You’ve been itching to begin writing, and are so nearly there. But, what is a story without characters? Not a very good one, I can tell you in an instant.
Now, you could be forgiven if you believe a good idea is all that’s needed to write a successful novel. After all, you may be writing an action story. What do you need character’s for? Aren’t they just well toned guys flexing their muscles while shooting up the place? Well, without believable and interesting characters, you’ll have nothing but a lifeless story. Although, if muscles are you’re thing, you may not care if there’s not story
Okay. For those that aren’t quite sure, I’ll quickly explain the difference between a plot driven story and a character driven story.
Character vs Plot
Plot Driven Story: Usually action-based. The action is what’s classed as driving the story forward. For example, Transporter, Star Wars, Jurassic Park.
Character Driven Story: Character based. The characters drive the story forward. For instance, Rocky, Cast Away, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Now, you may be a little confused. After all, the Rocky films have a lot of action in them. Well, if you look at the original ‘Rocky’ film, the story is about a fighter and his struggle to become a world-class boxer. That is character-driven.
Why do we need to know our characters?
Imagine Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I think we can all relax in the comfort of knowing this is a character-driven love story. But, if Austen hadn’t ‘known’ Mr Darcy inside out when writing him, would we, as love-struck, female fans, still be romancing over him today?
We like and love him (some even dream of him), because we feel we know him. And that is what makes a good character. Someone your reader can identify with and relate to.
So, how do we get character’s like this?
First, you need to create them.
Antagonists, Protagonists, and Supporting Cast (aka Minions)
NOTE: Let me just make this little snippet clear. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. The antagonist is whatever hampers the protagonist (hero) from reaching his or her goal.
However, as this post is about creating characters, our antagonist is going to be human.
So, where do I start?
Always with the antagonist, aka the baddie. They are the reason you have a story. Without one, your protagonist will easily reach their goal – leaving you with a dreary story and no plot.
First you have to decide the kind of character you want to create and make sure they get the correct label. A what? A Label. I made a mistake with the first story I wrote. My antag was a hitman who worked for the mob. But, as it was pointed out to me, the Mob Boss was the real antag. He was the guy giving the orders for the hit. Without him, my hitman would have been out of work. Thus, although my hitman was the main baddie, he was in fact a Minion. Confused? Good. Then, I wasn’t alone
To explain this a little better, I am going to use a well-know subject.
Jason Bourne. Girls love him and boys want to be him.
In the Bourne films, Jason is a killer. A hitman. Does that make him the antag? No. He is the hero. And this is because he’s trying to reach a goal, which is to remember who the hell he is.
Although it’s a variety of assassins who try to kill Bourne, it’s a CIA group called ‘Treadstone’ who initially orders the hits. This makes ‘Treadstone’ the antagonist. The assassins are mere minions.
And let’s not forget Marie, Jason’s love interest and the girl who helps him attain his goal.
Creating Your Characters
If I were to ask you to tell me about yourself, where would you start?
Five years ago? Ten? How about from the moment you were born?
That is where I want you to start with your characters… From the moment they were born. Write down who their parents were. What kind of upbringing did they have. Create family and loved ones they may have lost along the way. This exercise will run into pages if you do it right. It will round your
characters’ journey and define how they got to be the person in your story. Their likes and dislikes. Their flaws.
Use props – for instance, do they have a limp, or a squint? If so, how did they get it? Remember, Indiana Jones had a fear of snakes. We found out through a (long) flash back in the third film because he fell into a circus snake pit. Makes you wonder if George Lucas had already written it into his background, doesn’t it?
Research your character. If they attended boarding school. Research it. If they were in the army. Research it.
Basically, you are writing a biography. It has to be accurate.
Giving a Character Qualities and Flaws
If you are like me, they you would have rooted for Jason Bourne. Why? Because we liked him. But why would we feel like this? Remember, Jason Bourne is a killer. Does that now make us a hitman loving sociopath?
No. It means the writer has done their job. You want your audience to love your protagonist and cheer them on every inch of the way. If you make your characters too nice, your reader will tire of them and become bored. Likewise, if you make your characters hard-nosed and arrogant. They become unlikable because your readers cannot get close enough to start caring.
Jason Bourne is a man on a mission. He is a killer. And yet every now and then, a slither of emotion escapes and we see a man who cares about right and wrong. That is a character quality. He cares about the well-being of Marie, and this shows Jason’s softer side. Again, another quality, if not also a flaw. His ability to kill so easily, although it constantly saves his life, is a flaw. Having to suppress emotion in order to survive is a flaw. And flaws are what make us human. It’s these flaws that allow your readers to relate to your characters.
Steer clear of stereotypes. Make your character unique. A skin head with pink spiked hair and wearing Doc Martins is stereo-typical. Give him a unique quality that makes him stand out from the rest of the skin heads.
I’ll tell you a quick story I know my co-writer, Natalie Duggan, won’t mind. When I first paired up with Natalie to write the TV pilot ‘Legend’, I mentioned character backgrounds. Natalie thought I was nuts and that it was all a waste of time. She wanted to get to the story. So, I banged my head against the desk, argued until I was blue in the face, then just went ahead and wrote out the backgrounds anyway. I emailed them across and Natalie loved them. Her exact words? “Oh, wow. These are awesome. I really feel I know Roman and Nate (two of the MC’s).” Natalie now writes backgrounds on ALL her characters. :)
Okay, that should be enough to start you off.
So, do you create characters before you begin writing? What kind of techniques do you use when creating your characters? Do you make your characters too perfect? Are you plot-driven or character-driven?
Upcoming classes: via Webinar, where we can interact and you ask questions.
14th July: Getting To Know Your Characters
21st July: From Idea To Story