Or: Creating Characters of One’s Own and Why It Can Be Harder Than It Looks!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an aspiring writer of any ambition must be in want of interesting characters.
And let’s face it, that can be much harder to achieve than it looks!
When I started writing this blog series, I mentioned that the characters had been invented first, long before they really had stories or worlds to stand inside. And that may be a little untruthful.
Oh, in a way they’d been with me for a long time, some of them; but because they were starring in stories inside my head, or in short snatches of smaller tales told to friends, they were very fluid. Undefined, like shadowy figures viewed moving through the autumn mists. Each one had a couple of characteristics, and specific titles/roles (Queen of the Fairies, the Green Man/Oak King, etc.) that ran between stories, but otherwise they could be very different people between each iteration without difficulty. The same ‘character’ in various stories could be honourable, treacherous, kindly, disinterested, actively cruel. It didn’t really matter, only the story I was telling at the time mattered.
This was all very well and good when I was making up adventure stories in my head on the bus to work, but I got myself into real trouble when I started writing my stories down on physical paper. The characters I thought I had known for so long were no longer allowed to fluidly change as they would, and by confining them to paper they began to crystalize into forms I struggled to work with. They were awkward and stilted and their motivations and priorities didn’t make sense anymore.
Every writer has one thing they struggle with above everything else. Their own Achilles’ heel. For some people it might be action sequences, or dialogue, or descriptions. Mine is definitely writing compelling characters.
I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not very fond of, or very good at, creating characters from scratch. They never feel like real people, and whenever I re-read my own work, the first fault I find is that my characters seem utterly boring to me. And that’s quite simply a flaw with me and my writing. I’ve always been more interested in plot-lines, and as such it’s far too tempting for me to have characters that do and say things simply ‘because the plot says so.’ They move around like chess-pieces on a board and there’s nothing memorable about them.
And this is fatally bad story-telling right there. If your characters don’t feel like real people, people who exist away from the pages of the story, with thoughts and ambitions and feelings that we aren’t currently present for then your audience won’t engage with them as they should.
(To see how some of the most memorable characters in modern literature are awesome at this, check out A Very Potter Case Study here.)
Having taken a step back to really get my head around everything, one of the things that loomed high at the top of my list was sorting out my characters. I’ve done a fair bit of reading around to research advice on what is considered to make for interesting characters and gone back to re-read books with characters I found especially compelling to try and find out what I liked best about them. As always, I find that looking at plenty of pre-existing models that already work for others is really inspiring and encouraging.
The next few posts will therefore have something of a theme; I’ll be looking at different types of characters, large and small, and talking about how I put them together. I’ll be talking about turning figures of folklore into real people (see here for the Fairy Queen, and here for The Three Brothers), about the traits that can make heroes and villains in equal measure, and (hopefully) about creating backstories that move the plot forwards rather than keep pulling it back into a different tale.
If you are also someone who struggles with the task of inventing people from scratch and then turning those characters into people that readers can really invest in and keep coming back to, then I hope that this will be helpful for you as well.
Back in November when NaNoWriMo was just kicking off, I wrote a post on how I choose names for my characters, the history behind various naming-traditions and the layers of meaning that writers can take advantage of simply by using names with cunning. If that sounds helpful, check out ‘The Power of Names’ here.
First time discovering the Chronicles in Creation? Check out the rest of the series here.