When I look back at the first book I wrote, I feel a twinge of guilt for my characters; all five of them to be precise, if I want to be picky and count the minions.
Why do I feel guilty? Because, unforgivably, I neglected to give them a life. I just dumped them on the wintery London streets of Shad Thames and said “Right, off you go and do this.”
To their credit, they did what I asked, but not to the best of their ability, and that is solely down to me, because I did not spend the time in getting to know them. A year ago, I would have sworn different. I would have told you my heroine was an independent woman, owned a bar and lived a relatively normal life with only her handsome neighbour next door for support. The hero, and her love interest, was an actor who was quiet and thoughtful and ……. Oh my God, so boring!!!
Then I met Kristen Lamb. She told me to write a back story for my antagonist, so I did. I proudly wrote four pages and emailed them over to her. Her reply? “Crap, do it again.” I was mortified. How could it be rubbish? (Yeah, ok, you can stop laughing.) But she was right. It was absolute tosh. Oh, how naïve I was back then.
The reason it was rubbish, and it’s so clear now that I cringe every time I think about letting Kristen read it, was this. My first antagonist was a nice, wholesome, little rich girl who went nuts because the guy she liked was in love with someone else. There was no venom about her. She was kind to others, well liked, popular at school – you get the picture. But my reasoning for creating this totally unrealistic girl, who went off the deep end, was because Glenn Close had done it in Fatal Attraction. If a block busting movie could do it, why couldn’t I? The problem was, Glenn Close was not the normal, hard working, successful woman she appeared to be before Michael Douglas slept with her. If you look closely, she was actually a borderline psychotic and her back story would have backed this up with actions, events and certainly haunting issues.
I was guilty of analysing the plot of a story too much and just letting the characters roll along for the ride. Now, however, and much to my husbands annoyance, I analyse and pick holes in everything on TV. Still, men are there for us women to annoy so I think it is a win-win situation.
So, this is what I have been taught, and would strongly recommend to anyone creating a character:
It starts with their creation. They need a look, a height, and a style. Personally, I look for a picture of an actor or actress and go from there. Then give them a home, a childhood, parents, siblings, pets, school proms, jobs, friends, enemies, lovers, fears, stressors.…. you get the picture. What they do with them after that is then up to you. They can use them, annoy them, play with them or kill them. They can go to jail or become President, but their back story must lead them to the moment you start your book. You cannot have, like I did, a nice antagonist who turns in to a crazy, killing machine, because it is convenient to the plot.
If you are stuck, then I would suggest writing your own biography first. Start with where you were born, who your parents were, if you have any siblings. Remember your childhood memories, relationships, good and bad. Jobs you’ve liked and jobs you’ve hated. Gravesides you have stood at. Tragedies you’ve had the misfortune to bear. All these things define who you are now.
Oh, and one really important thing I have learnt is this. Your protagonist does not have to be perfect. Perfect is BORING! Give her a flaw. Make her human. I guarantee your reader will not dislike them for it.
Look at Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon - he was a suicidal drunk. And Frasier, from the TV show of the same name, has serious commitment issues, but do we hate either of these characters? Do we ‘eck. In fact we become more compassionate towards them.
Now, as always, I want to know something. I want to know who your favourite protagonist is and what flaw they have. Hmmmm….. has that got you thinking?