Wednesday 20 May 2015

Crafting Main Characters — Character School Part 2

In the first entry in this series we looked at some general aspects of believable characters, but only in the sense of realistic interactive behaviour.

In this article, we will get down to the important business of how exactly we can create main characters who are credible, memorable, and likeable (or not!)

The main characters of any piece are not just important to the story; they are the story. If they don't work as characters, then no matter how well-written and intriguing your work is, it will not engage the reader. Knowing your main characters inside-out early in your process will not only pay dividends later on, it will actually help you to shape your plot.

This is the most important piece of advice a new writer can receive, yet it's easily overlooked: the main characters — if they are well-conceived, rounded personalities — will actively sculpt the plot for you.

Give them History

As I said in part one, people don't usually come from nowhere. Unless your main character is deliberately intended to be an object of mystery who literally does appear from nowhere, perhaps with no memory of their past life, they need to have a back-story.

Now this is important: you should know how your main characters arrive at the points where they enter the story, even if you will mention little or none of that history in the actual text. Why? Because details like that don't just affect readers' interpretation of a character, they affect the writer's interpretation too.

To utilise a character fully, and to give them their own unique personality and characteristic way of doing things or seeing the world, you need to know them intimately. Having a history for your character which stretches all the way back to their birth will let you get to know them, and you can then predict how they will react to certain events or concepts as if they were a real, distinct person separate from yourself.

When your character has a life of their own, albeit a simulated one, this gives them a voice. They will actually talk to you. Listen to them! It might seem like a symptom of mental illness, but getting to this point is a major milestone along the path to a completed first draft. You don't always need to work out how to solve problem X or which character ought to be in position Y — healthy, living characters will almost literally tell you how they would act in those situations.

Be prepared to have your characters suggest things that "you" would not have thought of, because they will!

You don't necessarily have to get all of this done before you put pen to paper. Many ideas will come to you at all stages while you work, and some people do simply sit down and write.

Give them Specific Traits

People have character traits. These might be seen as flaws or strengths by those around them, depending on the situation they are applied to, but they are always there. We learn go-to responses in childhood and continue to reinforce them as expressed behaviours throughout our lives.

Examples might be:
  • Aversion to confrontation,
  • Acting decisively (but not necessarily correctly) under pressure,
  • Retreating when feeling threatened,
  • Desperate need to have the final say.

Chances are, you recognise at least one of those in yourself and can think of a dozen or more examples amongst your family, friends, and colleagues. Why? Because when examined at this simplistic level people are basically the same: they might not share the same selection of traits, but they are all sourcing them from pretty much the same pool of options.

In other words, it's a pic 'n' mix kind of a deal. If you want to learn more about how you can employ these traits well, then I strongly recommend picking up a copy of "A Writer's Guide to Character Traits" by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. as a comprehensive guide (Amazon UK / Amazon USA).

How you decide which characters get which traits, and how many traits should influence each character, is entirely up to you. You might print off sheets with a scattering of traits on them, head each sheet with the name of a main character, and throw darts at it. Or you might take a more structured approach and pick out the traits which you think contribute to the specific personality types you wish to portray (e.g. "the cowardly manipulator", "the sarcastic delinquent", "the amoral profiteer".)

Whatever method you choose when you assign these traits to your characters, you must remember to be consistent with them. Your characters are believable and relatable when they behave characteristically, when they are true to themselves. Someone who is always condescending towards their subordinates, for example, will only cause confusion if they are suddenly empathetic and understanding for no good, plot-based reason. By all means allow people to act out-of-character, but give the reader a rational reason as to why it's happening. Also, unless you are deliberately trying to break a pattern (for example having a usually calm and collected person fly into a rage), try not to fall into the trap of using unusual, inconsistent behaviour as a plot device instead of part of the development of the character the behaviour belongs to.

There is one part of your writing where you probably want your main character to completely defy at least one of their traits: at the point where they overcome some inner obstacle or undergo a significant change. This might be at the point when a villain is forged, or when your hero is forced to tackle the climactic events of the story. Strictly speaking this falls under the heading of "the hero's journey" rather than character building, so it's not really a topic for this article, but I can assure you that if you know your characters intimately and have put them together well it will all fall into place when you need it to.

Give them Relationships

From that heading alone, this might sound like an obvious thing to say. But it isn't.

What I mean by "give them relationships" is that people don't just act outwardly. They also take in information and process it... constantly.

It will help to have a complete understanding of your characters for yet another reason: it dictates how they relate to the other main characters (and indeed how we first find them as readers, if they have already met each other before the story begins.)

The interactions between your characters are just as vital for their credibility as are their own individual personalities. It's no good having an introvert who flirts gratuitously with another character from the moment they meet; that just doesn't happen. Instead the introvert might inwardly acknowledge their own attraction, build up to clumsy, embarrassing attempts at verbal interaction, and eventually make inroads into a workable dialogue with the object of their desires. Oh look — it's almost as if that character's personal journey has begun to take shape already!

Run with it!

If you keep all of the above in mind as you design — yes, design! — your characters, you will save yourself a lot of head-scratching and self abuse later on. You will end up with a raft of main characters who are rounded, believable people doing the best they can under challenging circumstances, and readers are much more likely to relate to them and find them memorable.

You want your characters to stick in the reader's head because they liked them (or hated them, if that's what you intended), and because they related to their predicaments and reactions. If you are writing a serial, plan sequels, or intend to release "companion episodes", you also want the reader to crave more from the characters.

So the overall goal that these techniques contribute to, I suppose, is this: you aren't really trying to write characters, you're trying to invent people.

In the next article, we'll take a look at the unique problems caused by developing characters in a story which takes place across more than one book, and examine some possible solutions.


  1. Hi, very interesting article :). I love your dedication to their history, I agree. I think a characters history is REALLY important, it gives you the little details that really bring a novel to life. The only thing I think I disagree with, is having to know all of that before you write. A lot of writers just sit down with an idea and write, and through drafts they develop and tweak characters. I think both methods are valid as long as they end up with well rounded characters.

    Love the book recommendation too - its on my list of recommended books.

    I also like your point about characters being consistent - I completely agree that its important, as is the journey/character arc you mention - now I am going to completely contradict myself!... we wouldn't be human if we didn't act out of character sometimes.... I guess its understanding what lengths a character or person has to be pushed to until they snap and react out of character - being patronised is my pet hate - that tends to make me snap!!

    I love your description of the introvert flirting - it made me laugh because its SO true :)

    fab article :)

    1. You make a good point, it's not strictly necessary to have all the history worked out ahead of time. I've fallen into that trap of taking my preferred method and talking about it as if it's a rule! Think I might tweak that bit...
      Whenever I have a character do something that's not consistent for them, I'm always conscious that every page the reader has to get through without understanding the inconsistency chips away at the strength of the explanation. Since there's a strong mystery/suspense element in my books it can be a real problem.
      Glad you enjoyed the article anyway!