A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Creating a character to drive the plot


One of my favorite parts of writing novels is making up the people who will populate it. I don’t understand those authors who seem to use the same basic types for every novel they write. I will admit that there are people that just end up turning up in different roles with slightly different faces. (I think I mentioned the prevalence of Franz Liszt in a previous post.) But you have to take into account that each story is unique. And the characters make the story.

  A story is the interaction of the characters with a series of situations. How the story goes is determined largely by how the characters react. Of course, things will happen that the characters had nothing to do with, but how they play the cards dealt to them is the essence of the plot.

  So constructing these characters should be a well-thought-out process. It’s possible to create a character while writing your book, but it will help you a great deal to prepare one ahead of time, so they can be fully developed from the start. I’ve done it both ways, and since I tend to write quite slowly, going so far as to edit as I go along (a lot of authors strongly discourage this behavior) it’s not too disastrous to introduce aspects of my characters as I think of them. Still, I would recommend some planning beforehand. It will make it easier to focus on the plot.

  What do you need to know about your character to make them affective? When I’m creating a character, there are four things that I make sure I make for them. They are: a body, a personality, a background, and a moral character.

  Let’s look at these one at a time. First off, every character needs a body. Writers differ on how important this is, which I think is funny, since you might as well do it. It’s really the easiest part of your character-making, and, like in real life it is often your first impression of who a character is. Write up a detailed ID for your main characters. How old are they? How tall? What coloring do they have? What’s the length and style of their hair? How do their facial features look? And, what is their overall body type? That last one carries more weight than you might think. (No pun intended.) It really helps to have the general physique in your mind’s eye. In fact, it almost runs over into the next element.

  Personality.  This is what is going to get your readers attached to your character. This is their humanity. This is probably going to be where the outside world comes into your book most. You want your readers to feel like they’ve met this person somewhere before. More than any other element in your entire book, the personalities have to be real.

  And by the way, God doesn’t copyright. Those people you know and love—they’re all in the public domain. Rarely, if ever does a personality spring purely from your imagination. In fact, almost all the characters in my Stardrift Trilogy are based loosely on a facet of myself. If you wonder if such a person could actually exist, check it against the standard you know best: your own personality. If this person is acting the way you might act, chances are, you’ve got a realistic character.

  In spite of  the fact that we observe personalities all the time, this seems to be one of the hardest parts of character-developing for some people. How many times have you complained that the people in a book just didn’t seem like anyone that would ever actually exist? One of the problems is sometimes people try to base their characters’ personalities on their morals or their stereotypes in reference to their respective roles in the plot. Here’s a bad guy. Here’s a love interest. Here’s the hero’s meddling mother.

  No. Think about these things instead: How do they smile? How do they laugh? What do they smile and laugh at? What scares them? Are they introverted or extraverted? Optimist or pessimist? Focused or distractible? Do they have any obsessions? Talents? Disabilities? What’s their default emotion? How would you describe them in three words?

  Sometimes, a character’s personality has been developed in some way by their background. Depending on your story, the background of your character may need to be developed more or less extensively. Sometimes a character’s past is vital to the plot. Other times (and quite often with my stories) not much has happened to the protagonist up until the novel starts. (In any case, you might want to make a note of that.)

  Think about your story. Might you need to include your character’s parents, or mention the town where they were born at some point? Is there some important event from their past that left a permanent mark of their views or understanding of life? Is there something that started way back when that might come back to haunt in a significant way during the course of the plot? Use discretion in thinking out just how much you need to know about your characters’ pasts.

  Finally, moral character. This is going to be quite important for those big moments in your story where the characters have to decide what to do. Your character is going to be driven by the principals her or she believes in, the things down at the heart of their existence.

  So, what kind of a person are they? Here’s where roles become something to consider more than in your other elements. Are they a hero? An indifferent side character? The villain?

  Choose virtues and vices for all your main characters. Remember that your hero can’t be perfect, and your villain can’t be totally evil. They’ll both be flat and unrealistic if you forget that. Think about your story again. Chances are you’ve got a good idea of what your hero and your villain are going to do. Why are they doing that? What drives them? What do they value? What character traits do they possess or not possess?

  Is your hero heroic because they’re selfless? Courageous? Compassionate? Loyal to their friends? Can they feel the pain of the afflicted? Find the truth in the confusion? Stick it out when everyone else gives up? Stand up to people who are used to doing whatever they want at the expense of others? Where’s their weak spot? Can they be distracted from their purpose? Do they sometimes just want to stop fighting? Maybe there’s something that they’re hiding that they’re afraid will be found out. Maybe they’ve got guilt over something in the past. Maybe they’re tempted to take revenge.

  What about the villain? Why would they do a thing like that? What’s their messed-up philosophy? What’s the main thing that makes them despicable? Are they deceivers? Do they take advantage of people? Are they self-seeking? Power-hungry? They can’t have all the problems though. There’s probably a good side somewhere, even if it’s just that they’ve never hung up on someone while they were still talking, or are nice enough not to throw things at the neighborhood cat. Maybe some of their terribleness grew out of some good quality that got blown out of proportion some time back. Maybe they wanted to protect someone they cared about. Maybe they were outraged at some injustice and overreacted. Another likely scenario is that they’ve been hurt somehow and were too weak to handle it correctly. Could they be redeemable after all? 

  Basically, the thing to remember when you’re creating a character is that they can’t just be a role with a name. You have to create w whole person that your readers will connect with, and want to hear more about. Great characters can cover a multitude of literary sins, and an extraordinary character is something your audience will never forget.  

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