FOUNDATIONS IN CHARACTER
The revival has arrived; the tips & tricks blog is back, baby! And I'm honored to help by bringing you our first journey into the delicious, delicious cheesecake that is the world of Literary Prose! So grab your fork, spoon, knife, spork, spnorf, or whatever else you use to absorb nutrients and let's dive in!
You’ve just written the most interesting, most lovable, and most memorable character in all of the literary world. So you think. Too bad there are libraries and warehouses stocked with books housing a protagonist just. Like. Yours. Congratulations, you’ve written the Mary Sue or Gary Stu. A character with either no flaws at all or so many flaws it physically hurts my brain, ribs, and spleen when I read about them. A character that can take your novel from New York Times
Bestseller to Waste of Times
No-seller. It’s that important. And I’m here to make sure you don’t shoot your career in the foot by shooting your characters full of steroids. So put down the shotgun and syringe, pick up the pen, pop your knuckles and prepare yourself for an adventure. Please keep your arms and legs inside the tutorial at all times- -and don’t forget to have fun and laugh at my terrible jokes! Please? Aw…
*There will be cookies and punch after this presentation.*
Stories depend largely on character. Unless you have a plot so profound any person with half a brain can be the actor to go through it. Not very likely. Characters are your scions- -your disciples for telling the ingenious story I know you’ve been hiding. (It should be noted I’m of the opinion that everyone is a good storyteller, they just don’t know it yet.) However, just because they’re your avatars or minions, if you will, doesn’t mean they should be a carbon copy clone of you. In fact, don’t ever do that. It’s bland, painfully obvious and a minefield of ethical debate. You are you. We don’t need another, no matter how awesome you are- -the world wouldn’t be able to handle so much awesome. Likewise, if there’s a character you love from another story, keep Conan the Barbarian from becoming Conan the Veterinarian. It’s just wrong. So here comes the first part of our discussion.
1. Your character is a separate identity.
Separate yourself and others from your character. I cannot stress this enough, people. Your character is its own man/woman, with unique motivations and personalities. The Cat in the Hat isn’t going to react to an alien invasion in the same way as Arthur Dent (though we can assume both outcomes will be silly and make little to no sense.) And if the Cat in the Hat reacts the same way as you would, then you need to be checked into the nearest mental institution immediately.
BUT DAKOTA, IF I KEEP EVERYONE OUT OF MY CHARACTER, HOW CAN I EVEN KEEP ANY TRAITS AT ALL?!
Well, if you’ll calm down and stop typing at me in all caps, I’ll tell you. I’m a staunch believer in “old, but new.” It never hurts to borrow a number of characteristics from someone either real or fictional. In fact, while it doesn’t have as much to do with character, my current novel manuscript was originally inspired by a number of different factors. (Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and the occult artistic styles of H. R. Giger. Just realized there are a lot of H-names in there.) When I started out, I decided I wanted to use Harlan Ellison’s example. That is, a supercomputer keeps 5 humans alive in the center of the Earth after wiping out the rest and tortures them for 109 years, as the computer has basically reached unlimited power. I started with a desire to keep the idea of a being of some sort living in the center of the Earth and using humans as playthings. I opted for an elder-god-like being (H.P.) with a grotesque appearance (Giger). But I continued to develop the ideas, and eventually you probably wouldn’t be able tell where most of the inspiration came from. Take this approach and apply it to characters.
*CHARACTERS CAN BE BASED ON OTHER PERSONALITIES, AS LONG AS THEY DIVERGE AT SOME POINT.*
Borrow things, but don’t stop there. Continue to work until you’ve created something of your own and almost unrecognizable from others. If you try too hard to make him/her the coolest cat ever, you’ve already broken that rule because many other novice authors have done the same thing. People mistake “Coolness” for “likability”. Which moves us to our next area of discussion.
2. Your character is not a flawless diamond.
There’s a saying I love, and it goes something like, “If life was perfect, how boring would that be.” Just like the wonder of life, if your character is perfect, they’re utterly drab and almost unlikable. It’s one of the reasons I hate Superman as a hero. He has no weaknesses and always wins because of the single fact that he’s Superman. But the writers realized what a stupid buttface they’d created and what a huge corner they’d written themselves into right off the bat, so they came up with the completely illogical excuse for his defeat known as Kryptonite. For some reason, a piece of his home and past reduces him to a grunting, helpless mess. It also doesn’t help that they needed to implement this by making one of the rarest rocks in the galaxy apparently mail-orderable through dealer speed dial for every villain in the franchise. Still, Superman does have a weakness. And while it’s super-duper overblown here, it’s a good example of the problem with flawlessness. When I see a character able to handle any challenge, always entering the lion’s den with arms crossed and mouthing off the whole time, I send a mental petition for that character to be killed immediately. I don’t want to read an author’s all-too-obvious message of,
“Hey look at this guy! I cameded up with him all by myself! I’m a witew; look how good I can wite chawactews. Isn’t he so coow? He’s so coow. Don’t you think he’s coow?”
You have no business writing, and your “chawactew” has no business existing. Sowwy, that’s just how it is. *Sorry*
*DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE FLAW! IT’S THE CLAW WHICH KEEPS US IN AWE!* - That’s the best rhyme I ever saw.
Give your characters flaws. Please. I will buy you a pizza. I promise. With enough cheesiness to pay back what you took out of your character for all of us. Is he/she afraid of heights? If your story is about planes, good. Throw that in, by all means. Is your character a chronic chain smoker? Awesome. Talk about how they’re always wheezing and irritated when people tell them to quit. Flaws, believe it or not, add just as much likability as redeeming qualities, which is what we’ll be discussing next.
3. Redeem their sorry existences!
Okay, so you piled on the flaws. But now we’re looking at a walking depression or a total jerk. And nobody likes to be depressed or come into contact with a jerk. Might’ve come on a little strong on this one. No matter what, your character must have some redeeming quality. Or else I want them to die the same brutal death I wanted the flawless character to die earlier, if only for the sake of not having to slog through another septic-tank-of-a-day in the life of that poor sap. In addition, absolutely NO character with a prominent role in your story should go without a redeeming quality- - even your villains. Every one of my favorite villains has some sort of uncanny charm about them- - something that tells me if I was conflicted enough, I might be convinced to join their side. A character doesn’t have to be charismatic, but something has to come into play to redeem the flaws. And if you can confuse a reader by constantly keeping them torn between loving and hating a character with a good balance of flaws and redemptions, that’s a good thing. It’s making your audience think, and feel invested enough to want to decide what side of the likability fence they stand on. Sure, that dude was a chain-smoker. But he’s actively trying to keep other people from smoking, or fundraises for the firefighters.
*We will discuss dialogue at a later date. So for the purposes of simply creating a character, we’ll leave it out of this discussion.*
4. Act & React.
Your story is gonna have action. Even if it’s not an action title, it’s going to be chock-full of conflict. Because conflict keeps a reader’s attention. And a reader’s attention is good. (Duh.) Here’s an excellent test of character: sit down with a pen and paper and watch some breaking news. Imagine your character either watching or living the same thing, be it horrific event, a sports competition, or even celebrity shenanigans. Write down how they’d act in that situation, or react to it. Then imagine the biggest way things could go bad in that event (or get even worse). A meteor falls from the sky onto Tom Cruise’s head while your character is giving him an interview. A pack of rabid, flesh-eating arctic hares avalanches into the sports stadium. Write down their reaction to this sudden twist. If your character doesn’t do something differently, we have a problem. Either that, or they’re a robot. But why would a robot be actively interviewing Tom Cruise?
More often than not, your characters’ actions are reflective of their personalities. I.e. A pacifist isn’t going to start a fist fight when someone calls them a name. A football player isn’t going to run away screaming from an unknown round object laying in a field of grass. An animal rights activist isn’t going to kick a dog because the dog is in the way of the only public restroom, and he really needs to go. Not only is a character’s actions affected by their personality, but by a little something called MOTIVATION.
Boom. Here’s the cliché line you’ve all been waiting for:
*WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION?*
It’s been regurgitated time and time again by millions of mouths for one reason: It’s actually as important as they say it is. So your character is strolling through the park and sees a child crying on the bench. The child is lost and can’t find his/her parents. Your character decides to stay with the child until his parental units are found.
Why? Why would your character ever even care enough to stop in the first place? I know that sounds mean, but it’s intended to find the actual answer to why your character had the conscience to stop and help a child. Maybe a horrific accident killed your character’s parents at a young age, and he/she never wants to see another child feel the same way they did all those years ago. Perhaps the character knows the child, and is also worried for his/her parents because they always bring good food to the neighborhood picnics. Whatever.
For you science buffs, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy is never simply created, nor is it lost. It just changes forms. Imagine your character’s actions as energy. They don’t occur without reason, or else your story wouldn’t make any sense. When they occur, there are consequences that carry over, internal and external, and if they’re severe, often affect personality or outlook. So think of the energy/action flow like this:
Personality- > Motivation - > Thought - > Action - > Reaction - > Consequence - > Personality
And it goes on and on.
BUT WHAT IF I DON’T WANT MY CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO CHANGE?!
Then your character shouldn’t be in the story. Also, please take off the caps. We already talked about this. I think the real thing you’re worried about is your character turning into something else entirely. Which most often shouldn’t happen. But by the end of the story, your character should have changed in some way since the beginning. It’s one of the most effective ways to determine if there is a development arc at all. If your character didn’t change at all by the end of the story, why should we as the readers be changed? Why should it provoke thought if the characters we’re supposed to sympathize with are apathetic to the story’s events, themselves?
Your characters are supposed to grow. It’s only natural, because all living things do grow in some way. So when your character changes, often their motivations will, too! And that’s a good thing, kiddos! It means you’re actually writing a character you can be proud of- -something you made yourself. And despite all my nonsensical, witless jokes I can assure you of one thing: I’ll be proud of you, too. Because I know you can do it- - no matter who you are, where you live, or what you’ve done, you can produce something truly amazing if you just keep at it. In review, we’ve discussed:
1. Your character as an identity
3. Redeeming Qualities
4. Actions and Motivation
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did sharing it with you. Later on, I’d like to take a deeper look into development, including but not limited to: Dialogue, Background, Quirky Perks, and a good way to introduce your cast.
*I lied about the cookies and punch.*