About a week ago blogger ‘ericjbaker’ posted an article called ‘Writing Motivated Characters,’ on his blog, found by clicking the name. It is a good read, and I recommend you go take a look if you haven’t already. I posted a brief comment in reply, mentioning my own method of creating characters; it is this method I would like to go through today.
When I first started writing, I would create huge character bios that detailed almost everything there is to know about the characters. I detailed history, immediate family, favorite foods – i created lists of everything they like and dislike, even things that could have no possible bearing on the story. It was exceptionally time consuming, and more than one idea became lost in the deluge of character creation as I got bored and gave up. Looking back, I think I did this because I wasn’t really sure what else to do. At this point, I wasn’t outlining either – so I really had no idea what I needed to know, or what was going to happen – it became absurdly necessary to plan for everything. Armed with all this overcompensating information, I moved on to writing the story – and found I knew absolutely nothing about the parts of the character that matters most
No, I’m not talking about who has a crush on who; I’m not talking about characters dating each other, i’m not even talking about who is who’s brother and/or king. I’m talking about how characters feel about one another and the world in general, how they interact and the driving forces behind why they interact, and what they say to each other. I quickly found that, even with pages and pages of character biography, I still had no idea how to actually write these characters in a narrative – I had no real idea how they would interact with each other, no basis for their dialogue. Sure, I had a good idea of their goals and motivations, but all my characters seemed blank and forced, like bad actors who stand rigidly on stage and recite lines and actions with no purpose other than ‘look, I am following the script!’ Despite having good characterization in my notes, with each character driven, motivated and differentiated, they all appeared same-y and flat in the actual narrative prose. It became abundantly clear that what I was doing wasn’t working.
So I decided to take a look at characters from the reader’s perspective, and analyzed the characters of the book I was then reading (I think I was reading Dune, but I don’t rightly remember). No, I didn’t make a big list of character traits like an English-class character analysis (I had long ago decided to forget everything I learned in high school English, and my writing is stronger for it.) I looked less at what the characters were, but at how they were. It is all well and good for an author to say, in his own notes, he wants a character to be feisty, but how is the reader to know, who never reads those notes? I quickly came to this conclusion: by their relationships.
Everything you know about a character comes from their interactions with other characters and the world – from their actions, and their dialogue (first person stories have another mechanic for the narrator, it is true, but I don’t write in first person.) So I thought; If that is the most important part of a character in relation to the reader, why not start there?
So I did.
Okay, that isn’t entirely true – the very first thing you need to start building a character is a general idea of who that character is, even if it is simply their influence on the plot as a device or a basic trait/philosophy. I stand by the view that the plot is the most important component of a novel – more important, even, than character and themes. As a reader, I generally hate ‘slice of life’ and ‘character-driven’ stories; as a writer, I respect the work that goes into them, but will never write them. Characters exist purely to support the overarching narrative plot of a novel, and the underlying themes. Novels that start and enter at an arbitrary point in a character’s life, with no real endgame, bore me to death. It’s just my opinion, I readily admit, and I know writers and readers who adore purely character-driven novels, but do keep it in mind whilst reading the rest of this post. So when starting a character, I usually have a basic idea of where they fit into the plot already (the first thing I generally do when working on a novel is briefly outline the plot). I also have a tendency to make major characters the embodiment of some kind of idea, concept, or philosophy – This is a great thematic device, and helps quite a bit with building character relationships later on.
Let me take you through an example from Treasonists – one of the biggest themes in the novel is Idealism Vs. Cynicism; all the characters fall somewhere on this scale, but one character – Nerolie – is perhaps the strongest character for this particular theme. When I first started working on my plot outline for Treasonists, Nerolie’s name was ‘Idealism Archetype’ – So there is my base idea, from which everything else about her character and influence on the plot springs. My next step was to identify other characters that I was drawing influence from, for I am of the belief that it is impossible to be entirely ‘new’ with ideas (originally is, I assert, taking old ideas and concepts and combining them in novel ways. I may make a post discussing this in more depth at a later date.) In the case of Nerolie, I identified three major influences: Nia Teppelin, from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan; Kanzaki Nao, from Liar Game; and, finally, my own mother.
I knew I wanted Nerolie (Or, ‘Idealism Archetype,’ as she was at the time) to have similar traits to these characters, and give my readers the same feelings these characters gave me when I first encountered them. Next up, I set a day aside to peruse TvTropes.org (Caution: only click that link if you want to lose the next four hours), and make a list of tropes that fit my character. I have since lost the original document, but from memory here are a few of the tropes I choose – The Idealist (did I really need to mention this one?), Badass Pacifist, Wide-eyed idealist, and the Pollyanna. I should also note, I very early on decided to ignore/subvert the typical ‘Power of friendship’ tropes usually associated with idealism, and go what I thought to be a stronger incarnation of idealism.
So now our character has some more flesh – a list of tropes we want to use, and some comparative/guiding characters. We have a basic idea of who Nerolie is, but not enough to start writing. So, what comes next? We go back to the original point of the topic: relationships. To do this properly, I must briefly introduce you to another character; Whitemask. If Nerolie is ‘Idealism Archetype,’ Whitemask is ‘Cynicism Archetype.’ Together these characters have the strongest relationship in the book, and judging from the ~10 people who have read various drafts of Treasonists, one of these two characters invariably ends up as someone’s favorite (interestingly, depending on that person’s own affinity with idealism or cynicism – often inverted!) I did for Whitemask as I have shown you for Nerolie, so when it came to putting everyone’s relationships together I had a list of guiding tropes and comparison characters. It seems fairly obvious what their relationship is to be, right? They are on opposite sides of the Idealism Vs Cynicism scale – they should hate one another, right? Perhaps, but I choose a different direction to go with their relationship (and I don’t think Nerolie is capable of ‘hate.’) Despite their being on opposite extremes, they quickly become the best of friends. Each feels they need to teach the other to be more idealistic/cynical; Nerolie thinks Whitemask is too cynical, and wants to teach him to be more idealistic. Whitemask thinks Nerolie is too naively idealistic, and wants to teach her to be more cautious. They act as foils for each other, and throughout the book they temper each other and both become less extreme in their –isms, whilst still remaining at the core idealistic, in the case of Nerolie, or cynical, as Whitemask. This relationship became the guiding force between every interaction they have. They would often disagree – essentially becoming the angel and devil on the shoulder of the rest of the party (although I dislike saying angel and devil, as part of the point of their relationship is to say ‘Each, taken to an extreme, is as bad as the other, taken to an extreme.’) I went through this process for every pair of characters who have some substantial interaction in the book (I didn’t bother doing it with characters who didn’t interact much, it would be a waste) – and remember, as I am very plot focused, I knew who would be interacting and who wouldn’t be by what purposes they serve in the plot. An interesting example of the contrary is Whitemask and Zyrina – despite both being part of the ‘main party,’ the plot never calls for their interaction – so they never really do.
Armed with all this new information on character relationships, I further developed the plot outline into a strong narrative, where the characters and their relationships noticeably influence the story – and when it came to actually writing the story, I found I had a much better idea of how to write the characters. I knew the nuances of how they talk to each other, how they react to one another, and importantly; how this interaction changes over the course of the story. I developed a much stronger idea of what they say and how they say it – what kind of things they notice and remark upon, the words and phrases they use. Through defining the relationships of each character, I found I had, by inference, built the rest of the character. No longer did they feel same-y and flat, no longer did they stand rigidly like bad actors when I just didn’t know how to write them. Each character developed their own voice and style of speaking – the words and phrases they use tempered by their core character, derived from their relationships, a list of tropes, and comparison characters. I had built their relationships to a point where I easily knew how they would react to something, and when something in the plot or setting changed mid-draft (as things often do!), I knew my characters well enough to easily see how they should be reacting to the new situation, despite not having planned it from the start.
In short, by building relationships instead of characters, everything about the story became stronger; the plot, the wordplay, the themes and, of course, the characters.