Tuesday 21 April 2015

Characters are People too — Character School Part 1

As I described in an earlier article, I started writing creatively when I was quite young then had a relatively long break. In order to create the Armada Wars universe I had to dust off my writer's brain and up my game to a whole new level. One of the ways I achieved this was to tackle the problem of characters; chiefly to stop being so lazy when designing them.

I have always been aware of the advice which circulates endlessly on crafting characters, but until recently did not apply it. The difference it has made is indescribably powerful. If I had to explain to other up-and-coming writers how it makes a difference, and why they should take notice, I would have to put it like this:
If your characters are not believable and interesting, your fiction will not be believable or interesting either.
Since I started I have made it known that I am perfectly willing to discuss my process and the lessons I have learned with anyone who wants to know. This article then is the first in a short series intended for newer writers, or those who are struggling to grow their creative muscles.

This first 'episode' gives a few general pointers for writing characters who not only stand on their own two feet, but are able to interact with each other in a convincing manner. Since fiction is a form of artifice, that element of 'being convincing' is absolutely crucial and should never be neglected. Something which is credible is far more likely to resonate with a reader, stick in their mind, and make them want to share their experience with others.

People Don't Appear from Nowhere

Think about the friends and colleagues you have had throughout your life. Very few of them will have arrived one day and explained their entire back-history, abridged or otherwise, then remained forever the same.

Characters should be like real people. Their personalities ought to be represented as a series of reactions to change, at the leading edge of a much longer history of reactions to past changes.

Every main character should have a story to tell; otherwise they wouldn't be a character, they would just be a prop or foreground dressing. The trick to telling the character's story is to avoid dumping all of the character's past on the reader in big chunks of exposition. There are many tools available, and these are just some of the more practical ones you can use:
  • Flashbacks. Easy to over-use, and can break the flow of the main narrative, but a great way to deliver precise details as well as exploring the emotional state and thought processes of your character within their own history.
  • The Steady Drip. Little explanatory pieces can be scattered here and there wherever they become relevant, so that the reader's picture of the character's past journey builds up alongside their current journey. This works well in suspense stories, and for characters who need to have a certain mystique about them.
  • Discussion. If your character has experienced past events which have significantly influenced the way they think and behave, it's reasonable to expect that at some point this will need to be explained when another character responds to their actions with awe or horror. There is nothing wrong with having a character sigh and tell their sorry tale, as long as it is not just an exposition dump surrounded by quote marks.

Normal People Disagree

Just because some of your characters are "on the same team", that doesn't mean they will always agree with each other. In fact, they probably shouldn't.

In all forms of story-telling, the drama usually comes from conflict. That conflict need not necessarily be on the scale of planet-shattering warfare; it might just as easily be a lack of consensus in a group of people who are trying to prevent such a war.

In the real world people often have the same goal but different ideas about how to achieve it. Or they may have different goals entirely, even though they are addressing the same issue. People can tend to be precious about their own ideas, and unduly critical of the ideas of others. Also — and this is easily explored in creative writing — the plans laid out by a protagonist might terrify and appal someone whose moral landscape is different to theirs.

Groups Can Make Bad Decisions

George Carlin warned that we should "never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups", and that advice is just as pertinent in the world of fiction as it is in daily life.

The thing is though, people in a group don't necessarily need to be individually stupid for the group to make a stupid decision.

In large groups, people's brains have a tendency to make decisions in a different way than if the individuals made those same decisions on their own. We are, unfortunately, the puppets of our neural architecture, and odd pressures come into play invisibly when our values are threatened with exposure in the presence of a large group.

It's useful to have some knowledge of the kinds of cognitive biases and perceptual errors which the human mind can throw up in these situations. They can make for much more convincing explanations of characters' decisions, decisions which might otherwise call for a writer to use a clunky, obvious plot device.

There are plenty to choose from, but as a primer I would advise getting acquainted with the following basics:

In the next article we'll take a look at the basics of crafting individual main characters!

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