*Curtsies* Thank you and oh my God word-baby is my new favorite term, especially since I just realized that I keep saying “we’re getting published” like my agent and I are having a baby together or something.
Anyway. My personal opinion on writing believable and well-rounded characters is that, uh, you have to do it. Otherwise, why are you writing? Even readers of trashy romance word-porn expect some level of characterization, and if you’re writing the same stock characters over and over again, people will notice (and get bored, and stop reading, looking at you John Grisham). But this also doesn’t mean you can do the John Green thing of pulling quirks out of a hat, sticking them together and calling it a person. Characters should feel like imaginary friends–incredibly real, even though technically, they’re not. Explaining how to do this is difficult because, like so many other things, it’s going to be different for every writer. But here’s my two cents:
Advice for Aspiring Authors: On Character
- Nobody’s perfect. If you’re writing a story about your personal Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Guy, the reader will notice, and will not be impressed. Yes, you usually want your lead(s) to be, to some degree, likable, but if they don’t have any flaws they cease to be believable and readers will actually like them less because they can’t relate. Perfect people make us feel grumpy and inadequate. We love fictional characters for their flaws. You do the math.
- Everybody needs motivation. I don’t care if it’s your leading lady or her waitress who only has one line. They both need to have an objective, even if it’s just “Pour this coffee without spilling it.” Too often (especially in collegiate writing classes) I see stories about these listless characters who are sitting around moping about how they don’t know what they want. It’s boring. It’s overdone. If your character truly doesn’t know what he wants, then his motivation better be to fucking figure out what he wants.
- Everybody has a past. Part of crafting a complex, convincing characters is knowing their whole backstory. Sit down, and write out all the significant events and circumstances of that person’s life from the moment they were born. You’ll come up with a lot of information that a reader will never even see or be aware of, but you, as the creator, need to know. Our parents and childhoods and life experiences shape who we are. If you don’t give your characters as rich and detailed a history as your own, they’re only ever going to feel like paper dolls.
- Plot and character affect each other. Someone once asked me whether I started with plot and then shaped characters to fit that plot or if I started with characters and then told a story to suit them. And the answer is both. Because what I write is largely upmarket (where you’re trying to straddle the line between commercial–plot-focused–fiction and literary–character driven–fiction) that makes a certain kind of sense. But it’s not a bad way to go about it. Sometimes “What would this person do in this situation?” leads to whatever happens next. And sometimes, “What kind of person would do this?” determines traits of an existing character. There’s no perfect formula, but it happens both ways.
- Dialogue is your best friend. You can learn so much more about a person by watching them interact with other people than by dumping a huge paragraph describing that interaction on the reader. Bonus? This is a great way to help a reader get to know several different characters at once. What a person says and how they say it is really informative. Use it to your advantage.
- Show, don’t tell. This is a good rule for all writing but especially for crafting characters. A lot of young/new writers are tempted to tell us that their hero is stubborn and taciturn and blah blah blah, I’m already bored. Don’t tell us he’s stubborn and taciturn. Show him being stubborn and taciturn and let us figure it out on our own.
- Physical description: less is more. It’s tempting when you have a perfect image of a character in your mind that you want to share with everyone, but there’s nothing more tedious than extraneous physical detail. I once read a story that started with something like, “She slipped her size nine feet into her blue Nike trainers and tied her shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair back out of her olive green eyes” and because there were like twelve adjectives attached to every body part as it performed every mundane action, it took the character like five paragraphs just to get out of the fucking door. Let me save you a lot of time: I know it’s heartbreaking, but no reader is going to see these characters exactly the way you do. We want to know the basics of what they look like, but we don’t need a head-to-foot examination. You (hopefully) have more important things to talk about. And so help me God, do not ever use the device of a character looking in the mirror to give us a physical description.
- Don’t write archetypes. Real people do not fit into neat little boxes. If your main character is like every other hero in the genre, you’ve already done yourself a disservice. YA is full of plucky teenage girls who are going to have to save the world. Sci-fi/fantasy is full of angsty orphaned man-children who find out they’re ‘The Chosen One.’ Mystery is full of hard-boiled, hard-drinking, divorced detectives. If you’re writing any of these characters stop right now and re-evaluate everything.
- If a character exists only to make another character more interesting, you’re doing it wrong. This goes for female characters who have no function but to sleep with your male lead, bullies who have no function but to pick on your female lead and make her look angelic by comparison, the fat best friend who is only there for plucky comic relief, and the mom who dies in chapter one to give your lead a tragic backstory (looking at you, Disney). Your reader will be insulted on behalf of these one-dimensional characters.
- Villains are people too. Nobody thinks of themselves as the villain in their own life’s story. Even Hitler and Voldemort thought they were the good guys. Your villain can’t do what he does just because he’s a villain. He, like everyone else, needs to have a backstory, motivation, and should not exist just to make your lead’s life difficult.
- Villains and heroes are an outdated fairy-tale concept and real life is actually much more complicated. We live in an age of moral gray areas. Nobody’s all good or all bad, and stories are much more interesting when it’s not totally obvious who we’re supposed to root for and who’s supposed to win. Complicated character dynamics are partly what make a story worth reading. Some people fit together like peas in a pod; others are like oil and water and don’t mix. There are few things more fascinating than watching fully-formed characters with different histories and personalities try to solve a problem–or create one–together.
- Learn from real life; don’t steal from it. I’m an actor and I’ve just written a book about a bunch of actors. I’ve already gotten a lot of questions about whether my characters are based on real people, and the answer is yes and no. No character is solely based on one person I’ve known. Instead I’ve crafted characters who have habits and tics and traits which I’ve observed in real people. If your characters are fictional replicas of your friends or someone you work with, you’ll not only run into legal trouble, but you’re not actually doing any creative work. As an author you absolutely want to mimic real human behavior, but you don’t want to reproduce it verbatim. That’s lazy.
- Just like real people, characters can (and should) change in the course of a story. If your MC is exactly the same man at the end of the story that he was at the start, what’s the point? If you’ve written a good story, then he’s been on a hell of a journey, and he should not be emotionally unscathed. Maybe he’s a better man. Maybe worse. Maybe he’s overcome a major fear or learned to let go of some serious baggage. What the change is doesn’t matter–it matters that there’s change. Consider Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit, when he asks, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Gandalf says, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.” Thus always to fictional characters.
Take your time. Writing a character is like being in a relationship. You’ll get to know them inside and out, good and bad, and it is not an easy or a simple process. But you stick with it because you’re in love. And if you’re not, maybe it’s time to say goodbye and go find someone else.