Monday, February 4, 2008

How to Write Compelling Characters

There is nothing - nothing - that will kill a story faster than a dull protagonist. I'm not talking about a character who sits at home with his mom on Friday nights eating popcorn while watching reruns of that morning's soaps (though that would, of course, be pretty dull). Worse than this is a character who sits at home and does nothing, thinks nothing, decides nothing. The kind of protagonist who takes life in stride and learns nothing. A dull character, indeed.



But in your writing, how you do break out with an interesting character? What are the tools of character development? And how do you use these tools to craft a compelling character for a compelling story?
First, step back. Think about the beloved characters of fiction - the enduring voices that refuse to die. I myself think of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. Not that they jumped off the page to join me for breakfast, but these characters took on life with a unique verve. They were single women who did not go quietly into the endless white of the Victorian wedding. At the time she was written, poor Jane was viewed by the English as a scandalous creature - and she wasn't even real.



Victorian Weddings? Scandalous creatures? If you haven't read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, you might be wondering if I myself am dull. Let's try a comtemporary example like Han Solo from Star Wars. Not exactly literary fiction, no - not even a book. But when you watch the classic trilogy, it isn't Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader saying the balance of the snappy lines. It's Han who doubts The Force and questions "the old man" Ben Kenobi and rankles at the orders from "Princess" Leia. He provides a voice the audience can trust. He is a man who follows the one voice that should matter - his own. As he steadily transforms from cheeky rogue to loyal Rebel, audiences relate to the Start Wars story because Han raises the questions that viewers themselves need answered. Why does this story matter? Why should we believe (or care about) what's going on?



This is what your characters must do. Creative writing is about suspension of disbelief - it is about convincing your reader to sit down, read your words, and imagine for a moment that everything you write is true. The characters within your stories have a burden to this truth - they must not only live with this imagined reality, they must illustrate it. They must live it.



So where do we start? How do we create a character who believably lives and breathes unreality? The best place to start is freewriting. In freewriting, you sit down and transcribe the first images that come to mind. The goal of the freewrite is to let go, to ignore the little voice that says "no, no, that's impossible" and simply write. This is fiction - nothing is impossible. Let your unconscious mind generate the most outlandish notions for your characters. For example: ok, freewriting about blaster-wielding time traveler who hates evil people. She wants to kill evil-doers like Hitler and Stalin. She wears high-heels. Why? Because in her future they've outlawed uncomfortable shoes.



Suddenly, we have a character. Is she feminist? Is she retro? Impossible to say. Like a real person, though, she's complex. She wants to kill the kind of men who most embodied the brutality of a masculine militarism, and yet she desires a fashion that some say was created by male expectations of how a woman should look - maybe she seeks oppression. When you freewrite, components of your characters will emerge that seem to be in conflict. Embrace this. These conflicted personalities form the nucleus of strong characters. Protagonists who can't agree with themselves certainly won't agree with everyone around them. Waking up the morning will be enough to generate conflict - and then you throw in a dragon or two and the wife asking for divorce while the kids are possessed by demons, and by golly you've got a story.



Conflict now becomes your next stop in character development. Ideally, your readers will see your characters as perfectly suited to the story you've written. As you write, though, it's the the other way around - your story will flow from the characters. Say, for example, your story's about a dragon. Is your main character a knight? Then of course he goes and tries to kill the dragon. Is your character the knight's loyal son? Why, then, of course he'll go and try killing the dragon, too. But these two characters cannot give rise to the same story. The knight might have a tale of sacrifice and hardship while seeking vengeance against the dragon who ate his goddaughter. He may be even be seeking personal redemption for a lifetime of war and death. But the knave isn't old enough for that kind of journey. The story he creates may involve sacrifice and hardship, but it will be in relation to coming-of-age. The goddaughter may have been his best friend, the girl he kissed during innocent games of "Sleeping Beauty," and he may be coming to terms with her death. But this knight's son is too young to know true regret - he may dream of war, sure, but he's never killed a man or seen a family burned alive. You could write the same plot for both these characters, the tale of "man kills dragon with spear and magic helmet," but the stories would be completely different.



To ensure that your story follows the character, catch a glimpse of your protagonist with a quick freewrite (you can use the first paragraphs of your story, if you like). Then start writing your character out of danger and into conflict. This sounds absurd, perhaps, but consider: what does every human being try to do, even before sex? Stay alive. And what happens when your character goes to extremes to survive? The boyfriend feels left out while "hero girl" goes saving the world. The archvillain's two-headed hellhound (he was just a puppy!) is sacrificed because "boy wonder" wanted that magic amulet. The dragon goes hungry because the bad man in the shiny metal tunic locked up the virgin behind a wall of sharp pointy things. By getting themselves out of danger, the protagonists of strong stories set up entirely new conflicts ramp the danger up to critical levels of "omigod I need to finish reading this next chapter." Bear in mind that danger takes all forms - the only difference between danger and conflict is immediacy. Danger must be resolved right now, whereas conflict is free to fester. That chick trying to steal my prom date - that's conflict. This damn heel that broke and I can't walk a step without everyone knowing I got my shoes from Payless - that's danger. And you can bet the evil chick will capitalize on danger.



Now comes the tricky part. Once you have a protagonist, a solid character, and you have an ongoing series of conflicts for your protagonist to face, you'll need to step back while still writing. You'll feel the urge at times to write in what your protagonist "should" do. You might want to write in what "should" happen. This is death to a story. This is our dear friend staying home with Mom to watch reruns because she's lonely and that's what he "should" do. Let the characters write themselves. As you're writing your story, pushing toward what you think is the right way, listen to the first impulse from your character. Your protagonist might not want to do the "right" thing. This protagonist may try something completely unexpected. No worries - it's called taking a left turn. Sometimes you might not like the results, and you might later go back to delete, but you still discover a hidden level to your protagonist's personality. Other times, you find that the left turn redefines your story, revealing the "true" story that you hadn't known was there. The only way to find out, though, is to let your characters take the lead.



That said, reconsider the dull boy sitting with his mother. If he's lying in wait to ambush the good-for-nothing vampire who killed his dad last week, that's a different story altogether.

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