When I first began writing fiction, over a decade ago, I was fascinated by the idea that a writer develops a protagonist, and an antagonist, then chucks a few supporting characters into the mix, followed by sit-down-and-write-it.
It really isn’t that simple. It took me a while to write unforgettable fictional characters.
The thought of being able to create a character gave me a feeling of power. Now, I knew what Doctor Frankenstein felt like, what drove him on in his mad adventures to create a super human being.
He nearly did, until it all went wrong.
His dream slipped away, and his perfect human being descended into madness, then wreaked havoc among the local villagers.
In spite of this, he still believed he could save the monster, and make something good out of the wreckage of years of experimentation.
The point of the story is that Doctor Frankenstein thought he had the formula. He didn’t, there was something missing from the mix. It was his first attempt, and he messed up.
Writers are similar in their first attempts at building characters. Many new writers falsely believe that a story is a choice between plot driven, or character driven.
It seems that many go for plot-driven story, then end up in a car crash when their character doesn’t have stage presence.
Plot driven still needs a strong leading role. Cardboard is prone to getting wet in the rain. A rounded character will always remember to take an umbrella, just in case the story turns stormy.
So, the writer sits down, pen and paper, and writes a list of attributes about what the character really looks like. What the character’s favourite colour is, music, food, height, and give the character a job.
Then they start the story again. The character still won’t yield to the story.
They are hoping for a formula, like Doctor Frankenstein. Brown hair, grey eyes, 6 ft, and slim with a bolt through his neck, doesn’t make character, it makes for an ID parade at the local police station.
I’m writing a story about love. I started a week ago, and I’ve spent all my time working on my two main characters.
Starting with questions about who they are, why they are in town, what their jobs are, why they like jazz and not Trip Hop. I don’t have a list of ideas to refer to. I have notes. Lots of them.
Building characters must include developing each person’s backstory. Where they were born, how they were raised. Accidents, and physical injuries over the years, and lots more. Ideas build lots of organised notes about the character — a little like a psychologist who sits and listens as the story of a life unravels.
Lists of characteristics read easily, but can’t be interpreted to form an idea of how a person will act or react in any situation.
That’s why I like notes, they are ideas that germinate into buzzing thoughts about what my protagonist could or would do under certain pressures.
The past will determine the present. Character actions are driven by motivators that stem from childhood, experiences in and out of work, past relationships.
Fears rise up when ghosts of the past lurk in the shadows, or real people in the story remind the protagonist about that old forgotten trauma. A trauma doesn’t have to be severe, or debilitating to the character, just enough to cause anxiety, so they don’t want to face up to similar circumstances, ever again.
As writers, we want each of the main characters to have fears and strengths. Then, they need to have a goal, right?
I think that a real story has all those things. A character who is determined to reach the goal, shows the ability to change along the way by overcoming fears, and brings certain strengths into the story that compliment the task ahead is going to be clear-cut.
Hollywood has taught us to be satisfied with clear-cut characters who are up to the task; action movies start with a character who we already know will overcome the baddies. They’ll blow everything up along the way, and end up being the same person — ready for the next movie.
A novel is not a Hollywood movie.
In a novel, the development of character is deeper than that. Especially if they are falling in love, and love is interrupted by some outside force, or obstacles from within, old memories that cause fear.
We all want to be loved, and to learn how to give love. It’s a real goal that most readers can relate to. It’s a good goal. But in the real world, life seems to get in the way.
Life is complex. It chops and changes over the years. Sometimes it’s like being on a ship in a storm. Writers learn from this, about themselves first, then use that experience to understand that our fictional characters are not so clear-cut.
The desired goal can change in a story because the character doesn’t really understand what’s going on. They just think they do; this can create tension and complexity in a good story. It’s not always bad. A story can show how the character discovers what they really want out of life, partners, love, and how all that helps them become whole in life.
So long as we have all our notes lined up, and have spent time understanding who our characters are, then writing the first draft can be as much about elbow grease and sweat, as it’s about revealing a well formulated character who shows us the story as it unravels.
We don’t have to make the same mistakes as Doctor Frankenstein, and create monsters that end up at the bottom of the well.