“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
― Joss Whedon
- There are no rules — stop trying to nail down writing with rules
- Your character must have a burning desire to achieve something important.
- Readers must be able to understand why the character wants to reach their goal.
The above are not rules, just things that you shouldn’t ignore.
Fictional characters are everywhere in the world of books. We love them, follow them in book series, T.V. series, and go back and watch favorite films about our most compelling characters.
How to Create Great Characters
As writers we must create characters and we naturally want them to be as a good as, or unique as, the ones we find within the pages of any of the great stories we read.
Forget Rules, Follow your Character
As beginners we don’t know a thing about character development, or how to write a story. We look for rules to follow, or at least some kind of structure that we can use to help us think about our characters in the story.
One thing to think about when developing a character is desire. No character worth reading will be without desire.
Why is this so important?
Desire drives a person to do things that they wouldn’t normally do, they will want something so badly that they become blind to the effect their actions have on other characters in your story.
When your character is driven to obtain something, like an object or a new status, then they will act aggressively, annoyingly, and destructively around the other characters in your story.
This will create enormous sparks that burn, and threaten other players in the story and therefore cause friction.
In real life, when a person desires something, they either get it, or they don’t.
Often, when they don’t get what they want in real life, they step down and accept that life is unfair. When your protagonist sets out to satisfy their desire for something important, they will not back down, and they won’t suffer fools gladly. This creates a story.
If your character is out to get something, then surely they should be up to the job of achieving their aim?
Other Characters who cause Problems
True, the character must be able to get what they want and overcome the obstacles in the way — other characters.
There will be other characters who don’t want your main character to achieve their desire, so you must write them well enough to create mayhem and confusion.
The mayhem and confusion caused by these characters will make it look like the main character’s cause is already lost — even before the inciting incident happens.
The inciting incident will fire up your character enough to get them to take a good look at the situation, to dip their toe in and then realize how important it is to get involved in the pursuit of something — because it will lead to what they really want in life.
When a person sets out to do something, the first thing that happens is that they encounter the real world. The real world, or your real-fictional-world, is different to what is in their thoughts. They are normally met with problems that they don’t understand.
The Deuce and a Problem of the Times
The problems could be a legality that stops them opening their business in a particular area of town, or a construction site that will ruin their trade. Think the T.V. series The Deuce, local law enforcement want to give Times Square a much needed face lift, so do developers. To attract new, and lucrative business will put a stop to the dominance of the porn industry in the area.
In order for the police detective, D’Angelo Barksdale who is played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr, to change the neighborhood, he finally realizes he must break the law.
Barksdale is a law abiding officer, he plays by the book, and believes in the role of law enforcement.
But put him under constant pressure from his superiors, and he’ll show us his breaking point. He caves in, then secretly organizes a little but of arson in the hotel building owned by a particularly stubborn business owner.
The business owner is hoping to hang on to his crappy little hotel and reap the profits on rises real estate in the area. But he’s not part of their game, so the mayor and the cops use old school methods to oust him, and make it clear he isn’t part of the plan.
The hotel burns, the story progresses, but with new opportunities for conflict and story lines.
Friction and Fire
Now there are two characters in the story of The Deuce who live with friction and problems that could thwart their own agendas at getting what they want.
A hotel owner who wants revenge, and a cop with a secret that could destroy his credibility and career. It sounds a lot like real life to me.
As characters progress and learn about how to get what they want, they are faced with choices about the world, and themselves. They realize that their good intentions won’t be powerful enough to overcome the obstacles.
They make small changes to their attitude, which soon become useful tools to get closer to the goal. The changes are incremental, unnoticed mainly, but soon develop into a dangerous balancing act between keeping your protagonist “good”, and the antagonist “bad”, in the eyes of the reader.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Your character walks along this path, but doesn’t realise it; changes happen, character develops and they discover that they have so much more to offer than their old self.
Keeping a Good Balance
So long as the bad-guy is keeping up, and develops his or her nastiness, and devious ways as much as the main character, then all should work out well and your main character will change and grow throughout the story.
Readers like to have a clear cut character to follow. If your main character isn’t interesting, then they better have a few things interesting to do, often, to keep readers focused.
Secrets are dark little things that tempt thoughts of hidden treasure. If a character is keeping a secret guarded well, then a reader will be intrigued. You just have to dab a little indication here and there to make the reader realize that there is a secret to be revealed, at some point.
You can keep it hidden all the way through the story, but it must be revealed close to the end — you promised when you invented it.
Characters who carry secrets want to let it out, but they know the mustn’t. To expose their secret will jeopardize their goal. So the simple reason to keep the secret as a tantalizing thought for your readers, is a great way to create constant intrigue — readers love asking questions.
Your Characters will show You the Way
If you’ve got your character moving along in the story, they have a secret to hide, a goal to reach, and you are prepared to take them to the edge of life where they will have to look into the abyss, then you’re well on your way to discovering the uniqueness of your story, and realize how rules will hinder rather than help as you write.
Write to discover what happens, look ahead into the distance and write towards it. Leave static ideas of rules about writing behind.
If you are fired up about your character and your story, you will discover why through your writing.
The only way to nail anything is to work at it, avoid hacks and trust yourself as a writer.
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