So you’ve sifted through a myriad of ideas and discarded the 999 that were not quite good enough, which left you with this brilliant thought that you really must share with the world.
Hell, it may be good enough to revolutionise the thinking of a whole generation, maybe the next one, too.
You take your time and carefully weave this million dollar concept into a plot, which in turn leaves you contemplating the best characters that would be able to deliver this most important message in the most accessible, open and sympathetic way.
You choose the main two or three, then you add a few more. Now comes the most important part: giving all these imaginary people life.
In this article I will explain the 5 main features that constitute the absolute base level of any fictional character. You MUST think about EACH of these for your character to have the slightest chance of catching your audience’s attention.
1. Physical attributes
It’s tempting – is it not? – to simply pick the first face that enters your head and describe it in detail. After all, the clearer the image, the easier it would be for the reader to connect with and understand this person you’re creating.
Whoa! Not so fast. There are a thousand newbie authors out there who are so worried about their characters being loved right from page one that they invariably dream up the most beautiful people on Earth. Let’s call them Jack and Jane.
Jack would have the torso of a seasoned weightlifter, the eyes of a Greek God, the flowing locks of a twenty-year old who models hair products for a living and (trying to keep the tone of this post relatively civil) huge strong hands with soft skin that are perfect for caressing mademoiselles in distress.
Jane would be the incarnation of pure beauty, a living Aphrodite. She would have mesmerising eyes, long lashes, a rosebud mouth just waiting to be kissed and the sort of figure most of the females in our species can only imagine when totally unconscious, lost in dreamland. Oh, and not a hair on her body where there shouldn’t be one or the slightest skin blemish anywhere to spoil that perfect tan.
Right. Two things wrong with the characters above: their look and the amount of words used to pass on the message.
You’re writing fiction, yes, but even fiction has to be believable. Do your protagonists’ looks fit in with your story? Were you trying to describe a pirate and you unwittingly cast him as an underwear model instead? Was Jane supposed to be a mother of four who toils all day and she miraculously has no stretch marks, her hair is perfectly coiffed and her nails immaculate?
The other problem to give careful thought to is how much to say to make the reader see these people before they get so bored, they go watch paint dry for some excitement. Remember you have a story to tell. Your characters are helpers, mainly. Too many words that don’t carry the story forward are as many reasons for your reader to put your book down and walk away. Don’t let your reader walk away.
Both Jack and Jane above are going to need one. You need to be clear in your mind what they would sound like in different situations. The easiest way to do that is to write a short dialogue and then imagine the two talk to each other using your freshly written words. What do they sound like in your head? Are their voices too alike? Be careful not to populate your book with clones (unless the subject specifically requires it, of course). If all your characters sound the same to the reader, how would they be able to tell them apart?
And one more point – just as above, are their voices suited to the role you’ve given them?
3. Strengths and Weaknesses
Like any average human being, the characters you create are comprised of a variety of attributes. They have good points and not so good ones, things at which they excel, special talents, maybe, but also flaws that can sometimes cause them a problem.
Have you ever sat in a job interview where you were asked what was, in your opinion, your best quality and then what was your worst flaw? Why on Earth should that matter? – I hear you ask. It matters, because it shows the interviewer that you know yourself. They’re not looking to hire a perfect person, but the person who knows what they are capable of and how to make the best of what they’ve got.
When dishing out attributes to your protagonists you need to consider their path through your story very, very carefully. You cannot make them perfect because, if they were able to easily deal with any obstacles you throw in their way, there would be no story; just an enumeration of circumstances that do not add to the depth in any way. Besides, your reader will begin to expect that everything can be resolved easily, there would be no surprise, no twist to the tale, no sense of triumph, nothing to overcome and they will get bored. And we all know what a bored reader does: they walk away.
Flowing directly from the point above, your character’s personality is determined by their attributes. You are trusting Jack and Jane with carrying your flame all the way to the end, so you should know them inside out. You should know what reaction they will have to a particular spoken phrase or thought. And their personality should fit the task they were given. Just as you wouldn’t expect a lamb to do the job of a sheepdog, you can’t expect Jack or Jane to suddenly morph, halfway through the story, into someone else. Even if underdeveloped or merely hinted at, that characteristic that makes them behave in a certain way must be there from the very beginning.
5. Emotional Dimension
This one is a little harder to explain. You could call it passion, if you like.
Every person experiences emotion. But the same emotion, humiliation for example, would feel differently to different people.
Say Jack was the high school hunk and he tripped over his Yamaha one day, fell flat on his face and his leathers split in a very improper place to be shown in public. How humiliated would he feel if the whole school was witness to this little incident? Now make him the kid that always gets bullied, the runt; this kid is so low, only magma is lower. He experiences such things day after day, maybe even several times a day. Of course he would feel humiliated, the emotion is still the same (though he would probably wear cords, not leathers), but the intensity of it would be different. His background, his experiences have changed the way he feels certain emotions.
As an author, as these people’s creator, it is your duty to know your creations as well as you know yourself, or even better.
Exercise: create two characters and get to know them well. Use the five points above to jot down everything you think makes them the person you think they should be.
In Breathe Life Into Your Characters – Part II we shall look at the more subtle nuances that make a fictional person real.