Monday 13 June 2016

How to Create Characters Your Readers Will Care About

Character creation is a very involved and varied process.

Each writer has their preferred methods, and each story has its own requirements.

Sometimes stories begin with the idea for a character and the writer has to work to create the right plot for them, other times an idea for a plot will present itself and the writer will have to populate it with the right characters.

But how do you make your readers care?

First, you have to care about your characters.

There is no point writing a story about a character you aren’t interested in. For starters, why would you want to? No matter how disciplined you are, if you don’t care what happens to your protagonist, you simply aren’t going to finish writing the story. If there even is one.

But, more importantly, your reader will notice that you don’t care and they’ll stop reading. Readers are annoyingly observant. They’ll notice the scene you found boring to write, because it will be boring to read. They’ll spot the setting you didn’t bother to think about, because your descriptions will be vague or absent. And they’ll know which of your characters you care about and which you don’t. And they will lose faith in you as a writer.

After all, if you don’t care about your characters, why should they?

So, if you want readers to care (and read about) your characters, you have to care about them first. You don’t have to like your characters, but you have to be interested in the things that happen to them, how they react to those things, and why they react the way they do.

People are complicated. In real life, we don’t always know why we think or react or behave the way we do. We just do it. And characters are no different.

But writers are.

Your character doesn’t need to know why they want to run for mayor, have an affair, destroy their enemies, become a police officer, or otherwise achieve their goals but, if you want to keep your readers interested, you do.

To understand your characters, and to make people care about them, you need to give them personalities. This is more than just giving them some superficial likes and dislikes. It’s a complicated process and you may not bother with it for minor characters, but for the characters you want your readers to care about, a personality is a must.

Defining a character’s personality will also tell you exactly who they are and make writing about them much easier.

So, here are some steps for developing your characters' personalities:

Values and Beliefs

A character’s personality should originate from their core values and beliefs. These are the things that will ultimately shape their thoughts and actions.

To find a character's values and beliefs, you’ll need to think about their past and any experiences that might have turned them into the people they are today. This can include:

  • The society they live in and their place within that society.
  • Their upbringing and childhood experiences.
  • The events they have taken part in or witnessed.
  • The relationships (past and present) that have been important to them.

Once you’ve had a good think and made some notes, you should try to write down at least three core values and beliefs for your character. For example:

  • The character values their own life and the lives of others like them. (Influenced by society.)
  • The character believes that violence solves problems. (Influenced by past experiences.)
  • The character believes that they are important to their society. (Influenced by relationships.)

If you’re the kind of writer who loves world building, you’ll probably enjoy this exploration of your character. For others, it may not come so naturally. But persevere, even if it feels difficult. A character with clear values and beliefs is more believable and interesting than one without. And getting these elements pinned down makes it much easier to give your characters a goal.

Something to Strive for

Your character’s goals should usually have some relation to your plot. I’d suggest that for each plot, and subplot, you should try to define a story question and give each character a relevant goal. Yes, that’s multiple goals per character - people are complicated.

But when we’re initially creating personalities for our characters, we should primarily be concerned with their goal in relation to the main plot.

For instance, if your plot involves the protagonist’s village being invaded, their goal might be to defend it, to thoroughly eliminate the invaders, to protect their loved ones or simply to survive. The character’s values and beliefs will determine which of these it is.

  • A character who values their own life above all else will aim to survive. 
  • A character whose driving force is their family will strive to protect their loved ones. 
  • A character who believes in violence as a solution to problems will probably seek to wipe out the invaders.

The character's goal should then become the story question, which is essentially what the ending will answer. For example:

  • Does the character survive?
  • Can the character save their loved ones?
  • Will the character defeat their enemies?

Readers will always care more about a character with a clear goal, even when this goal is never explicitly stated. So it’s important to decide what it is that your character is ultimately striving for and to use that to inform your plot and your writing.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Your characters will have a number of strengths and weaknesses which should be developed in relation to their goals. Ideally, you should give them weaknesses that make achieving their goal more difficult and strengths that could help them to reach it, perhaps in an unconventional way.

If your character’s strengths and weaknesses have nothing to do with their goals, you don’t really have much of a story, let alone a believable character. If your character wants to save their village from an invasion, their painting skills and the fact that they can’t bake are unlikely to be their most important strength and weakness. There’s nothing wrong with giving your characters additional strengths and weaknesses but, initially, try to connect them to the story question.

For example, for the question:

Will the character defeat their enemies?

We could have the following scenarios:

Scenario One

Weakness: They tend to act first and think later.

 They are very good at fighting.

Possible Results:
  1. A story about an engaging, proactive (possibly frustrating) character who ultimately defeats everyone and then somewhat regrets it.
  2. A story about the same character, whose rashness leads to an epic failure to defeat the enemies and a realisation that they could have thought their plan through a little better.
  3. A story about the same character, who eventually learns to think before they act and uses their fighting experience to formulate a winning plan.

Scenario Two

Weakness: They are not very good at fighting.

Strength: They are inventive.

Possible results:
  1. A story about a creative and witty character who manages to avoid most of the fighting and defeats their enemies with logic. 
  2. A story about the same character, whose constant attempts to reinvent the wheel and dodge the fighting lead a dramatically violent defeat.
  3. A story about the same character who is eventually forced to learn to fight and uses a combination of brains and brawn to defeat their enemies.
These are just quick examples and would probably make very basic stories with very obvious morals, but you get the idea. A character’s strengths and weaknesses should be tied in to the story question and the way it is answered.

Another reason to give your characters specific strengths and weaknesses early on is that doing so helps to keep them balanced. It’s easy to ignore this stage and end up with characters who are good at everything and, therefore, very boring to read about.

Equally, try not to make your characters completely awful at everything – it might work for a very short story but generally won’t keep a reader interested for long.

So far, we’ve created a character with:

  • Values and beliefs based on their backstory.
  • A well-defined goal, which is connected to the plot and determined by their values and beliefs.
  • Strengths and weaknesses that will help, and hinder, them in their attempts to achieve that goal.

Now, we need to give our character some emotions, some habits and instincts. We need to give them reactions.

Reactions and Emotional Responses

When things happen to us we react. And our characters should do the same.

Your reader probably won’t care about the character whose village is invaded if the character doesn’t appear to care that their village has been invaded.

As the writer, you might think: 
“Well, of course they care… Their village has just been invaded! Why wouldn’t they?”
But unless you show, or at least tell, your readers that they care, they don’t. And that might be what works for your story and your character - just make sure it is intentional.

For instance, if your character looks up, notices that their village is being invaded, and continues making a sandwich, you are using their reaction to show the reader that they don’t care.

But, if your character looks up, notices the invasion, and runs outside brandishing a butter knife, you’ve showed that they do care (and also that they may not have the best judgement when it comes to weaponry).

A character’s reactions are dictated by their values and beliefs, their goals, their strengths, and their weaknesses. So please don't make your timid character with no combat experience rush in and take out fifty trained soldiers. 

You'll need to think about, and show, your character's emotional reactions as well as any physical ones. This is what your readers will really care about. A character who only acts (or only feels) is never going to be as interesting as a character who both feels and acts. So, your timid character's emotional response might be anger, but their physical response might be to alert the proper authorities, to write a strongly worded letter, or simply to run away.

If you can anticipate appropriate reactions for your characters to take, your writing will become much easier. So, while you're developing your character's personality, I'd recommend thinking about how they might react to a variety of situations. First, think about their emotional responses, and the way they express (or hide) them. Then think about what they would actually do about the situation.

One of the best ways to show a character’s emotional state, particularly if they are hiding it, is by playing with their voice. But first, you have to give them one.

Voice and Frame of Reference

Each of your characters should have a distinct voice and should stay within an appropriate frame of reference. This is particularly important for limited points of view, but is something to keep in mind whenever you are writing.

Your characters need their own voices, which have nothing to do with your voice as a writer and everything to do with your characters’ values, beliefs, goals, strengths, weaknesses and reactions.

The easiest way to develop a character's voice is to think about:
  • The things they notice: A farmer, a warrior and a builder would each notice different things about the invasion of their village. 
    • How close to the crops are the invaders and do they intend to destroy them? 
    • How many are there and can I fight them? 
    • Which is the best building for people to shelter in and the easiest to defend?

  • The way they think about those things: A pessimistic farmer, a realistic farmer and an optimistic farmer will think differently about the invasion.
    • They’re going to destroy the crops. 
    • They’re going to steal the crops. 
    • They’re going to leave the crops alone

  • Their frame of reference and vocabulary: The warrior and the builder are different characters, with different experiences, attitudes and training. This means they'll probably use different words, sentence structures and references to talk or think about the invasion. 
    • The invading force is armed with longbows, flails and halberds and directing its attack towards the village’s defences. 
    • Those horrible invaders are trying to knock down my wall!

Once you’ve established the way your character thinks and speaks, keep it consistent. (Unless you are intentionally developing it in line with their character arc, in which case keep it subtle.)

And you have a personality!

At this stage in the process, I think it’s safe to say that your character’s personality is taking shape and that you, and your reader, should find them easier to care about.

Is there anything else you’d add to the process of developing a character’s personality?

No comments:

Post a Comment