Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What a Character! (A Case Study)

So, today I plan to discuss characters. How do you come up with good ones?

One would think that you need to figure out what your character looks like. Maybe that's important to you, but to the average reader, they're going to fill in most of the blanks you leave. If it's important to the plot, or is indicative of your character's life, then put it in the story. Heck, even if it's not, you can still put it in. Just remember, the more important details need to have a greater exposure in the narrative. Something that's important, spend more time on. Something not so much, then give it the briefest mention possible.

Take my space pirate Aston West, for example. I give a little bit of a mention of his "extended" gut, because he's a heavy drinker and gets no exercise. I might mention his hair when he runs his hands through it. But if you were to have ten people who count themselves as loyal Aston fans describe him from head to toe, you'd likely get ten different looks. Why don't I blather on about his looks (and quite often in my series of short stories, I barely describe him at all)? Because that's not where the story is, and story is what people are reading for.

What is truly important about a character? I'd say you need to figure out what makes your character tick. Why does he do the things he does? Why does she react to life the way you have her do so? What does he like or dislike? If you don't know these things about your characters, it's going to show in your writing. And as a result, your characters are going seem flat and uninteresting.

Take Aston as an example again. Like any great character, he has a back story that's shaped him. He grew up an orphan, serving in his planet's military as a plan of last resort, and nearly died as a result. As a result of these, he tends to stick up for those who can't defend themselves (something that takes place over and over again in many of my short stories). He also tends to shun away (at least at first) from getting involved in situations where his life may be in danger. This can lead to a lot of conflict when he feels morally obligated to get involved in a situation that's might kill him.

And that's what makes for an interesting story.

Do I come out and tell the reader that he's reacting this way because of his past? No, and that's not my job. My job is to present facts along the way, sprinkling the back story in as appropriate and letting the reader connect the dots and come up with the "aha" moment.

Why your characters act the way they do is going to directly relate to how they handle themselves throughout the plot and with other characters (thus hopefully developing conflicts), both of which will end up being future posts. Make sure that your characters react believably (so that readers will believe it) based on their backstory, and you'll have characters that readers latch onto and love for a lifetime (as so many have claimed about Aston). And that's what any writer hopes for...

I'd love to hear your thoughts, and if you have different opinions, feel free to share in the comments.


Big Mike said...

I'll add to that the difficulty in constructing distinction characters as your back list grows. After 20 stories, takes longer each time to create characters that are not duplicates of the H or H in a prior book.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Liz Fountain said...

When my first book came out, people who know me had a good time trying to guess who the characters were "really." But I wasn't being coy when I would reply "they're no one, really. They are fictional characters." When they seem "real" enough to be "real" people, that's a compliment, I hope.

T. M. Hunter said...

Mike, it's a lot easier when you write a series...heh. ;-)

Liz, people ask me all the time if I write characters based on people I work with. I always tell them, "Sorry, but they're not really all that interesting." ;-)

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