Writing Tips #2 – Characters

January 28th, 2011 · No Comments »

What comes first, the chicken or the hatching egg?

The character or the plot?

Well it depends …

With Chicken Stu, the character pretty much came first. I had Stu’s voice in my head and knew I wanted to tell a story about him. Next came the process of conceiving a plot that would work around his character. With Bad Grammar, the book I’m currently working on, the plot came first and the challenge has been working out who Marcus, the central character, really is. I don’t have a preference in terms of starting with character or plot (and truth be told they are quite tightly linked), but since I felt like talking about character today, let’s start there.

The first thing you should know about your main character is that they should be ACTIVE. No one really wants to read about someone who sits around moaning and doesn’t do anything (Hamlet is of course the exception, however many people during that four hour play want to get up and slap Hamlet hard, or even give him a wedgie). So if your character has a problem, and you’re telling a story here so he/she better have some problems, they must actively try to solve them.

Editors always harp on about how your main character needs to be LIKEABLE. This seems like an obvious and fair point but I think it can be a bit tricky. You want to create a character with FAULTS and a character who will change by the end of the story. I want my characters to learn how to overcome their faults, that’s the point of the journey they go on. So the trick is that your characters have to be likeable enough at the beginning so that we want to see them change and become a better person. If we take Stu as an example, we can see that he has lots of faults and his cowardice is annoying BUT his saving grace is his sense of humour and we like him because he is determined and self-resilient.  He is also small and defenceless so we want him to win out against his bully cousins. So, the lesson is you have to make sure your character has likeable qualities that in the end outweigh the bad. I don’t like reading stories about people that are perfect though. Boring!!

It is a misconception that bad characters (as in evil characters) should be badly written. Take for example the evil guy in the movie Avatar – the army dude. He was so 2-dimensional that with the 3D glasses I was afraid he was going to come out of the screen and give me a paper cut. Just like you have to make your main character less than perfect, you have to make your villains less than evil. They should be likeable in some way too – some of the best villains we love to hate. The evil characters of your story don’t actually have to be evil, they just have to get in the way of your main character and cause conflict. If you’re telling a realistic story then these characters have to be believable and there needs to be a reason for their actions. So if you’re writing about someone being mean and you don’t know why they’re being mean (just because they are is not a valid excuse!) then I think you need to get to know your character a bit more. In fantasy and sci-fi novels you might be dealing with crazier villains but that does not mean you can be lazy! Make all of your characters interesting and as unique as you can.

Support characters can be heaps of fun to write. You want characters that in the end will be there to support your main character and help them through their struggle but also these characters should provide some conflict with your main character. STORY IS ALL ABOUT CONFLICT. Best friends often fight in real life and they absolutely should fight in stories. Another rule in storytelling is that you should never make things too easy for your main character, so while these support characters are there to help, they can’t help too much.

As mentioned in my last writing blog, using people you know or see is often a good basis for a character. If it is a friend or a relative you can’t become a slave to the truth. They don’t have to have the same hair colour and the same mole below their nose. They don’t have to have the same number of stuffed rats and a love of collecting books beginning with the letter Z. You have the freedom to change them and make them their own person. You just use a friend as a starting point. I should also point out that if you have a friend who likes collecting stuffed rats, you might consider finding some new friends.

And my final tip for this rant is to be careful how many characters you end up with. Not only is it hard for a writer to create heaps of characters and make them all believable, different from each other and interesting, but it also hard for a reader to follow too many characters. You have to ask yourself what is the purpose of the character to the story, and if they don’t serve enough of a purpose perhaps it is time to get rid of them. In the first draft of Chicken Stu, Stu was one of five boys (based on me and my brothers) but there were just too many characters to keep track of so I had to cut them down by half and then they ended up becoming his cousins. It really helped the story.

Who are your favourite characters and why do you like them? What changes do they undergo?

Until next time …

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