23 June 2013

Stirring the Pot: Creating Lifelike Characters

This is the seventh installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.

The wait is over, at least for me, as Pete sent me his newest story outline today.  He's got a much tighter storyline even though the story still combines steampunk elements such as clockwork automatons and paranormal phenomena together with fantasy elements.  It's a multi-layered setting unlike any steampunk world you've ever visited.

We'll be delving into some specifics in the next installment, but for now, the good news for Pete is that he gets to start writing again.  His outline will keep him on track, and his character sketches will help guide him as he scripts the story.  He was concerned about returning to writing with the character sketches not quite finished, but I advised him get back to writing again.  This doesn't mean character sketches aren't important, but they will often draw themselves to some degree as we write.

The fact is, there is no better way to get a feel for your characters than to write about them.  Whether you're writing dialogue or regular narrative, you can come to know them better by writing the story than by pounding away on a detailed character sketch.  As you write, remember that the key to building your characters into fully formed, three-dimensional, living, breathing people is contrast.

One way to understand contrast is to think of it as conflict.  All stories are about conflict.  You have conflict between your protagonist and your antagonist, of course, but it's all of the other small differences of opinion among all of the characters that not only add texture, but keep the plot humming along.

Looking at it from the other end, suppose all of your characters were in perfect agreement on everything.  There would be no conflict, and by extension, no story.  Even a love story, which requires some measure of accord to qualify as romance, would be dull as an insurance policy without conflict.  Without conflict, everyone would just sit around the campfire and sing kumbaya, and the reader would rapidly lose interest.

In the same way, each character should have his or her own set of mannerisms, personality quirks, obsessions, etc., to distinguish them from the other characters.  Otherwise, you risk your characters blending into one another.  Is your character brash, meek, or somewhere in between?  Courageous, craven, or somewhere in between?  Life of the party, wallflower, or somewhere in between?  When you pair this character with another character in a given scene, you can make the interactions more interesting and lifelike by drawing contrasts between them.  In this way, characters will start to flesh out automatically as you distinguish them from other characters.
You can cook up personality traits and throw them at a character sketch initially, but the real tempering of these characters comes as in real life: by interacting with other people.  Put them in a situation with another and ask yourself what is the source of the conflict.  Not just how they differ, but why they differ.

One character wants to crash down the front door and confront the bad guys, but the other character thinks discretion is the better part of valor.  When you understand why they approach situations differently, you begin to understand them and build a consistent vision of who they are.  I say "consistent" because once you have established a character's tendencies they should tend to behave consistently later on.  This sets the character's personality in your mind--and the reader's mind--to the degree that the character's behavior can almost be predicted in later scenes.

Now, there is one critical exception to the foregoing, and that is what is known as character growth.  This is a great example of how your characters are bound up in the plot and vice versa, linked inextricably to one another.  The sentiment that "people don't change" may have some truth in it, but it has no place in your story.  It's essential that at least your protagonist undergo some change as a result of what happens in the story, and the storyline must be affected materially by the change the protagonist has undergone.  It's possible for multiple characters to undergo multiple changes, but at the very least your hero has to learn a lesson, have a change of heart, or be transformed in some way.

The timid character who could be counted upon to back down from confrontations finally has enough and stands up for himself.  The self-involved snob has some comeuppance that brings him down to earth and opens his heart.  Or perhaps the altruistic good guy is pushed by circumstance to save his own skin.  There are innumerable variations, but the point is that your character behaves consistently until one day your plot comes knocking on the door and changes them.  And when the character changes, the plot thickens.  That's the formula.

So, even though I recommend drawing up character sketches to get the ball rolling, a character sketch can only deliver so much in the way of realistic characters.  As you write about them and create their dialogue, insights will come to you that you couldn't have dreamed up in a month of treating them in isolation as with a character sketch or bio.  Let them loose in your world and observe their behavior, adding notes to their character sketches as you go.  Always look for contrast, consistency, and above all, character growth.  As their personality tightens up, the plot will tighten up, and your story will lead naturally to a satisfying conclusion.

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