Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Three Ways to Ensure Awesome Characters

It is officially the later half of October, and you know what that means! NaNoWriMo will soon be upon us!

Whether you participate in the organized chaos or not, the huge rush of new people trying writing in November makes this a great time to get together and talk/think about stories, how they're constructed, and what makes them good. To that end, I'm going to spend the next few blogs focusing on basic techniques you can use to make writing your NaNo novel (or plain old regular novel) faster, smoother, and more fun.

Today, we're kicking things off with the my favorite part of writing: creating amazing characters.

Writing Wednesdays: Three Ways to Ensure Awesome Characters

Confession: I am deeply jealous of comics. So much characterization in so few words.
(art via Lackadaisy - SO GOOD! Read it!!)
One of the most common writing questions I see in my email box is "how do you come up with characters?" 

Answering this question is actually really difficult, because honestly, almost all of my characters just kinda...happen. I'll be thinking about an idea I want to turn into the story, and a corresponding character will suddenly pop into my brain like it was always meant to be. Or sometimes I'll have one character already nailed down, and I'll realize I need a love interest/enemy/friend for them, so I'll start thinking about who would this person love/hate/hang out with, and boom, another character is born.

But while all of the above fits into the writing muse mythos I usually try to avoid (I hate the idea of a whimsical muse who doles out inspiration when she sees fit. No one is responsible for my writing and creations but me!), here's the kicker: none of these characters are actually good when I fist come up with them.

There've been a few exceptions of course. Both Devi and Eli wandered into my head fully formed and haven't shut up since. But the vast majority of the time, the characters that "pop" into my head when I start thinking about a story are the worst kind of cardboard cliche. They're not deeply thought out humans yet. They're solutions to a problem, flat pieces my brain invented on the spot to help solve my story puzzle. That's good enough for brain storming, but if I'm ever going to use these people successfully in an actual book, then first I have to make them good.

Fortunately for me, turning raw, flat, often cliched characters into real, deep, motivated people readers will love to read and I'll love to write is a pretty simple process. Note I did not say easy. Being creative on demand is never easy, but the process for refining and deepening a character is not an arcane alchemy. It's simply a matter of asking the right questions.

Way to Ensure Awesome Characters #1 - Context is Everything

So let's say you've got a cool idea for a book (yay!). In this book, you already know what you want for a main character. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you want a rebellious teenage girl who discovers she has powers and will now be flung into the adventure of a life time where she will have a whirlwind romance with a supernatural teenage boy.

Taken at face value, this is (obviously) a very stereotypical set up. For many writers, that alone would be reason to toss this character and come up with something less overdone. But while avoiding common tropes is a perfectly valid storytelling technique, it is also complete unnecessary. Common tropes are not inherently bad. In fact, they're often common precisely because they work so well/are so popular with readers. They only become boring when you get lazy, and the key to not being lazy is to always try to think about them in terms of the unique context of your story.

Take your rebellious teenage heroine...why is she rebellious? What is she fighting against? What is the context of her unhappiness? Because happy, satisfied people don't rebel. Likewise, how does she rebel? Is she loud or quite? Reserved or boisterous? Why? How does she express herself, and how has that been limited?

These are just a few of the kind of questions you could ask, but you get the idea. We're taking what we know about this character--that she is rebellious--and we're using that as the hook to build the context of her current life. Don't be lazy with your answers, either. This is where the creativity I mentioned above comes in. You want the reader to look at this character in the context of her life and, rather than rolling their eyes at yet another rebellious teen, think "wow, she has a good reason for feeling like she does" or "wow, she's really hardcore for standing up for herself in such a brutal situation."

These reactions are the sign of an awesome character. When you put the time and effort to really ask yourself "why is this character like this? What situations and experiences made them this way?" even if you never actually talk about those situations in the novel itself, that work will always show in the depth of your characters. They will feel like real people because you took the time to build them a real life.  

We are all products of our experiences and context. Characters, who are really just made up people, are no exception to this. If your character has a trait--rebelliousness, stubbornness, kindness, bravery--it was either created, or influenced by, their context. Maybe they learned to be stubborn, or maybe they've suffered for it and held strong. Maybe they're rebelling for a damn good reason, or maybe they've fought to be kind in a world that punishes kindness. The key is always context. It's the water your characters swim in, the background to their story. If you take the time to cleverly and creatively build and understand that, you can not help but create characters who feel, act, and read like real, deep, lovable people.

Way to Ensure Awesome Characters #2 - Flaws Make the Character

It's not exactly groundbreaking to say a character can't be perfect. For my characters, though, I like to go a step further and make a character's flaws a fundamental part of their life and personality. I don't just do this to avoid the "flaw is not actually a flaw" problem you see so often in lazy fiction where a perfect character will have a problem tacked on to them by a writer trying to avoid being accused of having a Mary Sue. I do it because flaws are what make characters interesting.

Think of your favorite character ever. Were they a perfectly well adjusted member of society? Were they great at everything? Probably not. Look at Sherlock Holmes. He's one of the most enduringly popular characters in fiction, and he's a complete asshole. He's a drug addict, he's insufferable, he's an unapologetic jerk who infuriates and alienates everyone around him. Holmes has so many flaws he's practically non-functional in society, and we love him for it. We love him because his enormous flaws and social handicaps off-set what would otherwise a too perfect intelligence. We love him because he pays for his enormous power, and that makes his successes feel real and hard won rather than handed to him.

This isn't to say that you have to pile flaws onto a character until they're indistinguishable from your villains. Characters, even assholes, still need to be somewhat likable. No one wants to read (or write) 500 pages through the eyes of a person they can't stand. Instead, you want to focus on thinking about your character's flaws as just another facet of their personality. If you're not sure how to do that, look at someone, fictional or IRL, whom you admire, and then ask yourself what that person is bad at. Are they vain? Are they a loner who has trouble connecting with others? Are they lazy? Do they have a temper that gets them into trouble?

All of these problems stem from personality flaws, and that's fine, because you still admire and like this person. Their flaws are simply a part of who they are, a core facet of their personality. That natural unity of good traits and bad, strengths and vulnerabilities, is the core of what makes us human, and it's the end goal I focus on creating when I make my characters. 

Now, of course, this perfect harmony doesn't happen all at once, and that's okay. It often takes me a whole book (or more) before I'm absolutely confident in who my characters are. Writing is an evolving process, but if you always put flaws front and center in your character creation, you will eventually end up with a person whose faults are simply a natural and indivisible part of their personality--another facet of the whole rather than negatives on a list. This is the end goal of great character creation, and it is always worth the extra work and creativity required!

Way to Ensure Awesome Characters #3 - Don't Settle for a Character Who Doesn't Fit

This one is a rule for all parts of writing, but it goes double for characters. If someone in your novel isn't working, if they don't feel right or if you can't find their voice, change them. It doesn't matter if they're integral to the plot or if you need them or even if they seem like a minor concern, you will always be better off if you cut or change the character in question than if you try to just muscle through. 

You see, characters are like apples: one bad one spoils the bunch, and it only gets worse as you get better. If you have an entire cast of amazing, well rounded, lovable people and one cardboard stereotype who clearly never really gelled, he's going to stick out like a sore thumb and break reader immersion every time he steps onto the page. Don't settle for that. You are the author, you dictate the story. Even character who seem amazingly well designed on paper can sometimes fall flat in execution, and the absolute worst thing you can do is try to stick to a plan that isn't working. So don't let fear of wasted work or change keep you from doing what must be done. If a character isn't working, change them. Give them a new personality. Replace them if you have to, but don't settle. It's better to rewrite half a book than to struggle through a whole one with a character who isn't along for the ride.

And that's it! I hope these tips help you to create an awesome cast for your novel. Whether you're NaNoing or just writing as usual, telling a story is never more fun than when you're doing it along with an awesome group of fictional people! 

Thank you as always for reading another installment of Writing Wednesday! If you enjoyed the post, please consider following me on social media (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+). You can also subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner. I do new writing posts every Wednesday and tons of publishing business/fun stuff in between, so come say Hi!

I'll be back next week with another NaNo-ish post. Until then, have fun, and happy writing!

Yours always,


Kessie said...

It wasn't until my seventh book that I hit on the concept of designing a character flaw-first. In Pride and Prejudice, we're showed everybody's flaws before we see their good sides. In my fanfic days, the characters who were the biggest flawed snarkballs wound up being the most endearing.

No idea why it took so long to realize that that really works in all stories. My current book, Mal and Libby started out broken and are getting brokener, while struggling ever harder to change their circumstances. It's making for fascinating writing, and hopefully fascinating reading, too.

online nursing degree program said...

Because of posts like this I surf the internet and when I found you, the time I felt I was wasting, just turned my thoughts around and now I am thinking I invested my time in something really interesting.

CharmedLassie said...

I tend to use The Positive/Negative Trait Thesaurus books but I always pick my negative traits first and develop the rest of the character after that!