There are many people who will disagree with that statement, and they're welcome to... But they're wrong.
Now wait a moment! Don't go away! Let me pile a few more logs on that pyre being built at my feet by explaining where I'm coming from. I mean, I put it pretty definitively up there. How could I possibly make things worse, right?
Trust me. I'm a writer. I can always make things worse.
What about "idea" stories? What about Sci-Fi or Literature stories about a place, or a technology, or some other thing? Those don't have people at their heart! They're about the idea/place/technology/other thing!
GET THE TORCHES!!!!
Wait! You see, characters aren't always people. They're the subjects in the story that the reader relates to. And if the story is well crafted (and sometimes even if it isn't), the characters are what the reader cares about. Whether that character is a cat, a tree, a car, or an asteroid, if the writer has done their job, you'll care about it and it will help immerse you in the story.
But that's an overly complicated way of looking at things, so let's get back to people (if you want, you can consider anthropomorphized things as people from here on out).
Where you fit on the spectrum between plotter or pantser will likely shape how you grow your characters. I fall somewhere in the middle, so my process might be a little muddled. But from one writer to another: You don't have to colour inside the lines. Do whatever works for you.
Some writers like to figure out their characters as they go along, then fix inconsistencies in revision. Some writers like to know every detail about their characters before the first word hits the page, creating detailed character sheets (I use the one in Scrivener to get started).
Whatever your method, I've found it's best to keep track of any changes or major decisions about the character as you go. It stops you from contradicting yourself or giving a character rainbow-coloured eyes (unless they're supposed to have rainbow-coloured eyes...).
Aside from physical description, you should have a number of other important factors sorted out for your characters. How are they going to grow and change through the story?
It's completely fine if you don't have a character all figured out before you write your first draft. But you had best have them nailed down by the time you finish that draft, or revisions aren't going to help.
Your character needs goals. Big ones. Small ones. Ones with polka-dots. Every character needs motivations of their own. And not just one. At no point should a character's sole motivation be "help the protagonist". That, my friends, is a cardboard cut-out, not a character.
Ask yourself: What makes your character tick? What do they want? In a revenge plot it can seem pretty simple... Revenge! In a horror plot... Survival! In a murder mystery... To Catch the Killer! In a bee-keeper memoir... Honey!
But is that all? I hope not. It shouldn't be. That isn't enough. See that cardboard cut-out I mentioned before? It's waving. No... don't wave back. It's cardboard...
Let's look at our revenge plot for a brief moment.
Bruce Lonerman's a solitary road warrior. His one true love, Hilda, his 1984 Ford Tempo, was crushed by the villains at BadEvilCorp™ who were jealous of his cherry ride, and he'll stop at nothing until he gets his REVENGE!
Great! We have a primary motivation: Protagonist's true love snatched away and destroyed by the antagonist!
But wait! There's more!
Our hero Bruce has to get to BadEvilCorp™ and it's all the way across town... and he doesn't have Hilda to do it. He needs a ride... Perhaps he can borrow his best friend Beth's Vespa GTS 300?
Ding! That's more motivation. Granted, it's short term, but it's there.
If you want a compelling character, always look for more layers of motivation. What do they want immediately? What do they want generally? What do they want after? What are the little things? What are their ideals that seem too big?
What's stopping them? Conflict is key. Resolution of conflict builds character.
Have you ever met another human being? Ever been one yourself? If not, then this next bit may not make much sense to you.
People contradict themselves. I don't just mean hypocrites, they're just better at doing it more noticeably. We're all FULL of contradictions. They're what make us unpredictable and oh-so-hard to model artificially. Thankfully we writers aren't trying to build a positronic brain (not a real one anyway).
All of your character's internal contradictions don't need to be on the page or highlighted in some way. But you should know that they exist. What should be on the page are the contradictions that define your character.
Back to Bruce.
- He's a solitary sort, but he has a best friend named Beth.
- He also has a cat.
- He hates the rising price of gas, which is something he wouldn't have had to deal with without his love for Hilda. He mildly resented Hilda for her reliance on fossil fuels.
- He feels guilty for his resentment of Hilda.
- His guilt and regret help fuel his thirst for revenge.
- He really enjoys the open air and low cost of Beth's Vespa
And so on (and that's just from what I've written so far). Contradictions are what make a character not be a caricature. No real person is a set of absolutes, your fictional people shouldn't be either.
Something to Hide
We all have secrets. Whether it's something in our past or present. Something about the way we think and deal with the world. A desire we can't express. A conviction we outwardly hold and espouse and inwardly question. The secrets we keep from ourselves because we don't like what they say about us.
We all have something we hide that we think (rightfully or wrongfully) would change where we stand in society were it ever to be known.
Those are the big secrets. We all have them. We're all afraid of them. Your characters should have them too. They can add a layer of motivation and internal contradiction (oooh, more layers).
Then there's the little secrets. The casual lie. The false smile. The discomfort. The small self-contradictions that we're painfully aware of and don't let others see.
Every secret about your characters doesn't need to be earth-shattering (how does one shatter earth? Do you have to flash-freeze it first? Otherwise it sort of just... crumbles...). You don't have to include your own secrets within your characters (that'd be silly). But they do need to have secrets.
The best place you can dig in for a greater understanding of how secrets have an effect on behaviour is within you. Careful and thoughtful self-examination of your secrets and how you react to anything even slightly related, or even unrelated to them is a great place to start.
Our dear character Bruce has secrets.
- He's in love with Beth's Vespa, they've had an on-again off-again thing going for months
- He never took a driver's test
- His real name isn't Bruce Lonerman, it's Bob Smith, but that didn't seem "actiony" enough
- He doesn't own a cat. He's cat-sitting.
- He's really an alien writing an entry on Earth for an interstellar travel guide
Nobody is Perfect
Ok. Except you. No... not you, the person beside you. Yes.
Perfect characters are boring. That's where the terms Mary Sue, and Wish Fulfillment come from. Characters written so perfect or flawless that they can't be real.
Flaws can range from emotional to physical. They can be as little as nail chewing, or as big as being a psychopath who works as a blood spatter expert by day and a vigilante by night. They can be out in the open for the world to see, or a tightly held secret. They can feed ego or insecurity. Flaws add nuance and depth.
Your character could be ambidextrous, but unable to tie their shoes or button their shirt without getting them misaligned at least twice. They could suck at metaphors (or similes). They could be a kleptomaniac, or a compulsive liar, or painfully blunt.
Flaws are what make a character an individual. The best flaws are the ones that run against your character's goals and motivations. Over the course of the story your character can grow and overcome some flaws, but they shouldn't overcome them all, especially if they're a defining flaw.
I won't add any flaws to Bruce at the moment, but you can see how some of the above would shape him into a different person and make him seem less wooden and contrived (OK, maybe dear Bruce isn't the greatest example).
All of the above will add depth to your characters and work together in layers. And if you want to do it right, you have to apply them to all your characters, not just your protagonist. Secondary characters (ones you don't get inside the head of that the protagonist interacts with regularly), and tertiary characters (ones who are big enough to warrant a name and a few lines of speech), all need at least a high pass for motivation.
And all characters, regardless of age, gender, or which side of the story they're on (protagonist vs. antagonist) deserve the same level of effort at adding depth.
Beyond that, your characters should never bend to the plot. Bad books and movies are full of characters who do incredibly stupid an unlikely things in service of the plot. If a character wouldn't do something, don't make them. Fix the story and find another way. It's a painful process, I know, I've been going through it myself with my current project, but it's a necessary exercise.
No one said this writing thing was easy.
Let me know what you think down in the comments!
This is the fourth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.