How do I make my characters…great?

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him.  Mel Brooks.

A few years back, I was totally captivated by the television show Lost.  Every Tuesday night I tossed and turned in bed, trying desperately to solve the  mystery of the show.  And then…the show’s finale.   So many unanswered questions.  Not little questions.  Major ones.  How did Jacob and the Man-in-Black receive their supernatural powers?  What is the island?  What happened when the nuke went off?  Why were THESE people chosen to be ‘candidates’?  What is up with the numbers and how are they ‘magical’?  I felt betrayed by the writers and producers.

However, I do feel that my six year investment in the show was worthwhile.  Why?  The characters.  I fell in love with these people!  Recently Entertainment Weekly did a countdown of the Top 100 Characters since 1990.  Only John Locke made the list at 63.  What a joke.  Where is Ben Linus, perhaps the most conflicted and complicated character in television history.  Such a little man (physically and emotionally) to be such a major villian.  Hurley, Sawyer, Sun & Jin, Sayid, Richard, Daniel Faraday, Desmond, Penny…  I could go on and on and on.  The characters on this show were so extremely well-developed they felt like real people.  You knew them.  You cared for them.  You cried when they were hurt and laughed when they had fun.

How in the world did this television show, seemingly written with utter disregard for plot, create such wonderful characters?  I want my characters to leap off the page like this.  I want people remembering the people from my story long after they have forgotten the plot.

So I’ve done some research on how to develop intriguing characters.

The first stop in my journey was a quote by the screenplay writer of Dead Poet’s Society, Tom Schulman:

Everything I write is autobiographical in the sense that I shape characters only from the people I know in my life. They start out as people I know and then they change, as the story changes them.

A great piece of advice.  And one that I had already taken.  Two of my main protagonists are based on my wife (Aine) and the man I would like to be (Valdikr).  I’m especially interested in our flaws.  My wife, though stunningly beautiful (I so married up), is a social coward.  She lacks the ability to speak up in her own defense.  She allows people to take advantage of her because she fears ‘making a scene’ or ‘making people feel bad’.   It’s why I fell in love with her.  It works in our world.  She’s kind and caring and sweet and people love her.  But would it work if I took her outside of her comfort zone?  Could my wife survive in the middle of a fantasy war?  I want to explore this.

The next piece of advise I found is to not treat your character like a laundry list of traits.  A main character, Aine, is going to be a social coward like my wife.  But what happens if the only emotion we ever see from her is fear.  Fear of speaking.  Fear of fighting.  It’s becomes as tiresome as those characters that simply whine all the time.  It makes the character obviously make-believe.  No one is fearful ALL the time!  What I need to do is to be sure that her fear is shown alongside other emotions.  How does her social cowardice mesh with anger, hope, depression, terror, lust or humor?  How does she react differently to family, friends and strangers?  What happens when she’s had too much to drink?  I need to show subtle differences and, eventually, growth to make this character truely come alive.

But…even if I make this character true to life, is she memorable?  Would people care about her after the story is complete?  Will they clamour for more stories about her?

I don’t know.  Often in stories it seems that the protagonist isn’t the character that people remember or love.  In the Pirates of Carribean it was Jack Sparrow, not Will, that people remember.  In Star Wars people loved Han Solo (and for some reason Boba Fett), but few openly adored Luke Skywalker.  Those are extreme examples.  For the vast majority of stories people connect differently to different characters.  Ask anyone who their favorite character from the Harry Potter series is and you will get a wide variety of answers.  (For me it’s Ron.)  So maybe the only option I have is to create a true-t0-life character and hope that she’s loved.

Mostly it seems that creating an interesting character is 5% in the pre-story planning.  To make a fascinating character you MUST do so through story-telling and plot.  Hurl the unexpected at them.  Have them question themselves and their beliefs.  Characterize outside of inner monologue and description.  Telling people that your character is the greatest swordsman in the world is different than SHOWING that he is great.  You can write a perfect paragraph describing your character as witty and funny, but if she does or says nothing funny or witting throughout the entire story she comes off dull and boring.

A lot to think about as I go back to working on my novel.


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