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Five Tips For Fantastic Characters

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Fri Aug 10, 2007 8:47 pm
Snoink says...



There's been a couple of questions on how to create realistic characters. Being a critiquer, I compiled a list of five things you can do to make your character sound realistic. This was first published on TYWC, but I'm sure that some on YWS may find this helpful.

1) MAKE SURE YOU LIKE YOUR CHARACTERS

Whether the characters are bad or not, you must still like them. Why? If you do not like your characters then you don’t care about them either. If you don’t care about them, why should your reader care?

For instance, I am working on a story right now which has evolved quite dramatically over the last three years I've been working on it. At first, there was only one character I really cared about and the other three characters were getting the short shift (yes, when I first began I only had four characters). Because I only cared about one character, my indifference towards the other characters was blatant and it ruined the story. If not for the whacked out sci-fi idea, it couldn't stand on its own.

Finally, after a year or so of writing like that, I decided to give souls to two more characters. One was supposed to be super evil. The other one was supposed to be -- I don't know. She was supposed to be pitied. Or something. Her character was not clearly defined; it still isn't in fact.

But the real problem was my evil character. He was evil, yes, but it was a superficial evil that felt false. This wouldn't do at all! I tried making him more evil; it didn't work. Finally, I realized why his character seemed wrong. He was just another stereotypical "dad who is too uptight" except for the fact he didn't mind killing. I had a stock character and I didn't care for him in the least.

So finally I told myself, "Okay, this is failing miserably. Now, he still can be evil, but I have to care about him in some way." And I thought about this for a long time until I thought of something that suited me.

Now, I suppose you can think of a whole biography for your character, but that never works for me. What does work for me is to put your character in such a situation that you can't but feel pity for him. The best way? What was the most embarrassing situation in your life? What was the most painful thing you dealt with? What was your worse failure? What do you regret the most? Put this into your character and you will quickly begin to care for him, even if he is evil scum.
Even if you have no love for your character, you must care about him.


2) CHARACTERS ARE NOT PUPPETS

For some strange reason, some writers think that they are in control of their story. This is false. You are a storyteller, and as a storyteller you must relate to the events of what is happening in the story and dramatize them - not create them! For instance, let's say I have a sweet little girl named Daisy.

Daisy was the sweetest little girl you could imagine. She was five years old, and already she possessed a loving nature everyone adored. There was a twinkle in her eye and a mischievous, but cute, smile on her face. She wore her hair in braided pig tails and would toss her head about so that everyone could see her lovely hair bobbing on her shoulders. She was smart, loved to finger paint, and never once tried to hurt anyone. Well... that is not technically true, she did once stick her tongue at a boy, but her teacher had put her into detention for this - oh how she cried!


As you can guess, it was a surprise when she shot her teacher with a .45 caliber handgun when her teacher made her recite the alphabet in front of class."


That came out of no where.

Though obviously that is very exaggerated, it is an example what many writers try to do. Because they see no conflict, they try to force it onto the character. The character, if he is any good of course, does not know how to respond to a forced conflict, and you get a very weak story.

Why does this happen? Simple. Characters, if they are written well, are their own people and because of this, they must be treated as people.

Let's say suddenly you are doing something ordinary and suddenly a strange situation is forced on you. What would you do? Now imagine yourself as your character and that suddenly the situation you just forced on your character happens to you. If you cannot possibly imagine doing what your character is doing, then you are being a puppeteer of the character and, because of this, you're screwing yourself.

Writing fiction is more like walking a dog than being a puppeteer. Being a puppet requires lots of thought for the puppeteer, constant movements on the puppet to make it interesting for the audience, but in the end, it's obvious it isn't real. A dog is real. The dog goes willingly on a walk, stops, sniffs things (you jerk the leash so you can continue the walk). If he is excited, he will rush ahead. Sometimes he'll pull. Now, if you are a good dog walker, you can get the dog to heel and, as the dog heels and obeys you, you can continue your walk at a leisurely pace and not worry because you and the dog are of the same mind.

Be a dog walker, not a puppeteer.


3) A FATAL FLAW IS NECESSARY

Quick! Think of your story for a second and for every important character you have, think of five main flaws! Write them down and then come back...









It's harder than it sounds, isn't it?

If you look at amateur writer’s work, you'll notice that there are a lot of heroes who are perfect. They are drop dead gorgeous, smart, witty, individuals, and their only problem is being slightly misunderstood by everyone else. There are several reasons why some writers do this. Many times, they are afraid of exposing their own weaknesses to the reader so they decide to make a perfect character. As an editor, I can tell you that a absolutely perfect character signifies insecurity in the writer. Plus, a perfect character makes a perfectly bad story. This is a trap where you should never get trapped in.

The more important the character is to the story, the more flaws he should have. This, more than anything will give the story such realism that it hooks the reader in and it gives them a reason why they should care about your characters.

For instance, remember the evil character I mentioned above? Guess what? He didn't have a flaw. In fact, he was so perfect that he was barely human. Though this is a cool effect to create, it gets dull after a while and brings the story down. As he is a main character, I couldn't skimp on him any. I decided to give him a couple of flaws. Here they are:

1. He is a politician whose life is in danger constantly.

2. He has been to prison once for political reasons. There, he was treated brutally. The only reason he survived as long as he did was because he had a loving wife and a infant daughter.

3. When he finally gets out of prison he finds out his loving wife and daughter are dead, and he has been forcefully married to another woman.

4. His second family hates him. His daughter thinks he is trying to ruin her life (in a way, he is) and his wife is a nymphomaniac.

5. He is dying from an illness he picked up from the prison and he is in extreme pain all of the time because of this.

Notice how those five weaknesses are not silly. They affect him directly and they can stop him significantly. Of course, he is still portrayed (at first) as evil, but as these weaknesses catch up to him, he becomes more real and less fake.

The weaknesses you want are the ones that directly affect the character and force him to take some action. They have to be compelling enough to hook the reader in and they must be potent enough to be real.

You don't have to make the flaws as fatal as my character of course, but you do want to make them powerful enough to give the character a huge challenge to overcome.


4) DON'T TELL YOUR READER EVERYTHING

If you try to explain some part of the story in-depth, you will dig yourself into a hole. When you want to explain in full depth something you researched for the story, a key concept of the story, or a character, resist all temptation. It will make things worse.

I researched cirrhosis for my evil character because that is the disease he will have. Guess what? Even though I spent hours and hours of research, I will not put anymore information in it than needed. Most likely, the most I will need is something like this:

"Don't you know? Cirrhosis means his liver isn't functional anymore. He'll die soon.”
She paled. “What!”



Very short, but it doesn't bore the reader with needless details.

As funny as it may sound, if you can, avoid talking about key concepts in the story and let it develop gradually. You'll thank yourself later for it.

One of my characters is a freak. That is, it is illegal for her to have a personality because that would make her powerful. The concept was that through genetic mutilation, a super race of people was created (the freaks) and then were suddenly destroyed, except for the few whose powers were weak enough to not matter and whose souls were so beaten down that they didn't matter.

One of the main problems I was having was how to describe what a "freak" is. I tried to explain the definition of a freak, what it meant for the person who was labeled as such, what history was behind the word, and finally I trapped myself into a hole.

This is what I finally wrote to describe what a freak is:

She had been drilled countless amounts of times about what a freak was, but didn’t particularly care about the definition. Not only was it useless to worry about it, but it wasted time that could be used to do other things.



A cheat? Yes, but I do explain gradually what a freak is, so everything turns out okay. Plus, it (hopefully) helps lead the reader into the story because they're curious about why I use that word so freely.

What about characters? Same thing goes for them. If you explain too much about your characters, the reader will want to kill you. The fatal flaws that I listed above for my evil character will not be known to the reader at first and only after a good portion of the story will the reader be able to sympathize fully with the man. But at first the reader knows nothing about him besides for the fact that he is a politician, he doesn't like to talk much, he has an imposing figure, is kind of evil, and he doesn't like the smell of kerosene.

Don't tell everything about the character.


5) MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS UGLY

This may sound like a joke; I assure you it isn't.

In many stories by amateur writers you find the perfect man/woman is described. Just think of all the descriptions you read that do this!

"He brushed back his jet black hair and looked at her with piercing silver eyes."



One story from a website turned slightly ridiculous. I quote this directly:

Martini's black hair was pulled into a severe bun, and she had dressed herself in the standard AIA stealth suit; a thin, metallic like material that was so form fitting it clung like leather to their bodies. Black, of course.



Notice there are no flaws in the man in the preceding sentences. Why not? Isn’t one of the greatest character devices giving other characters flaws? Isn’t it a flaw not to be supremely beautiful?

Notice then that there are no ugly people. Don't you think this is strange? We have such an abundance of ugly people, and yet we don't write about them. Doesn't any character have any "different" aspect about them which makes them stand out, for better or worse? And you don’t have to make them ugly – normal will do fine. Just by making them seem normal, you are making them unique.

I give you a description of my evil character:

The man was slim and in his mid-fifties, his hair just beginning to gray. He wore a suit that was worn, but not cheap. He may have been attractive when he was younger – he had a nice face – but now his face was drawn tight in bitterness. Of course, he was a gentleman, which was evident in both his dress and manner, but there was more to him than just that. He looked old.



Notice I didn't talk about his jet black hair, piercing eyes, masculine chest, or skin tight pants. He sounds normal. Make your characters normal. This will connect your readers to the character better. If you do want to make your characters supremely beautiful, then make this a fatal flaw.


TA DA!

This is a very rough overview, but I hope I have explained myself well enough. Good luck.
Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.

"The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly." ~ Richard Bach

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Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:19 pm
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Twit says...



Wheee! *claps*

Thank you for this, Snoink. I've read this before, but I understand it more fully now. Instead of "flaws", though, I think it might be better to call them weaknesses. I associate "flaws" with bad virtues, like bad temper and such.

I find that the more I like a character, the more bad things I add to them! :lol: Which is basically what you said, *cough*. :roll:
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Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:19 pm
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Sam says...



*counts fingers*

I tallied today how many times I've referenced this article in critiques...it's lucky number thirteen, today. XD
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Fri Nov 23, 2007 12:42 am
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Fishr says...



I remember reading this in 2006. I adored it. XD
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Wed Feb 20, 2008 12:44 pm
casey_kent says...



cool. you are so wise. thanks. this helped me a lot.
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Fri May 02, 2008 5:32 pm
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Kalliope says...



Thank you for sharing this advice, Snoik! I'm currently trying to improve my character developing skills and have had some trouble giving them good flaws and not just the average tragedy in their past.
Thanks for the help!
~Kalliope
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Tue Sep 02, 2008 10:21 pm
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kaonna says...



I simply adore this, I have to redo my character's appearance though I'm not sure how her outer beauty affects her mental instablity but hmm maybe I can mix the two. Does anyone have any ideas for me
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