Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Building Characters

I remember when my kids used to go trick or treating on Halloween.  They always had terrific ideas about "who" they wanted to be.  My son, who was an altar boy in the year I'm remembering, wanted to be The Pope.  Many people were horrified, including my in-laws.  But our parish priest thought my son's idea was terrific.  He believed that kids his age should know about religion, any religion, and wanted to help Michael "spread the light."  So he allowed Michael to wear one of his vestments and gave him advice about building the "hat."  (We never shared with Fr. Paul that Michael's goal was going for humor, not spreading the light of the Lord.)

Creating characters for a book or short story is not quite as easy as stepping into a character at Halloween.  Before the book is fully plotted, you have to come up with a backstory, motivation, quirks, likes, dislikes, habits, and the basis for some serious conflicts with one or more of the other characters.  Oh, and did I mention motivation?  Why is a very important question to ask your characters.  As in:  a) Why, Mr. Villain, do you want to chop up and kill women and then place their eyeballs in your freezer?  or b) Why, Mr. Larger-Than-Life-Hero, are you so damn scared of one tiny woman?  Sure, she's got a big mouth, but she can't hurt you, can she? or c) Why do you love small children and animals, Ms. Heroine?  Especially in light of the fact that your parents died when you were a kid and you spent your formulative years in a series of foster homes?

See what I mean?

When I first began writing novels and joined RWA and MWA, I soaked up other writers' advice like a sponge.  I copied every character chart I could, jotting down everyone's ideas about how to craft characters.  I thought I knew what the true steps to characterization greatness were.

Unfortunately, when you craft your characters with that much zealousness, with that much CONTROL, they tend to get boring.  Precise is nice when you're planning; it's dreadful to read.

I've since learned that if I pick 3-5 absolutes with respect to my characters (i.e. their goals, their raisons d'etre, and a little bit about their birth families/backgrounds), I allow them room to grow and develop as the plot and their own personalities require.

How do YOU build characters?


  1. I agree about the why? question Linda but I only ever give my characters basic traits then let them loose. They pretty soon start showing and telling me who they are, and there's nothing I can do about it. I've never been one for back stories. For me character, whether it's people in fiction or in everyday life, is a process of evolution all the time. If you paint someone as a miser, for example, and that';s all he is, it becomes (as you say) boring. A writer on a panel I once chaired said 'You've got to give your characters room to dance'. That sums it up for me.

  2. Ooooh! I like that "room to dance" perspective. And I agree that we don't want one-dimensional characters--most people aren't that way in real life. (Except for a couple of people I know and, let me tell you, I'll never use them as a stepping stone in fiction. If they're boring in real life, how painful would they be on the written page?)