A Few Thoughts On Producing Good Characters

Good characters are hard. But they really give life to a story––being able to relate to the people your reading about is, in my experience, what separates a simple story from a really transcendent and memorable reading experience. So, as a writer it’s really important to make the characters interesting and to incorporate believable ones into a story. But how do you come up with them? Considering the whole range of possible humans (which is almost certainly wider in fantasy fiction that in real life) how do you figure out what sort of people are going to wind up in your story?
It’s hard.
A few thoughts though, on how the plot of my novel Loud, Disorderly & Boisterous led to my characters.
In the beginning you have to look at my writing process in general:

I dream up a very general concept for a story––ie Princess flees from arranged marriage in medieval Europe.
I come up with some general story arc––and most importantly I come up with something like an idea for an ending so that I don’t write a novel and then find out it doesn’t close.
I start writing, and trust that everything else will work itself out over time.

Now as you might notice none of the above really has much to do with characterization. Maybe if you are writing a book about, say, an alcoholic struggling with depression then the salient traits of your main character may be immediately obvious, but if you are looking at plot centric fiction––and most fantasy is probably plot centric rather than character centric––then your main characters may not obviously flow from your basic plot idea. As an example take Frodo from The Lord of The Rings––you could probably have given Frodo a wide variety of basic character traits without disrupting the basic story arc too terribly much. And certainly this is the case in my story above. I could insert all sorts of characters with all sorts of personal ticks into the outline above and wind up with a serviceable story.
Still even this very basic outline points me in certain directions with the Princess, who naturally is going to wind up being my main character. I want this person to be fairly likable, both so that the audience will root for her and also so that I will actually enjoy spending a sizable chunk of time writing about her. Also the fact that she is going to be running away from a marriage suggests that this person is fairly independent, rebellious and so on. Now I can make the story make sense without adopting these traits––imagine a stuck up heroine who goes on a voyage of self discovery, changing due to what she finds––but at the time the smart heroine seemed like the most natural fit for the story and that’s what I produced.
The other characters sort of evolve as the story demands. For example one character has to be willing to escort a fleeing Princess so he was plagued with general boredom and wanderlust. And… Well, giving away too much detail about too many characters would give away the whole story, but you get the idea.
Of course simply fitting characters into the niches required by a story doesn’t necessarily make for fascinating people. To make believable people you have to let characters bounce off one another, and give them traits which imply an existence beyond the simple requirements of the plot. For example take a main character in a book I’m currently working on: it occurred to me while driving away from Chicago one day that the character might be gay, and that instantly made him more interesting and well rounded and ‘real’ in my mind. I can’t tell you exactly why. (Also the fact that I was near Chicago probably had nothing to do with it.) Unfortunately this type of discovery can be a drawn out and problematic process––characters reveal themselves over time, and sometimes you have to go back and adjust what you’ve already written to make a character consistent. However all of this ultimately makes a story both more interesting to read and write.

A few other thoughts:

  • I don’t quite know why, but outlandish traits seem to make for more instantly ‘real’ seeming characters. Possibly it makes them more memorable. At any rate a lot of bit players in my story have exaggerated characteristics: really large, etc.
  • One rule I live by: people are made interesting by their flaws. A normal person without strange personality traits=vanilla=uninteresting.
  • I think I first got this from Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes: when your characters themselves dictate how you as a writer can react to certain situations, then you’re on to something.

3 comments on “A Few Thoughts On Producing Good Characters

  1. Great concept, but you might want to make a few edits to the post (like change “producting” to “producing” and ‘good characters “are” hard’) – I want to post links, but preferrably without the errors showing. 🙂

  2. Pingback: What Story Am I Writing? | The Write Stuff

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