Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” –Helen Keller
One of the greatest goals a writer can have is to create characters so vibrant and real that they take on a life of their own. We as readers come to love them, loathe them, cheer for their victory or pray for their defeat. Great characters go beyond caricature—what I call “paper dolls” when I edit. They have depth and layers and texture just like real people…well, at least interesting people.
Many of us began writing in our teen years and we probably can remember our first characters—tall, fit, good-looking, perfect and basically everything we desired to be (mine was a wandering female moon-elf who made her way through Mid-Atlantia as a mercenary and thief—yeah, I didn’t date much). Anyway, characters manifested as little more than vehicle of wish-fulfillment.
As an editor, I often see this trend continue with new writers even when they are all grown up, and, while that might be great for therapy or self-entertainment, it lacks for creating memorable characters that will resonate with a readership. And I am not picking on the young or the new writer. Wish-fulfillment is a starting place. If creating unforgettable characters was easy, then there wouldn’t be so many workshops and books and conferences all geared toward teaching characterization.
One of the common errors newer writers make is the great-looking character who is perfect in every way. While many of us strive to be that person, truthfully? Who likes them? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I am hitting a nerve here. But be honest. I mean every time Halle Berry or Christie Brinkley speak out against plastic surgery, I find myself making gagging motions in the background—well, yeah! If I looked like Halle-freaking-Berry I wouldn’t need plastic surgery. Duh! But that person who is beautiful and rich and brilliant and who never would dream of having a disorganized closet and her New Year’s resolution is to send even more money to the starving children of Africa???? Yeah—DIE!
And proof that I am correct on this point is how we all LOOOOVE us some tabloid dirt. I bet even Bob, while standing in the grocery store line, cannot resist his eye wandering to, “Angelina and Jen Caught in Cat Fight over Brad—Who Will Win His Heart?”—okay, maybe not Bob, but the rest of us would look….after we finish checking out the photos proving once and for all that Carmen Electra actually has fat thighs—GASP!
Why do we love to look? Because we LIKE that they are not perfect. We LIKE that they have flaws. It makes us feel a bit more secure that even the beautiful, talented and filthy rich are lonely, suck at relationships, are bad with money, have a temper, or whatever. Since many of us will never know what it feels like to wonder which palatial estate to keep—the one in Malibu or the one in Martha’s Vineyard?—the easiest common ground we will find is in our collective defects.
This said, defects provide us with something else invaluable in writing—a character arc. If a character begins as perfect, then where does he go from there? And some characters will be flawed but static. Jack in the movie Titanic didn’t change, but rather served as a catalyst for others to change (namely, Rose). But if you want to add that layer of depth to your writing, someone in your story needs to change over the course of the story.
The best way to do this? Grab up a big old hand full of rocks. This is the first time in your life you have permission to throw them. Because Helen Keller was right. Conflict fuels change and creates character.
A good example…
Last night I was watching a documentary on the Military Channel called Two Weeks of Hell which followed the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course, the initial weeding out process for those young motivated males who desire to become Green Berets. What I found most interesting—and Bob talks about this in his wonderful, awesome, inspiring book Who Dares Wins (great last-minute Christmas gift, btw :))—is that one really cannot tell who will succeed and who will fail by looking at the crowd. Why? Because physical strength is not enough to get into Special Forces, and mental and emotional fortitude can only be seen when a man is tested by fire. Get him hungry, wet, tired, frightened, hurting and then put him in a virtually unwinnable situation? You will see what he is made of.
Basically? Throw rocks. The more the better.
Characters are the same way. We editors love to use that phrase, “Show. Don’t tell.” This is what we mean. Put your characters to the test. How they react to stress will tell us who they are (inciting incident) as well as who they grow to become (climactic scene). Also, when you the writer heap stress upon stress upon stress onto the poor character, it makes for much more interesting reading (conflict) and, truthfully, more accurately mirrors life, which allows the reader to sympathize and relate.
Because in life, when stuff blows up, it does it all at the same time. The day you have an unbearable migraine will be the same day your babysitter dies, your 5-year-old will experiment with fire and your car will break down. And when you go to call a tow truck? You will realize AT&T has cut off your phone service because they screwed up the account number…again. Meanwhile, the baby will be teething and screaming and the dog will eat something very valuable and throw up the remains on something even more valuable.
If this is our life, then why should our characters get off so easily?
I love using a scene from Jason Myers’ novel-in-progress to illustrate my points. His protagonist goes out to eat at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat buffet. What begins as a simple lunch with colleagues ends up in disaster, with Jason’s character face-down on the floor as the place is being robbed. When I critiqued the piece, one of the suggestions I offered was to think of all the things that could go wrong at this moment…then amplify them. Why? Because we all know that if we were in that same situation, face-down on the floor trying to be invisible, that would be the ONE time we forgot to turn off the ringer on our cell phone—and the ringtone would have to be something ironic and mortally embarrassing (Feeling Fegalicious?). It would also be the exact moment a loved one, who was NOT supposed to join us for lunch with the coworkers, would come stumbling blindly into an ongoing robbery calling our name. You get the idea.
So make that curmudgeon Murphy proud! Turn up the heat and watch your characters squirm. When writing key scenes, ask yourself if you’re throwing enough rocks. Yeah, like any other reader, I like some scene-setting and exposition and even good description, but conflict is the fuel that drives the story. Make sure yours doesn’t run out of gas.
Until next time…
***Want to create characters like a pro? Learn from the best. Go to www.bobmayer.org and purchase Bob’s Novel Writers Toolkit and sign up for one of his mind-blowing workshops.
Want to know who someone really is? Put them in a crisis. They can’t pretend any more. In Special Operations training whether it’s Hell Week for the SEALs or Robin Sage for Special Forces or even at West Point when the first summer is called Beast Barracks– the focus is on putting people under stress and seeing if they really want it.
In the same way, there are many people who would like to be ‘authors’ but don’t want to do the work of being writers.
I like how you say Bob’s workshops are mind-blowing. That barely scratches the surface. You learn to much, it’s almost criminal.
And thanks for the input on the story. Having your thoughts about what I am writing and my stories is priceless. Whenever you are in my group, and I am reading, I always look forward to your insight. It’s usually right on the money and you bring up things that I hadn’t even thought of. (FANTA! Who’s been drinking my FANTA!?@?@!)
When I write scenes now, I get them down on paper, and then look back to see what else I can throw at them…and then what else…and what else. In my latest WIP, I have a teenage girl having the kitchen sink thrown at her in every scene. I was tired after writing it! But I still need to throw more at her. MORE!
Great post! I think my mom, who loved to read, put it best: “I like books with lots of suffering.”