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BUILDING A CHARACTER

August 7, 2019

I’ve talked quite a bit about characters here at Fred Central.

As a coincidence, since I wrote this last week, we just had an outstanding presentation on building a character from the ground up at our Henderson Writer’s Group Meeting by my buddy Donald Riggio.

So, with that in mind, how do you make a character interesting?

How do you make a character relevant?

What steps do you take, or what method do you use to go about actually creating said character?

Unless you’re a multitasker, let’s consider just one at a time. Maybe you can do many simultaneously like I do, on the fly, but I’m going to break it down into a single, step-by-step process and you can take it from there.

PURPOSE

It would seem the character’s what, where, when, why and how would be automatic, but let’s step back a minute.

Why is the character there in the first place? What’s his or her purpose?

Main character (MC)?

Antagonist (bad guy).

Sidekick?

Peripheral?

One-off?

These factors determine how elaborate you go with the rest of the details. Of course, you want to spend the most real-estate on the MC. Less on the sidekicks and even less on the peripherals.

Depending on your style, you need to spend some time on the bad guy or gal. Some readers want motivation. Some could care less. Here’s where you need to do a delicate dance with your real-estate.

Now, the peripheral and one-off characters are where some authors get into trouble. They can spend an inordinate amount of time on trivial characters, especially if they have some agenda and want to leak that into the story through one of these characters. Much of the time, this just wastes space.

The author uses the excuse “adding color to the story.” Ahem…that only goes so far, and unless you’re a literary writer, where words count more than action, you’re going to bore and lose your reader. This is what’s called fluff. It wastes the reader’s time. It waters down and distracts from the plot and story movement.

APPEARANCE

This one can be a tough call.

On one side, you have the author that describes each character in detail, down to every stich of clothing and every mole on their face, every hair out of place. The reader can often get bogged down in details they either absorb or skip over, like me. As a rule, I instantly forget more than the most vivid or general descriptions and fill in my own blanks. I’m not alone in that.

What’s worse is comparing your characters to some celebrity, especially a main character. If it’s a minor character, that’s less of an issue because if the reader hates the celebrity, the minor character can be brushed off without them putting the book down.

For the most part, general or little to a vague description does the trick. Let the reader fill in their own blanks. Most of them are going to do it anyway.

FAMILY HISTORY

Nobody comes from a vacuum. Everybody has a history of some kind, so it’s only natural to give your characters, especially the main ones and even the sidekicks a bit of family history.

I don’t mean entire chapters, but a few paragraphs here and there. Drop in character-building things to give life to your characters. Everyone has or had a mom and dad, maybe siblings, or some kind of uncles and aunts. Maybe they were an only child, and their family died. Maybe they ended up in the foster care system. Who knows?

HEALTH ISSUES

Whether mental or physical, no character is perfect. Reflect that in your narrative and dialogue. Give your character life by giving them a health history.

My character Detach in the Gold Series has Limnophobia. That’s a fear of fresh water lakes. I use that as a plot device throughout the series.

What issues do your characters have? Give them aches and pains. Give them fears, phobias, things that make them human or inhuman if they’re critters (after all, some of you write fantasy and science fiction).

HABITS & FOIBLES

Aside from mental health issues, each character, whether major, minor or bad guy, has habits and foibles that make each one different and interesting.

What do they do that not only makes them different, but makes them interesting?

What’s their moral code?

MAKE THEM RELATABLE

Finally, except for unusual circumstances, every character should have something relatable to the reader. People like to identify with the characters, especially the main character. There are, of course, certain characters that are so far out in left field nobody can relate to them. That’s a given in some cases. However, someone in the story has to be there for the reader to draw onto to ground them. If not, they become lost.

Even in an alien or fantasy world, one character can be relatable to us. Either by their personality or actions, there’s something they have, a spark, a habit…something we all have that we can grab onto. You’ll know it when you see it.

OUTLINE OR ON THE FLY?

The eternal question.

First off, you don’t slam the reader with all of these details in the first chapter. You leak it out, bit by bit. Maybe it’ll take several books. In fact, it SHOULD take several books if it’s a series. The reader should always be learning something new about the characters in each installment.

Now you, as the author don’t have to come up with all of this before you start. Some of you might do just that, and outline everything. However, some of us, like me, do it on the fly. We have a vague idea of who our characters are and things develop as we go along.

That’s exactly how I do it. I know what I want from my characters, but I don’t outline it or write it down. I let it flow out as I write. I leak it out a bit at a time. Sometimes I get an inspiration to throw something else into the mix. I’m very fluid with that.

Some of you may be very rigid with your characters and that’s fine.

Some of you may be a mix, inbetween both extremes. That’ll work just as well.

Whatever the case, build your character into something dynamic and interesting.

Happy writing!

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