Posts Tagged compelling characters
I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.
And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.
So how can you flesh them out as individuals?
1 Look for incompatibility
The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.
So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.
Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.
2 Include this in the story
Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.
A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.
Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).
3 Humour, stress and swearing
Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.
4 Keep track of their different outlooks
With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.
Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.
Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.
5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters
You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.
You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)
And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?
A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?
The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.
Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.
(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)
Not just novice writers
But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.
So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?
Because we like it that way
For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.
The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.
Stories are not like life
So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.
With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.
1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.
2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.
Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.
Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?