Kinds of characters
It sometimes happens that someone posts a group photo to Facebook and say “2002” and it’s Back to the Future all over again. The funny thing is that you really need the tags to remember some of the people, although they might have been sitting next to you in class for three years, or eating lunch at the same table and talking about sports and loves morning, noon and night.
But some you might know, immediately, intimately. You know their names, their habits, their likes and dislikes – anything and everything.
The same applies to characters. In really simple terms: you have the good guy and the bad guy and their respective friends and families.
The Good Guy
The trick is: the good guy shouldn’t be all good. And, of course, he doesn’t need to be a guy. Make sure that the good guy, like all of us, has a character flaw – something that will make cause conflict and get the action started or move the story along. Remember: the good guy doesn’t need to be your main character. The bad guy would do as well.
The Bad Guy
The bad guy shouldn’t be all bad. And gals can be as bad as guys. Just don’t assume that the bad gal needs to be sexy as well. Isn’t it funny how often writers seem to think that boobs in leather equals a good bad gal? Bad guys should also be multi-dimensional. A really great bad guy is one who has some good parts as well. That causes conflict in the reader – “I hated him, but now I understand why he is so horrible, and now I am not sure if I hate him any longer?”
The “friends and family”
The “friends and family” characters should add to the action, heighten the conflict, but not draw attention to themselves. They should serve as a spotlight for our main characters. Yes, we do need the funny old man with the cackly laugh to show the bad guy which way the good guy ran. But we don’t need the funny old man to say, “Sit down and let me tell you a bit about my years in the Great War.” In fact, we don’t even need to see the egg smeared on his polka-dotted tie. Too much info!
Finding a character
Sometime a character will arrive at your doorstep, fully dressed and ready for action. That is a great gift and one you shouldn’t take for granted, because most of the time a character will have to be found, created from bits and pieces, a bit like a collage.
Creating a character
Your main character must be nice and fleshy, with unique traits and mannerisms, a specific look, a way of dealing with others, maybe even aspects such as a walking style or eating habit. For a story to be really memorable, a great plot would be part of the package, but the fact that you can just about pick up the phone and call the main character, would be the string that holds it together.
The main character can be bits and pieces of people you know or imagine. He can be inspired by a person you really know. He can be all imagined. He can grow out of an emotion (what would “anger” look like, if he had to walk down a busy road?) or be created from a theme (who would help me personify “forgiveness against all odds”?)
Adding meat to the bones
Once you know who the main characters are, you can start putting a bit of meat on the bones. The way you do this, will depend totally on who you are as a person.
You might do something visual, such as looking for photographs where aspects of the character are captured, or even making some drawings. You could collect things that symbolise something in the character (a feather that once was beautiful, but now is all gunky, might be a great reminder of your character’s past, and represent his present).
You could look at some audio clues – what music makes the character’s feet move: Opera? Folk? Metal? Pop?
And a sense of smell? What does the character smell like? Roses? Chicken livers? Brake fluid? Or which smells remind the character of someone or something important? Does she like eating toast because that is what she smelled when she woke up each morning and it reminds her of her dead husband? Or does he smoke cherry tobacco because it reminds him of his son who is living in Australia?
One of the reasons why an editor, or at least a fresh eye, is important is the horrible realisation that the colour of your character’s eyes has changed between Chapter 1 and 7. Or even that you sent a minor character on an errand and he simply got lost somewhere in the middle of the book, never to return.
You might want to keep track of some features of your characters. Use whatever works for you. Maybe a small card for each character. Or a table for each character on a sheet of paper. Or an Excel worksheet. But do write down some basics, such as:
- Name, Surname/Last name, age, sex, etc.
- Physical features: eye colour, hair colour, body (fat, thin, athletic), etc.
- How is the character related to other characters?
- Any quirks or mannerisms? Likes and dislikes? Hobbies?
- Whatever else you think you might have to remember later on or that would add to the character’s background.
And do remember that anything that anyone writes about how to deal with characters are just guidelines. Find your own way. And sometimes, on a good-good day, a character might surprise you and knock on your door, all fleshed out and dressed to the nines.