*curtsies* Duke, I need some help here. Just noticed that I have a huge lack on my character creation. I only write the "warmey hearted and happy" characters. How can I... "fix" that? I have interest in writing different characters but... I just... can't. It's like I didn't understand them enough. How do I write a cold and calculist character? Without making it either a "happey heart" or unrealist, or even the "completly feelingless stereotype"? Please help me!!! I have no idea of what to do!!!!
*Curtsies* First big rule of writing that Tumblr brainwashes out of people because we tend to balk at anything ‘problematic’:
You need conflict in fiction.
If everybody is nice to each other and agrees about everything and never miscommunicates, you don’t have a story. You have slow-burn fluff fic and that’s fine if that’s what you’re trying to write, but if you aren’t, you need to spice things up. You need problems. You need conflict. You need more than one personality type.
Writing good characters is hard. You are literally inventing a human being from scratch, and that kind of complexity takes months (if not years) of work to create, so that’s the first thing I want to be clear about:
There are no shortcuts to good character.
Writing is, in every sense, an iceberg type of art form, and what a reader will eventually see on a page is only about 1% of the work you actually have to do to make that 1% worth reading. Character, like plot and setting and everything else in fiction, requires long hard nose-to-the-grindstone hours of work. It also requires research. You can’t skimp on any of this or your characters will come out feeling like paper dolls.
As for how to actually excavate a character: I’ve talked a lot about this under the character development tag and especially this post here, but here is what I think should be the first step for everyone who’s trying to turn a paper doll into flesh and blood:
Start with the moment where your character first appears in your story, and work backward through every remotely significant event of their life until you get to their birth.
By ‘every remotely significant event’ I don’t just mean when their mom died or when they lost their virginity. I mean every event that was remotely significant to them, even if it was just getting their braces off or listening to their favorite band for the first time. If you really commit to this, it’s going to raise a lot of questions along the way. How long did they live in Kenosha? Where did she get that dress? Why did her dad lose that job? Who introduced her to that author? Here’s the crucial thing:
Nothing you learn about a character is insignificant.
Even if it’s just what their least favorite vegetable is. 99% of this information will not end up in the final manuscript, and that’s fine. What’s important is that you know it, because a character (like a real human being) is the sum of their parts, and even their childhood aversion to cooked carrots will contribute to who they become. I recently got a question on my author blog about why I can spit out so many random trivial details about each of my main characters. And the answer is because none of it’s random and none of it’s trivial. If you’re trying to bring a person to life with prose, you can’t afford not to know every little thing about them. Want to know why?
It is a hell of a lot easier to write a character you know as well as you know yourself than to write a character you only know as a player in your story.
Characters have lives before and beyond the book you’re writing, just like real people have lives before and beyond the moments you interact with them. Our life experiences shape who we are and how we behave, so if you don’t know everything that has occurred in this character’s life prior to this moment, how could you possibly know how they would respond to a question even as simple as “How are you?” So. Spend the time. It will not be time wasted. Writing requires patience.
Writing also requires research. Because you can’t just write a bunch of characters who are vague avatars for yourself, you will have to venture out of your comfort zone. If you do that thing I suggested where you plot each person’s life all the way back to their birth, you will inevitably stumble across things you don’t fully understand–and that’s where the research comes in. You have a hard time writing cold, calculating characters? Start with the basic questions: Why is this person this way? Coming up empty? Find some real-life examples. If you’re writing a serial killer, go buy every biography of real-life serial killers you can get your hands on. Watch Making a Murderer. Take a criminal psychology class. Writing about a chef? Read chefs’ memoirs. Follow chefs’ blogs. Go to restaurants. Learn to cook. Don’t steal any real person’s personality wholesale, but pay attention to patterns and details so that when you create your own character, they feel real.
Use the real world for research. Learn from life.
The most important lesson you can learn from life is that very few people can be easily categorized. Most exist somewhere on a moral/behavioral spectrum that doesn’t fit neatly into those Myers-Briggs boxes everyone here on Tumblr loves so much. People are complicated and often conditional. A character who is warm-hearted and loving is much less interesting and much less believable than a character who is warm-hearted and loving but only towards children, because we immediately want to know more about her and why she doesn’t have the same sympathy for people her own age. And let’s be honest: no real person is warm-hearted and loving all the time. Figuring out exactly how this person’s life has gone will help you decide how they behave in any given situation.
We all have quirks and idiosyncrasies and learned behaviors that may, at first glance, defy explanation. We have hopes and fears and secrets and none of that is stuff you’re going to discover by taking another MBTI test on a character’s behalf. Rifle through the stuff of their life until you know not only exactly which magazines are lying under their bed but also why they have five credit cards they aren’t telling their wife about. When it comes to character, you can never know enough, even though writing in broad strokes might look a lot easier at the outset. Nothing about writing is easy, characters included.
People are messy. Resist the urge to simplify them.
Put the work in. I promise you, doing the digging and the research and learning who a person is before you try to put them on paper will make every word you write about them come more naturally and make more sense. And though a reader may never see those notebooks crammed full of every minute thing you learned about their life, they can intrinsically tell the difference between paper dolls and characters who are three-dimensional and fully formed and have been turned inside out by their author.
Really all this advice comes down to one thing, which is that you can’t half-ass character. You’re creating a person.