08 January 2012

What a Character!

I've always been hesitant to post blogs in the past which made me out to be an expert in writing. But that was the past, and if you've read my most recent posting, then you know that it's time for an attitude change. And this isn't to say that I'm going to make myself out to be something I'm not...but I've been at this writing gig for a while, and have a lot of wisdom that can be helpful to authors, both new and experienced.

So, today I plan to discuss characters. How do you come up with good ones?

One would think that you need to figure out what your character looks like. Maybe that's important to you, but to the average reader, they're going to fill in most of the blanks you leave. If it's important to the plot, or is indicative of your character's life, then put it in the story. Heck, even if it's not, you can still put it in. Just remember, the more important details need to have a greater exposure in the narrative. What I mean: Something that's important, spend more time on. Something not so much, then give it the briefest mention possible.

Take my space pirate Aston West, for example. I give a little bit of a mention of his "extended" gut, because he's a heavy drinker and gets no exercise. I might mention his hair when he runs his hands through it. But if you were to have ten people who count themselves as loyal Aston fans describe him from head to toe, you'd likely get ten different looks. Why don't I blather on about his looks (and quite often in my series of short stories, I barely describe him at all)? Because that's not where the story is, and story is what people are reading for.

So, we've established that looks aren't all that important. So what is? I'd say you need to figure out what makes your character tick. Why does he do the things he does? Why does she react to life the way you have her do so? What does he like or dislike? If you don't know these things about your characters, it's going to show in your writing. And as a result, your characters are going seem flat and uninteresting.

Take Aston as an example again. He absolutely hates getting involved in anything unless he absolutely has to. Why not? Because of his back story...he served in his planet's military as a plan of last resort, and nearly died as a result. Getting involved is a great way to get yourself killed, and he has a big helping of self-preservation. Will he get involved? Only when he feels that great moral imperative that was instilled in him by growing up an orphan with his two (since deceased) brothers. Do I come out and tell the reader all this when he's declining the chance to get involved? No, and that's not my job. My job is to present facts along the way, sprinkling the back story in as appropriate and letting the reader connect the dots and come up with the "aha" moment. [Spoiler] So, at the end of my novel Heroes Die Young, when he ultimately has to decide whether to get involved, he ends up doing so (despite not getting involved at any other point in the story) because he feels responsible for the pain and suffering that is going to be inflicted on people (i.e., that great moral imperative I mentioned before).[/spoiler]

Why your characters act the way they do is going to directly relate to how they handle themselves throughout the plot and with other characters (thus hopefully developing conflicts), both of which will end up being future posts. Make sure that your characters react believably (so that readers will believe it) based on their backstory, and you'll have characters that readers latch onto and love for a lifetime (as so many have claimed about Aston).

So, to recap, it's as people always claim and what you have on the inside (of your character) is what really matters...and looks are just skin-deep.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, and if you have different opinions, feel free to share in the comments.

Good writing!


  1. I think it's great your going to do more posts about writing. Your right that a characters actions are what really define them. In my mind, Aston looks a little like Harrison Ford. =)

  2. I didn't even know about Firefly until well after Aston was published, otherwise I would have put it somewhere between Ford and Nathan Fillion.

    But to be honest, I took a little bit of this and that from a lot of folks, some famous and others not so much...Aston's hair, for example was meant to be a bit like my brother's, but shoulder-length. Shhhhh, don't tell him. ;-)


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