Monday, July 18, 2016

From the mailbag, advice on creating characters.

I get a lot of mail from aspiring authors who are stuck or looking for help with their writing. It takes time to answer them, but I try to be as complete as I can. Robin was going through my email recently (she sorts it for me) and saw a response I made and said, "You should share this with others...why help just one person when others might find it useful?" She's so smart.  Well, I'm not sure whether this will help others or not, but I do think it makes sense to share it.  So here goes:

KS wrote: "I am having a hard time developing the characters. The story revolves around , a hobbit type creature."

My response:

First decided what you want them to ultimately do. What role they will play in the story. 

Let’s use Lord of the Rings as an example. 

What do we need him for? To carry the ring. 
Why him? He is decent, kind, lacking in pride or a desire for power, making him resistant to the ring’s influence. This makes him ideal to carry it, and why others cannot.

In this way you can see how the plot will dictate much of the character. You need a person to be a certain way, to fulfill a task in the plot, and so you create that character. If you don’t need a character, don’t make them.

Once you make a character, get to know them the same way you might a real life person, by asking them questions:

How old are you? How tall? How much do you weigh? 

These are important while what color their eyes are is not. Even the color of their hair is not, but the length might be. Why? Because these aspect can influence the story. Many aspiring writers spend a lot of time on eye color, but I’ve never known eye color to affect a story, except for Dune. 

Parents? Siblings? Grandparents? Children? What are their names? What are they like. Do you like them? Do they like you?

All of these are standard physical features questions. They don’t usually make the character come to life, but some of these next questions might.

What is your goal in life?
What is your greatest fear?
What secret(s) do you not want anyone to know about you?
What are you most proud of?
What bad habits do you have?
What hobbies, or side interests do you have? (that have nothing to do with the story)
What would you say are some of your quirks—everyone has them.What’s yours?
What is your greatest failure? 
What are you most embarrassed of?
Who are your friends?
Who are your enemies?
What are some things that you like? And what things do you dislike?
What odd talents do you have?
What is your greatest weakness?
What is your greatest strength?

The more of these sorts of questions you can answer about your character, the more real they become, both in your mind and the mind of your readers. Knowing the characters well, knowing more than will ever be put in the story, is what makes them interesting. 

Don’t think you have to answer all these questions for every character. Knowing the answer to a handful will usually get you going. And they can change as you develop the character. The point is that in trying to answer the questions, you’ll learn things about the individuals you create, they will gain depth and you will see them better, understand them as people. (If you have trouble coming up with answers, do real life studies of people you know. You can even ask them the questions and see how they answer.) Also you can add more questions if you think of some good ones that might help.

The last thing you might need to do, is a brief history. 

You thought it might be fun if your character built ships as a hobby. Now the question is how did this develop? Did he learn this trade from his father? Oh—but no, you answered “orphan” to the parent’s question. So now you need to build a logical solution to this aspect of the character’s life. Working out that solution may provide important backstory that can be used in the novel. 

Also consider going on line and doing an image search for pictures of people you think might look like your character. Copy and paste it into a file that you can reference. Sometimes seeing a face will give you ideas about them. 

Hope this helps,