Characters in Fiction
Writing a book and struggling to make either a good book or powerful characters?
I have original and useful ideas. Possibly wrong, but definitely helpful.
What are characters for?
In the book "How to Write a Damn Good Novel", James Frey says:
Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.
....and it was these words—which took a long time to sink in, years—that eventually made me throw my drafts away, turn my back on all my tortured darlings. I could refine the scenery and the action until I died from exhaustion, but without a compelling character there was Just. Nothing. There.
Sources of Character
A common place to find pieces of your characters is in people around you. No one around? Find people. And take a look. How do they act? How do they react? Pinch someone. Compliment another.
Who do you know that you can't look away from? Whose every act is fascinating to witness? And why? Reach out and pluck it from them. Put it between some pages.
What Makes a Great Character
I started writing this page because of a great conversation with a hero of mine, inspired by this article about Treasure Island. In the article, the writer describes how much power and influence the character of Long John Silver has had:
People talking like pirates on Talk Like a Pirate Day are really talking like Stevenson’s Long John Silver.
The character of Long John Silver is damn influential. And how is this achieved? I'll tell you one thing: the "characterization" that is being applied is not, in any way, subtle.
When trying to think of how to make a character memorable, Robert Louis Stevenson must have had one hell of a brain storming session, possibly involving quite a bit of rum. Eventually he hit on this idea, which at the time had never been seen in fiction before:
Okay, this might be a bit extra... but just hear me out... what if he has—get this!—what if he has... a wooden leg, and an eye-patch, and a talking parrot. A bit much?
A WOODEN LEG AND AN EYE-PATCH AND A TALKING PARROT.
IT IS A BIT MUCH. IT IS DEFINITELY A BIT BLOODY MUCH!
But it's just enough!
Any one on its own would seem like plenty. Put 'em together: DYNAMITE.
Who are you dressed as? THE BOOK WEEK TEST
There's a tradition in some Australian schools called "Book Week" and during book week, on one day, you are expected to dress as your favorite character from your favorite book.
Some characters are more recognizable than others.
My theory is that a great character should pass The Book Week Test
If you dress as your favorite character and everyone has to ask "Who are you?" even if they've read the book then the character is not great.
But if you walk in and everyone instantly says "Oh, hi Hagrid!" then it's a great character.
Long-John Silver (in his first flush of popularity) was a good example.
Harry Potter is a modern masterpiece.
You have glasses and a lightning bolt scar on your forehead? BOOM! You're Harry Potter. Add in a Hogwarts costume and messy hair, even better. But just the glasses and the lightning bolt: unmistakable!
SEVEN, count them, SEVEN flaws
This following observation is lifted from 'Save the cat'—a very influential book that many treat as their screenwriting bible.
At the start of our story, the character has a seven flaws. Not one flaw, not two flaws, but seven, count them seven flaws.
The most recent film I saw was "Ant Man" (2015) which is about a man who can shrink down to be very small.
Does ant man have seven "character flaws", that are established in the first few minutes?
- He is in prison (a criminal)
- He is having a fight (a fighter)
- He is losing the fight (weak)
- He is not able to access his child (a bad father)
- He wants to go straight but hangs out with criminals (bad life choices)
- He can't get a job and loses the job he can get (unemployable)
- When he needs money to see his daughter again he agrees to commit a burglary (weak resolve)
But how is he shown to be loveable despite his flaws... how does he "Save the cat" ?
- Losing the fight (underdog)
- Only goal is to see his daughter (caring father)
- Lots of friends in prison (other people like him) *
- Wants to go straight
- Electronics engineer (I see this as a positive character perhaps because I am also an electronics engineer)
- Proud that he's a burglar, not a robber (does not use violence to achieve his crimes)
- Committed his crimes as a kind of Robin-Hood process, morally righteous
Number 3 is a clever "reveal", presented in the opening scene. We see he is having a fight, and losing, but then it's revealed the fight is a "leaving day tradition" in the prison, and he is well-liked by everyone, even the guy he is "fighting".
One aspect of the 7 flaws is that at least one of the traits should be revealed as high stakes. Fundamental to any person or population's major goals in life.
If he's afraid of fingernails... that is not a high stakes problem. A convoluted plot could make that seem like a high stakes problem, but it's not immediately obvious that it's a high stakes problem. But if he's afraid of falling in love, that's a high stakes problem. It could ruin his life. And so on.
Scientific Means to Building Character
A new idea I've hit on is looking at the fundamentals of psychiatric research. I think this is a devilishly clever method, and it may even work.
"Personality Traits" are a popular pseudo scientific pursuit, hardly better than phrenology, but the one model that currently has most gravitas amongst the psychologists is: The Big Five Personality Traits
- Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
...also known as OCEAN's Five. (Okay, it's not known as Ocean's Five. But why not?)
If you've known a few people, or even just read a few novels, you will have seen extremes on each of these factors.
And thus you may find it easy to imagine someone who is maximum or minimum on any factor, and you may be able to construct how they would act or react in a given circumstance.
This is the scientific means to character development.
Given a situation... I ask the character:
Would you like a piece of cake?
How do they respond?
You can take 1 trait at a time, or you can pick a combo of two traits.... or you can pick a combo of three, four or five traits.
See this page: The 32 People You Meet In Heaven, Hell and Everywhere Else to explore every possible combination.
Then throw in some physical characteristics too. Something at least as memorable as a wooden leg and talking parrot, and we're away!
There are a lot of "creativity hacks" that can help get the creative juices flowing.
The tiredest trope in the box is "brainstorming". But you can enhance this by adding prompts such as:
- What's the dumbest thing they could possibly be like?
We tried this technique and someone suggested: "One of the characters could actually be an animal." This laughable suggestion was quickly transformed to: maybe one of them has a pet? We discussed possible pets.
- What's the worst thing they could possibly do?
- What's a strange thing for someone to do?
- How does this random word relate to a book you'd like to read... (pulls random word from hat)
- Why it works: "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Why it works: "Feed" by M.T. Anderson
- Why it works: "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson
- Why it works: "Master & Commander" by Patrick O'Brian
- Why it works: "Go Tell It on the Mountain" by James Baldwin