Feb 1, 2011

How to Create Compelling Characters That Aren't Made of Plastic

It’s easy to tell when you fall in love with character. You sympathize with them through their pain. You cheer them on to victory. You feel as if you’ve lost a friend when the book is over, which makes you just want to read it again just so you can hang out for a little longer.
What makes these fictional people so great?
They’re relatable, yet opposite of us. They’re familiar, yet distant. They’re completely normal, but unlike anyone we’ve ever met before.
How can you create these characters you long for?
By giving them a brain, a soul and a heart.

It’s terribly easy when you’re creating a story to have a character be placed in a puzzle piece role that fits neatly with the plot. If the plot is magnificent, the characters must be too. But this forces your fictional people to become robotic. Nobody cares about them. And soon enough, you won’t care about them either.
In the first draft of my work in progress, my protagonist was plastic. She passively accepted whatever was thrown her way. She didn’t think for herself. She didn’t go after what she wanted. She didn’t want anything. Now, she had her moments, but there were few and they were scattered. Her appearance wasn’t even completely defined: sometimes her hair held lustful natural waves, and other times it was pin straight.
Now she’s got a life. And she surprises me with her own ideas in every new scene I throw her in. Now, I believe in her and she even believes in her own existence.
Your characters need to have their own place of being: thoughts, voice, physical entity, heart… They need to be able to come alive and live in the world you have designed just for them, instead of being dragged back and forth like a puppet.
Take Barbie. She looks pretty on the outside, practically perfect. She has the best smile, the softest hair, and the killer curves. She will always have Ken to rely on. She can achieve any degree and perform in any work place, from a pizza joint to brain surgery. She can have children, but her flat abs won’t disappear. Her house has all the finest necessities: an elevator, barn yard, convertible, balcony. She’s the envy of everyone.
And there’s a million more just like her at the store.
Is she anything but happy all the time? What does she think about anyway? What’s her favorite thing to do; everything?
She’s plastic. Fake. Regular. Undercooked. Anyone can pick up a Barbie doll and treat her to her stereotypically perfectionist life.
And they’ll get bored in five minutes and go play with Legos.
If you make your character plastic and stereotypical, nobody will read your story because they get bored.
In order to create compelling characters that are exploding with life, design them fully. Let them simmer in the stew a bit longer so all the flavor and spices sink in. Don’t serve it up in a hurry. Add all the proper ingredients, and take your time. Think about the following in your process:
  • Physical Attributes: age, weight, height, hair color, eye color, way they walk, clothes, voice
  • Psychological Qualities: optimistic or pessimistic, what traumatic experiences have happened to them and how have they been affected by that, submissive or aggressive, way they handle situations good or bad – use particular examples in your exploration, language they use – is it mostly slang or are they obsessed with proper grammar or do they invent their own language, aspirations
  • Home Setting: Do they have a family? What’s the family like? Siblings? Significant others? Pets? Work/School?
  • Favorites: hobby, club, sport, TV show, friend, thing to do in spare time, animal
The list is endless. Brainstorm all about one of your characters and what makes them different from anyone else. Make a mind map of everything. It doesn’t have to make sense, and you don’t have to use them all. You’re simply getting ideas.
Also, take note of the people around you. You can steal characteristics that you notice daily and incorporate them into own fictional people. Steal the way Uncle Harry always wears mis-match socks. Take Mother Dearest’s excellent potato cooking skill, her only skill in the field of cooking. Incorporate that guy-at-the-grocery-store-check-out’s stutter. 
It’s these small details can be exaggerated, expanded and evolved into something larger, a great character. Make sure not to get wrapped up in the small details though, they are merely a jumping off point.
After you have webbed out everything that YOU think, silence your conscious brain and let your character speak for themselves. Ask them quiet questions about themselves. You may be surprised at what they say.
You want to know their thoughts on all these subjects. If Joe’s favorite animal is a penguin, figure out why that is. Why does Lucy despise her sister? Is it good grades that she envies or is it just because the sister always steals the clothes?
Find those thoughts by listening to your character.
Tapping into your subconscious to talk to your characters may be tricky at first, but with patience it will come. Once you can get it to speak to you, you’ll be amazed and honored to meet your characters up close and personal for the very first time.
This step is crucial because you’re forcing your character to come to life and give you their own opinion. You have to think of their behavioral characteristics and allow them to do what they want to do.
Write a paragraph or so, that doesn’t have to go into the actual story, but will allow you to see your character fully. How would they react waking up in a hospital bed with a broken leg? What if it was their brother who had a broken leg? How do they feel about being late for work/school? What would they say, or not say, when someone bumps into them spilling their cup of coffee down their shirt?
The beauty and life of a character comes from their behavior and their thoughts.
Go get inside your character’s head.

No comments:

Post a Comment