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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Create Memorable Characters (Who Don't All Sound Like You)

When you think of your favorite novels what do you think of? Is it a climactic moment or a thrill of action or an amazing and strange world? Possibly. But I'll bet that right at the top of the list is a favorite character.

What is Lord of the Flies without Piggy and Jack and Simon and Samneric? What is The Once and Future King without Merlin? What is Lord of the Rings without Gollum?

It's the same for movies. What is Star Wars without Han Solo? What is Minority Report without Agatha? What is O Brother, Where Art Thou without...well, without any of those guys?

TV series have figured this out, too. Think of the incredible characters in shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost and Grey's Anatomy and Scrubs and Heroes. It's not long before it's not the story or the humor or anything else you're coming back for, but to find out what happens next with these favorite people. And just to hang with them.

After we forget the good feelings a work of fiction produces in us, after we forget the great special effects or the magnificent cinematography or the stirring soundtrack, we are left with the resonance of great characters.

Strong, believable, fully realized characters are the things that are going to make your fiction truly memorable. Even if you have the greatest premise and the best craftsmanship and the most wonderful cover design in the world, what will separate your fiction from the pack will be your characters.

The converse is also true. Without characters of that caliber, a great premise, high craftsmanship, and a terrific cover will not save your book from the fate of being just pretty good.

There are some novels that have been huge hits though they have very shallow characters (I won't name names). This would seem to invalidate what I'm saying here. But it doesn't. Those books are a flash in the pan. They will not remain perennial favorites among readers. They tend to get hot because of some scandal or fad or timeliness. But this will not last.

The only thing that will make your fiction endure will be excellent characters.

Me Not Do Characters Too Good

Okay, I think you're with me. Before you read any of this you were probably already convinced that you needed great characters for your fiction.

But here's where you may be stymied. You know you need to create these immortals to prance about your stage, but you don't know how. You realize, perhaps, that you can come up with story ideas or cool plot elements all day long but you couldn't write a decent character to save your life.

Oh, but I see this all the time in the unpublished fiction manuscripts I work with.

How often I see manuscripts in which the author apparently thinks that a set of interesting characters consists of five people who all seem and sound the same (i.e., just like the author) but just have different moods or agendas.

Like Jenny who sounds like the author but is a widow and Frida who sounds like the author but is a gold digger and Laura who sounds like the author but is an adulteress or is depressed or is a haggard soccer mom.

Blech. That's not creating memorable characters.

To me, that's either laziness or ignorance coming out. Either the author doesn't realize that his or her characters all sound that way (and that that's a bad thing) or he or she doesn't want to do the hard work of making the characters realistic and differentiated.

It's hard to do that work. I know. I'm a plot writer. I get great ideas for story events all the time. But if left to what comes onto the page naturally, I will create the most shallow, awful, two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that have ever borne the name "characters."

Still, I hear the call of the road less difficult. How much easier it would be to skip over that dumb character work and just get to the explosions. But I know I must buckle down and do it.

Before I let you know the solution to this conundrum let me talk a moment about how this is a good thing. If you're a plot-first (or even a setting-first) novelist, rejoice! Your counterparts over there, the novelists who create the most amazing characters since Adam and Eve but couldn't create a plot if their lives depended on it, would give their right arms for the ability to come up with a decent story.

You have a superpower, O plot writer. Revel in it.

But don't be content with your strengths. Realize that you are incomplete as a craftsman and storyteller. A book with great story elements but lousy characters will end up like, well, like Star Wars Episode II or Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Flashy and well-made, but ultimately forgettable.

Realize that until you develop the ability to create interesting and believable characters to populate your novels your fiction will always be poorer than it could be.

Some plot-first novelists try to solve this by pairing up with a character-first novelist. One person sets about fashioning terrifically interesting story people and the other person decides what to have them do. If you know someone like this, maybe give it a try.

The best approach, in my opinion, is to learn to do the thing you're weak at. Character-first novelists need to learn how to construct interesting plots, and plot-first novelists must learn how to create interesting characters.

Being a plot-first novelist myself I tend to think that it would be easier for a character-first novelist to learn how to create good plots. All they'd have to do (he says, knowing how naive he sounds) is get that book called 20 Master Plots and How To Use Them and get busy. Or follow Tip #3 to come up with a great inner journey for that character, and voila: instant plot.

But I think it's more difficult for the plot-first novelist to learn how to create interesting characters. (Do I hear the groans of character-first novelists out there?)

There are a ton of craft books out there on how to create great characters for fiction. I own a bunch of them. I've linked to several of them here. I recommend you try those and others to see if they do the trick for you.

In my own journey I ultimately found these books to be useless for me. I studied them and tried their approaches, but they never really hit it for me. Part of it may be because such books are usually written by people who come up with great characters effortlessly. It makes sense: ask the guy who creates great characters to write a book on creating great characters. But it's as if I wasn't speaking their language.

So, being the DIYer I am, I created my own system. Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist is the system I use when creating my own characters.

Now, I've just admitted that I'm a plot-first novelist who has a hard time coming up with interesting characters who aren't stereotypes and don't all sound like me. So why should you use a character-creation system by a guy like that?

Because I speaka you language.

Anyway, don't take my word for it; check out my Operation: Firebrand series of novels. With that series I set myself a challenge: though characters do not come easily to me, can I write a series driven by an ensemble cast?

I didn't want to write Steel Magnolias, for crying out loud, but I wanted to create something that was more of a balance between plot-driven and character-driven fiction.

If you read one of those novels and you find yourself thinking fondly of the characters, then maybe consider checking out my character creation system. Because if I, a hard-wired plot writer, can create interesting characters, you can, too.

Okay, this whole tip was not meant to be a long promo for my character creation system. I don't care if you use mine or not (well, I do, but I'm trying to sound altruistic [grin]). Just so long as you commit yourself to creating interesting, believable characters, I (and publishers and readers) will be happy.

For the sake of creating a posterity for your fiction, do whatever you must do to create interesting, believable, captivating, and differentiated characters who don't all sound like you.

Come see this and other writing help at my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column.

Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott


Blogger Brian Reaves said...

Another great tip, Jeff.

Some of the most interesting "characters" I know are the people I come in contact with on a regular basis. The quirks and eccentricities of my friends find their way into my characters sometimes. While my protagonist always has shades of my own personality in there, the rest of the cast seems easier to create from the crop of unique individuals I know from everyday life.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Good point, Brian.

That works for the distinctive ways characters speak, too. Begin listening to overheard conversations and imagine how you could capture that character's unique way of speaking in your fiction.


7:00 PM  
Blogger SkatBoarder22 said...

I am a Video Student with a passion for writing scripts. I feel that sometimes i go both ways. either having good characters or a good story line but never both at the same time. I am in the process of writing a script for a short movie for my portfolio. I am going to try out your system and your books and see what happens. Thanks for the help.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Awesome. Let me know how it works for you.


3:47 PM  
Anonymous Nicole Claret said...

:) Thanks for the advice. I got stuck on my book, though that might be because I'm thirteen. Oh, well. Look for me some day.

8:55 PM  

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