or you could create a villain that keeps a local animal shelter open through anonymous donations because of the love he/she felt for a dog they had as a child. Remember, few people are strictly good or bad, so your characters shouldn’t be, either.
Another important element of creating strong characters are habits. We all have them—good and bad. What habits will you instill in your characters? Does your main character drive too fast—or not at all? Is he/she into organic food, or does he grill out after work? Does he/she talk too fast, chew gum, smoke cigars, appreciate a fine wine? When conversing with others, does he/she tend to ask a lot of questions, or cut people off mid-sentence? Does your main character have a sense of fashion, or do they don whatever clothing is at hand and march out the door without a second thought? When frustrated, does your main character crack his knuckles, or does she twist her hair around her finger? Establishing habits gives your readers clues to what your character is feeling without forcing you to spell it out.
In addition to having a few good and bad habits, your character should also be afraid of something—or several things. Most people live with one or two fears, and I’m not talking about abstract fears—such as the fear of failure, or the fear of rejection. As an author, you need to give your character concrete fears to make him or her more believable. Is he/she afraid of: heights, flying, spiders, or large dogs? Establishing what your characters fear—and then using that fear as a plot element—adds to the suspense of the story. For example, let’s say that you’re writing a novel where the heroine has been fleeing from some ‘really bad dudes’. At the climax of the story, she is hiding in the closet of an old, abandoned house. The ‘really bad dudes’ are just outside the closet door; she can hear them talking in hushed tones. Off in the distance, the sound of approaching sirens assures her that help is only a matter of minutes away. All she has to do is remain quiet—and hidden—for just a little while longer. Enter Mr. Spider, who scurries down the wall and across her shoulder before disappearing from view. If you’ve previously established that your heroine fears spiders more than death itself, your readers are now anxiously turning the page to see what happens next. Fear is a powerful emotion; in real life, it can often motivate people to do things that they later regret. That fact also makes it a powerful element to include when you’re creating your characters and designing your plot.
If you truly want characters that drive your story, you’re going to have to first establish what drives the characters. In other words, what do your characters dream of? What is their greatest and most passionate goal? Do they want to solve a crime, find true love, win that epic battle, or simply escape something in their past? Because most of us have dreams, we relate to characters who are also striving for their own personal goals. Just as in real life, your characters will benefit from having a SMART goal. That means that their goal will be Specific (they can name it), Measurable (they can tell when they are making progress toward it), Attainable (although it should be difficult, it is somehow within their grasp), Relevant (it is important and admirable), and Time-Based (there is a deadline by which they need to achieve their goal). Note that nowhere in that description are the words ‘easy’ or ‘boring’. Giving your characters admirable goals that they will have to struggle to achieve will ensure that your readers stay interested in story.
Another important item you’ll need to include to build your characters (and plot tension) is failure. Your characters must fail, on several occasions and on several levels, to drive the story forward. As your characters travel through the story, from beginning to end, their challenges should become increasingly harder and the stakes should be raised. Set your characters up to fail at least once—several times is even better. Let the reader see what your hero looks like when he’s been knocked on his butt, or let them witness how your heroine reacts when she’s been betrayed by someone she trusted. If you want the reader to truly admire and love your characters, then you have to show the reader how those characters react when things go wrong.
Equally important, of course, is how your characters handle success. Will you create a hero who is the silent victor—or will he/she celebrate loudly with friends and comrades? Will he/she gloat, brag, cheer, or simply smile and nod, then walk away? These are behaviors that reflect on your characters’ morality. What does your main character view as being good, and what’s evil? What will your character tolerate when it comes to the behaviors of others? What would force your character to engage someone as opposed to turning and walking away? In other words, what makes your character ‘tick’, and what does he/she stand for? As an author, you need to know where your characters draw the line, and then you have to do your best to push them over it.
Think about it. The best fiction is driven by conflict; the stronger the conflict, the greater the tension and the more powerful a story becomes. Really think about your characters. Get to know them, inside and out. Discover things that you love about them, as well as some things that you hate. Above all, avoid ‘spoon-feeding’ your readers a hero that they want to embrace and a villain that they want to murder. Instead, give them a protagonist with flaws that the reader is willing to overlook, and an antagonist that the reader can’t help but like on one or more levels. Also, both the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys need dreams and goals to drive them forward through the story. Creating that level of complexity in your characters will breathe life into your writing, and your readers will be hooked and carried along for the ride. When writing, the devil is always in the details. Creating strong characters is one of the best ways to give your fiction the edge it needs to stand above the crowd.
Kathy Campshure, who also publishes under the pen-name of K.C. Berg, lives in Northeast Wisconsin where she finds inspiration for fantasy novels, motivational stories and stage plays. Her latest novel, a spiritual/romance titled “Fallen Angel”, was released in August. Her website can be found at www.writetoplay.com