It’s not just a question of who they are, it’s also about where they came from. And just who am I talking about? The players in your book. They come in all flavors and sizes, but there’s a general breakdown to which I’m quite partial. I think of ’em as the Three Vs: Villains, Victims, and Vigilantes. I’ve covered the topic before in some detail. You can start reading here if you like, or just follow along now, and I’ll eventually hit the high points.
For now, let’s concentrate on the basics….
Probably the biggest misconception beginning writers have about characters is that nobody really cares what they look like. Unless one particular physical attribute exists which makes a given character extraordinary, there’s little to be gained by writing detailed descriptions of hair and eye color, height, build, sleeve length, shoe size or any of the rest. What makes a character good or bad isn’t how they look; what matters is how they act.
This doesn’t mean one can’t have character diversity. I’m in the midst of writing a series of novels about a two-foot tall Indian named Mato. In the current volume, which is approaching a final edit, my very short hero shares page space with a pair of extremely large “normal” folks in addition to the regular ensemble cast. But other than Mato, they’re all people you might bump into at the Piggly Wiggly, or your local hardware store. (Full disclosure: I populate my dark fiction with characters I’ve seen in Wal-Mart.)
A good writer will make such self-casting easier by not dictating too many details. If your hero is a ruggedly handsome male, and/or your heroine is an unusually attractive female, you’ve probably provided all the essentials a reader needs to role play. My aim is to help every reader gaze through a pair of rose-colored glasses and “see” themselves acting out the juiciest bits in all their vicarious splendor.
If, however, a writer continually harps on Dudley’s chiseled jaw and massive biceps, or darling Nell’s petite waistline and enormous, cerulean blue blinkers, readers will have a harder time fitting themselves into those roles. And I mean that in the most literal sense.
How then, does one develop good characters? One way is to begin with a character stereotype and then fashion traits and idiosyncrasies that make them unique. When you look at your cast, try to vary the mannerisms and voice of each player. They shouldn’t all look, act and sound the same, unless you’re writing about robots. And even then, one of ’em ought to be different. Otherwise, where’s the story?
The key to making characters interesting is to make them “human.” And while it sounds odd, this dictum applies to aliens and animals, too. In other words, give your characters both admirable qualities and flaws. It’ll take a little time, but it’s worth it.
You want examples? No problem. Make your villain dependent on a particular kind of Girl Scout cookie, or hook your vigilante on a TV game show. Let these predilections impact a scene or two pushing the character to one side or the other of the Try/Fail divide. The nuttier the flaw the better, I think. Because those things are likely to give your character verisimilitude — the touch, taste and feel of reality. Imagine a player who can’t pass up his or her own reflection without stopping to admire it.
Something to consider before launching into a character who is over the top strange: they work best as minor characters, the kind often referred to as “spear carriers” (from the old sand and sandal epics in which a brawny warrior type always accompanies the hero or heroine. These brutes rarely speak or do much except pose and/or die on cue).
Wait. What’s “over the top?” I’d say any character driven by extremes that defy common sense — like someone who revels in his (or her) body piercings, or muscles, or I dunno — anything! If you need examples, do a quick search on extreme [fill in the blank].
Next up: Help! All my characters suck.