Creating Characters for Fictional Stories
By Robert Waldvogel
It requires skill, practice, and patience to develop realistic characters. It is equally difficult or almost impossible to craft a story without a living being, even if it be a personified animal, as occurs in Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”
“Stories often arise out of a deep consideration of how character is formed and how it is pulled apart,” according to Mark Baechtel in “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction” (Pearson Education, 2004, p. 79). Characterization arises from the features of a person’s psyche and personality, both of which make him what he is and therefore motivate him to do what he does in the story or novel, whether it be good or bad. It is not merely what the person looks like. Instead, this portrayal is most effectively achieved through demonstration or the proverbial “show, don’t tell” philosophy of literature.
From a psychological perspective, personality implies a consistency or continuity of actions, ways, thoughts, and feelings within a person. Whatever he does, feels, or thinks originates from within him. It becomes a reliable method of predicting behavior. “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Personality also implies that a few commonly exhibited traits serve as the summary of what a person is like.
“Describing a person’s personality is trying to capture the person’s essence,” according to “Perspectives on Personality” ((Allyn and Bacon, 1992, p. 3). “It involves crystallizing something from various bits of knowledge you have about the person. Describing someone’s personality almost always means taking a great many behavioral characteristics and reducing them to a more restricted set of qualities or attributes. Evidence about personality comes partly from what people do and say at various times, but it’s also partly a matter of how people do what they do-the style that brings a unique and personal touch to their actions.”
“Personality has been a topic for theologians, philosophers, artists, poets, novelists, and songwriters, and many of these people have had important insights about personality,” the textbook continues (p. 9).
There are several character categories, as follows.
1). Protagonist: The protagonist is the story’s central or main character. It is the one around which the plot revolves and to whom all the action and adversity is directed. It is the person who faces the obstacles and conflicts he must overcome to reach his goal.
Ideally, a story should have a single protagonist. He may not always be admirable-for example, he can be an anti-hero; nevertheless, he must command involvement on the part of the reader, or better yet, his empathy. He is the person in the story or book with whom the reader sympathizes or for whom he roots. Protagonists should be complex and flawed. They do not, by definition, need to be likeable, but they should be relatable and believable. The reader should understand their choices.
2). Antagonist: The antagonist serves as the protagonist’s opponent and can often be considered the “bad guy” in the story, whose action arises from the conflict between the two. This is aptly illustrated in “The Wizard of Oz “in which the struggle between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West plays out until she triumphs over her with her death and brings her broom to the wizard.
The antagonist does not have to be a person at all, but may be an animal, an inanimate object, or even nature itself. For example, the antagonist of Tom Godwin’s story, “The Cold Equations,” is outer space.
An antagonist should also be a “round character.” Simply making him evil is not as interesting as making him or her conflicted. Pure evil is difficult to believe in fiction, since people are multi-faceted and inspired by their own situations and back stories. Therefore, putting time into describing your antagonist and showing his or her own struggles will create a richer and more complex narrative. Just as a protagonist should not only be good, an antagonist should not only be bad.
3). Round character: A round character is one who is complex and perhaps even contradictory. “The test of a round character is whether he is capable of surprising in a convincing way,” according to E. M. Forster. If a flat character can be summed up in a sentence or two, a round character would probably take an essay.
4). Static character: A static character is one who does not develop. Most characters in a story should be static, so that the reader is not distracted from the significant changes the author needs to illustrate and demonstrate in relation to his main or central character. Static implies constant, without change. It does not indicate boring.
5). Stock character: A stock character is both a stereotypical one and a distinct type of flat character who is instantly recognizable to most readers, as in the Brave Starship Captain or the Troubled Teen or the Ruthless Businessperson. In the hands of a clumsy writer, the stock character never rises above the cardboard stereotype, which is unfortunate. Even as clichés encapsulate a kernel of truth, so do stock characters reflect aspects of real people. Courage, for example, is required of military personnel, while people in business act ruthlessly at times in order to survive in that Darwinian world.
6). Cardboard character: A cardboard character can be considered a stereotype, mannequin, drone, or an otherwise uninteresting representation of a real character.
7). Developing character: A character can be considered “developing” if he changes over the course of the story, the prime example of which is the protagonist, who should always be subjected to this novel-long metamorphosis.
8). Flat character: A flat character is one who is portrayed as having only one or two traits. He can, in essence, be summed up in a single sentence. Do not be put off by this definition, however, since every story needs some of these to support the plot and the protagonist. Many successful ones, such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, have nothing but flat ones.
9). Sympathetic character: A sympathetic character is one whose motivations readers can understand and whose feelings they can comfortably share. This is the kind of character of whom naive readers will say “I could identify with her.” The protagonist is often, but not always, sympathetic. Note that a sympathetic character does not always have to be a good person. Despite the fact that Winston Smith betrays Julia and his own values by embracing Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, for instance, he remains a sympathetic character.
10). Unsympathetic character: An unsympathetic character is one whose motivations are suspect and whose feelings make the reader uncomfortable. The boundary between sympathetic and unsympathetic characterization is not necessarily clearly defined, however.
“In fiction writing, character emerges through the author’s skillful presentation of the emotional meaning present in what the character does, says, and sees or responds to situations, events, and other characters in the story,,” according to Beachtel (p. 92).
Although characters, like the real people they should suggest to the reader, should be unique individuals, there are numerous stereotypical characters, which rob the story of its integrity and realism. They include the nosy neighbor, the drunken Irishman, the dumb blonde, the absent-minded professor, and the mad scientist, among others. Avoid using them at all costs.
TYPE VERSUS CHARACTER:
No person is set in stone and can be considered a black-or-white, all-or-nothing-at-all human being. If you create someone such as this, you only mold a type on your paper. The very term “human being” implies that he is a mixture of all things, feelings, and emotions, good or bad.
A “bad” character who abuses others, for example, may express “goodness” by always walking elderly ladies across the street. You could reconcile this dichotomy at the end of your story by revealing that his act results from his subconscious attempt to connect with the mother who used to abuse him and this is his final effort to gain the approval of those he equates with her later in life.
As in life itself, all characters are and should be complicated beneath the surface and your readers, like you, should ultimately come to some kind of understanding of what motivates them, whether it be a positive or negative aspect or, more ideally, an intricate combination of both.
If you become skilled at crafting characters, they will take on a life of their own. Carly Phillips once wrote, “A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.”
The degree of character development is a function of the role each plays in the story. The one-time mention of the bank teller with a five o’clock shadow who accepts a deposit slip need be developed no further than this.
“Some (characters) will walk onto the story’s stage, speak a line or two, transact the brief business the story assigns to them, then exit,” according to Beachtel (p. 94).
SLOW, PROGRESSIVE REVEAL:
Think of your best friend. Did you know all about him the moment you met him or did you “click” as time revealed your common views, traits, beliefs, interests, feelings, and experiences? Similarly, story character foundation should be laid as soon as possible and subsequent scenes will enable his personality traits to be revealed and supported.
CHARACTERS AND SCENES:
Tantamount to the portrayal of a character is the story’s scenes, in which he can act out and demonstrate the traits that make him uniquely who he is. He must, however, have several other aspects.
1). The character must be appropriate to the scene and the story.
2). He must be believable, convincing the reader that he is or could be a real person in the real world.
3). He must be consistent in his actions, attitudes, and behaviors from scene to scene throughout the story. An 80-year-old grandmother who attends church every Sunday and contributes to charity would not likely embezzle money at other times, unless you reveal what lies beneath her surface and occurred in her past to cause such a dichotomous personality.
4). There must be conflict. Nothing reveals a person’s character more than the conflicts which either test him or tear him apart.
One of the many reasons that readers immerse themselves in stories and books is to view aspects of life they can identify with and perhaps catch a glimpse of themselves in one or more of their characters in an identification which has them silently conclude, “That’s me.” This is particularly illustrated by Wallace Stegner in his story, The Traveler.
“Along a road he had never driven, he went swiftly toward an unknown form and an unknown town, to distribute according to some wise law, part of the burden of the boy’s emergency and his own; but he bore in his mind, bright as moonlight over snow, a vivid wonder, almost in awe. Far from the most chronic and incurable ills, identity, he had looked outward and for one unmistakable instant recognized himself.”
This passage echoes humanity’s shared burden-or those aspects which we unknowingly share with one another-by enabling the character to view himself outside of himself for the first time and glean insight into a perspective only others have of him.
Characters are not and should not be stick figures. They should be portrayed as complex, multi-dimensional people, whether they are fictionalized or real, so that the reader can believe that they exist. Their physical appearance may be a beginning to that person, but also the least important part. What motivates them, what lurks in their pasts and psyches, what makes them tick and turn into who they are, may be the most important.
“The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing,” according to Rebecca McClanahan in her book, “Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively” (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999, p. 114). “They are words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion.”
Consider a lump of clay. As you work it with your hands and tools, you begin to mold it so that it slowly takes form. You do the same with characters through physical descriptions, feelings, attitudes, and gestures. Here, above all, show, don’t tell! Do not state, for instance, that Billy was indecisive. Demonstrate, through scenes, his difficulty in making decisions by consulting with several friends, doubting his decisions, and finally deciding to do one thing only to reverse his decision an hour later. This demonstration would have a reader conclude, He can’t seem to make up his mind.
If you described your best friend to someone, would you say, “He’s six-foot-tall and has sandy hair” or “he’s funny, witty, loves to philosophize, understands things beneath the surface. We’re kind of a match. He’s like a kindred spirit.” Would his height now really matter? The greater depth illustrates the person behind the physical shell.
“We establish characters by direct physical description, by choice of sensory and significant details about the character and his surroundings, and through description of a character’s movements and speech,” according to Rebecca McClanahan in her book, “Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively” (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999, pp. 115-116).
By describing a character through his own eyes, the author enables the reader to enter his unique world.
“Characters reveal their inner lives-their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations-by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams,” according to Rebecca McClanahan in her book, “Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively” (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999, p. 126).
GIVING BIRTH TO A CHARACTER:
1). Choose an appropriate name, designation, and/or title.
2). Provide enough of a physical description so that the reader can visualize the character’s distinguishing characteristics, but not enough to paint a portrait. They should not all be introduced at once, but one distinguishing feature can serve as the character’s hallmark, such as an arrow-shaped scar on his forehead or a mild lisp or a repeated expression, like “or what not” at the end of everything he says. Other examples may include, “That he reeked of grease indicated that he worked in an automotive repair shop” or “His persistent cough suggested that he was a heavy smoker.”
3). Be cognizant of the power of a character’s environment has to illustrate or shed light on him. Settings can often say a great deal. For example, “I don’t think his kitchen floor ever became friends with a mop.” What does Laura’s glass collection say about her in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie?
Characters should perform the following functions:
1). They allow the reader to live vicariously through them.
2). They give the reader a sense of time wisely invested in the story or book.
3). They give the reader someone with whom to connect, leaving him to feel as if he walked away from a person or friend with whom he had been intimately familiar.
4). They allow the reader to follow his journey, illustrating how they deal with, extricate themselves from, and ultimately triumph over, the obstacles encountered throughout the work.
5). They permit the reader both to identify with, yet at the same time explore, traits, ways, and solutions with which he does not identify in his own life, providing an “alternate angle” approach.
By page 50 or so of a longer story or book, the author should be able to breathe enough life into his main character. One-dimensional or paper characters offer no surprises to the reader, allowing him to know his profile without even waiting for his next action or dialogue. They can be considered “stick figures.”
The main character should be in the throes of change and should be quite complex. He may not necessarily even know how he will handle pending situations. Theoretically, there should only be one main character.
A well-crafted novel should begin when and where the main character finds himself in the midst of monumental life changes, such as occurs with the loss of a spouse, death, or even winning the lottery. Even in life, people seldom learn or grow unless they are challenged and faced with adversity. They often endure considerable growing pains, stumble, and find themselves in a state of flux.
Any novel or short story will offer a single main character or protagonist and several side characters, which serve as the cast and provide support, interaction, and input. They become the riders of the plot’s ebbs and flows.
By the end of the work, the main character should undergo a change or changes, while the side characters seldom need to. The reader should ideally root for the main character.
Stories have two types of conflicts: the inner conflict, which entails morals, rights-versus-wrongs, demons, and insecurities; and the outer conflict, which deals with people, parents, job situations, money, and social issues.
Character facades can either reflect the truth or hide it. Take, for instance, Colombo, who outwardly appeared bumbling and clueless, but who cleverly managed to put all the pieces together in order to determine who had committed the particular crime. He equally portrayed a degree of unpredictability.
Every character should hide something, as most people in real life do.
REAL LIFE CHARACTERS:
Real life characters can and should be used for inspiration, but should only serve as the jumping off point from which the writer can create someone who is bigger than life. Their extreme traits can be tragic, memorable, and/or funny. They facilitate the following.
1). They provide the writer with a wealth of traits, making it easy to write about them.
2). They can equally restrict, because they should not be used as verbatim, textbook cases: the writer must have the freedom and flexibility to create someone who extends beyond the real life person’s characteristics.
There are several characteristics the writer should consider before he names his characters, however.
1). Their age.
2). Their heritage or nationality/religion.
3). Their place of birth (geographic location).
4). Their family traditions, such as Harrington III.
Method actor Stanislavsky once said, “There are no small parts, only small actors” and he was correct. The same philosophy should apply to the writer’s story or novel. The richness and credibility of the story will depend upon the supporting cast of characters. They can bring comic relief, add to the tension and drama, move the action, add intrigue and complications, or perform all of these purposes. In essence, minor characters should play major roles.
However, minor characters can often be reduced to clichés, in that the reader already forms a pre-judged opinion about them because of their stereotypical nature. Examples of these types of characters include the dumb blonde, the insufferable boss, the thoughtless neighbor, the human doormat, the troublemaker, the soapbox, the complainer, and Weird Al.
In order to deviate from this cliché-trap, the writer should consider the following tips:
1). Identify the characters’ defining moments-that is, the experiences that changed them so that they too are three-dimensional and not stick figures.
2). Establish early on the reason they are in the story. Are they there to help or rescue the hero, throw problems in his path, confuse him, be the comic foil that screws up his plans, or arrive unexpectedly to add mystery.
3). Set up the connection between them: is it personal, professional, familial, neighbor-related, a schoolmate, romantic, or adversary? Consider unusual ways for them to have met, or to keep meeting.
4). Describe their differences, such as physical traits, age, sex, cultural background, political, religious background, education, interests, and desires.
THE SUPPORTING CAST:
Describe at least five major characters that will play an integral part of the story. If you have more than five, definitely develop them. State their names, relationships to the main character, why you know about them, how they will interact with the main character, and ultimately the reason(s) they are in the story.
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR PROTAGONIST:
In order for a writer to know where his main character is going, he first must know where he has been: The circumstances and attitudes that shaped his destiny before he was confronted with a life changing, inciting incident. And the best way to capture his history is through in-depth interviews that ask probing questions. Start with the ones below and then add your own. You will not only be surprised by the responses, but you will meet the supporting cast as well.
1). What was your childhood like? Small family or large? Was it a happy home life?
2). Did you grow up in an urban area of a small town? Where was it located?
3). What religion(s) were your parents? Was the family tied to a house of worship?
4). Who was the disciplinarian? Mom or dad? Neither? Both?
5). Where were you in the birth order? Only child? Eldest? The baby? The middle?
6). What is your astrological sign? Do you believe in astrology?
7). What are your greatest hobbies, passions, and abilities?
8). Are you currently married? Single? Divorced? Widowed? Kids? Step kids?
9). Do you see yourself as book-smart or street-smart?
10). What was your highest level of education?
11). Describe your high school experience. Were you a loner? Popular? Wildly popular?
12). Describe your physical traits. Attractive or homely? Short or tall? Thin or fat?
13). Can you tell a joke? Can you take a joke?
14). Describe the one thing you want in life that has eluded you up until now and describe the obstacles in your way.
15). What is your biggest secret-that is, what is the thing that no one, or almost no one, knows about you?
CREATING THE PERFECT VILLAIN:
After the hero (protagonist), the villain (antagonist) is the next most important character. No one is all good or all evil. To make a villain believable, readers should understand his motives. (Consider Dr. Smith in Lost in Space, for instance).
It is sometimes easier to create a villain than a hero, because the villain can have multiple flaws. While the hero must watch his manners and be careful that he does not say or do things that might alienate the reader, the villain can pretty much do or say whatever he wants. In fact, the more objectionable he is, the more effective he is.
In many ways, the villain is a reversal of the hero. While the hero needs a flaw or two to make him seem real, the villain can benefit by a good quality or two to make him seem human. To cite a well-known example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has flaws, but his choice to do the right thing makes him a hero. Darth Vader started out with the same chance and background, but became evil because of temptation, leading him to willingly make wrong choices.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR VILLAIN:
Not even villains are all bad. It helps to get into the character’s psyche and discover what made him the way he is. When creating a villain, a little sympathy for the devil is in order. Did he have a bad childhood? Did some trauma or loss cause him to travel down the wrong path? Would he be a nice guy if he were not being eaten up by jealousy, anger, or a need for revenge? In part, Darth Vader is understandable because the loss of a loved one is one factor that caused him to become bitter and embrace the dark side. Most villains, no matter how wrong they are, think that they are right. In fact, they consider themselves the only true heroes in the story.
GIVING THE VILLAIN HUMAN TOUCHES:
The villain should not be all evil. There have been many serial killers, both in fiction and in real life, who were devoted to their wives or mothers or who took tender care of a beloved pet. Somehow, it makes it even more frightening when a character has the capability of displaying mercy and sympathy, but because of some quirk in his nature, chooses not to in certain situations.
In Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Lake of Darkness, the hit man Finn is an even more formidable character because he is devoted to his mother and hides newspaper clippings of his numerous murders so she will not see them in the papers and become upset. The fact that he is capable of this little act of conscience gives him an uneasy connection to the rest of us-who has not hid his misdeeds from his mother-and makes him even more scary when he chooses to do evil.
SIDE CHARACTERS AND MINOR CHARACTERS:
Although the hero and the villain play the most important roles, stories and novels also need well-developed side and minor characters, which play many important supporting roles by complementing the plot’s hero and villain. They are often necessary to impart useful information to or about the main characters. Minor players in the story also help reveal the true nature of the hero or the villain. There are several types of side characters.
THE BEST FRIEND OR SIDEKICK:
Sherlock Holmes had his Watson to bounce ideas off of, and unless your hero is a loner, it may benefit him to have such a friend or partner with whom to discuss his thoughts, dreams, and theories. Such a character makes the protagonist seem real and can help move the story along by putting long passages of the main character’s thoughts into active dialogue. The villain may also have such a sidekick off of whom he can bounce his evil schemes.
Aside from friends, many people have rivals or what can be considered “friendly competitors” in their lives-that is, the person they attempt to equal, if not exceed, in many endeavors, such as in jobs, promotions, wealth, and material possessions. This concept is expressed by the “keeping up with the Joneses” cliché. Perhaps there is someone who always tries to beat him to the promotion or to the best deals. The villain, needless to say, will be the main challenge, but a minor rival for the hero at home or in the workplace can also make a story more interesting.
Few people live in vacuums: they have parents, aunts, and kids. Creating a family for your character can make him seem real. Readers can identify with the joys and trials that come from having a meddling aunt, a problem brother or sister, or an aging parent who needs care.
It is wise to limit the size of an extended family unless this aspect is integral to the story line.
Choosing one “problem relative” can be enough. One or two main family members can represent the others. The more names the reader has to remember, the more frustrated he will become, especially if the side characters do not move the story along.
CHARACTER DO’S AND DON’TS:
Characters can sometimes be considered your children. You think you own them because you created them, you matured them, you believed in them, and you taught them everything you know. But, like children, at some point they develop their own thoughts and beliefs. They cannot be reined in or directed. And, believe it or not, that is a good thing for a writer. You want your characters to be unpredictable and to chart their own courses. This means that you have done a great job of breathing life into them and now their journey will be a mystery to both of you. If, for example, there are no surprises for the writer, then there are no surprises for the reader.
In order to develop strong, memorable, compelling, and empathetic characters, here are several recommendations.
1). Make the heroine larger than life. Exaggerate his/her traits, eccentricities, and features.
2). Share secrets, details, and desires.
3). Make sure that your hero has the most at stake and has to take the greatest risks.
4). Give your hero the best lines.
5). Fall in love with your hero so that the reader will as well.
1). Use real people. Be inspired by them, but do not steal from one source. Make a composite.
2). Make your protagonist a wimp-there is a reason he is called a “hero.”
3). Forget whose story you are telling.
4). Keep your hero out of trouble for very long.
5). Let your character be a windbag or monopolize the conversation.
6). When it comes to sharing your knowledge, use it. Don’t abuse it.
FROM CHARACTER TO OUTLINE:
After creating an intriguing main character, it is time to take him on his journey. Here is a way to develop an outline or story board that connects that character and his supporting cast with an equally intriguing plot. After mapping out the key details in each scene, it is time to begin writing. But before you do, consider the following points.
1). What is the inciting incident or turning point?
2). What is revealed about the character(s) and/or their conflicts?
3). Where does dialogue serve the greatest good? Narrative summary? Description? Flashback?
4). How does the story move forward?
Baechtel, Mark. “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction.” New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.
McClanahan, Rebecca. “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively.” Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.
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