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Building Strong Characters in Creative Fiction Writing Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 14, 2011

Building Strong Characters in Creative Fiction Writing

As humans, we are wired for empathy and vicarious living, so we easily put ourselves into stories if we can identify with what the characters are going through in the emotional and physical situations they encounter. Whether we are reading about war heroes who perform godlike acts and save hundreds of people or the girl next door whose life-changing event is moving from her hometown to the big city, we want to consider how humans handle life. To keep us interested in reading, authors must invent characters that have complexity and inconsistencies like we do, characters that are believable and uniquely individual.

In her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger identifies six action items for writers to employ in developing characters. Whenever you feel you have not drawn a character well enough, she advises, stop writing and go back to these items. Here are my ideas about each of her six action items:

  1. Base your character on a person you observe or relate to—Who interests you in the world? A neighbor? A teacher? A boss? A friend? Why do they interest you? Think about how being around them affects you. What in their manner, interests, and topics of conversation resonate or irritate?
  2. Flesh out your character, drawing him or her in broad strokes—Use your imagination here, as well as ideas for drawing composite characters from those you know. What does this character look like? How does she or he dress? Where does she or he live? Who is in the family? How does she or he demonstrate a culture? How old is the character? What is the character's profession or job? What hobbies does this person have? What knee-jerk phrases does he or she use? What original phrases come to his or her lips?
  3. Find the core values of your character so he or she will behave consistently—What will she or he fight for? How did she or he learn that value? What makes it so important to have? What does the character fear would happen if life didn't contain the opportunity to demonstrate this value? You might ask what this character most values about him or herself and what others most value about him or her.
  4. Find the paradoxes within the character's outlook to be sure he or she contains complexity—People are self-contradictory and surprising. Linda Seger writes about a straitlaced religious professor who had been a cowboy and knew how to use a lasso. After you've figured out your character's core values, give your character an inconsistency that will lead to a trait or relationship that conflicts with the character's core values and makes the character interesting. A character might be a complete rationalist, for instance, skeptical of everything yet addicted to buying lotto tickets.
  5. Add emotions and attitudes that will round out your character—Give your character opinions, fears, things he or she avidly practices and believes in so you'll know what makes your character sad, glad, mad, or scared. Is she afraid of spiders or speaking in public? Is he happy when he's driving an expensive car down a lonely highway? Does she play mahjong in tournaments? Does he despise golf but enjoy bowling? Does she hate packaged food? Is his pet peeve people who move slowly? Is she bent on independence and self-reliance? Is he trying hard to remain in his father's good graces?
  6. When thinking about inconsistencies, attitudes and values, consider also that characters can have unrealistic views of themselves. A character may think she is a perfect parent when in fact she is missing all the cues a good parent would see. A character may think he is the boss of the group when in fact no one listens to him. A young woman may think she is a glamour gal when how she dresses shows she has no idea about glamour as everyone else views it. A person may think she is humble and modest when in fact she is always striving to be the center of attention. A person might be compulsively neat in the office thinking that this makes him the perfect employee, yet he can't keep his schedule straight and misses appointments.

    As you write, you'll find more ways to reveal character. As you've already practiced a bit, you'll find out how, when faced with conflict or other challenges, the character covers up. Or you may find that under pressure, the character reveals a nature he or she doesn't display during more normal times. Writers put their characters in places where they will exhibit contradictions between words and actions or words and inner thought. How others respond to the character in their words and actions also helps readers know the character more deeply.

  7. Make the character specific and unique through details—The idiosyncratic way a character sets food out for a pet or calls to her children or answers the phone is going to make that character memorable. Think about how your character answers the door or parks her car, how he avoids or moves toward people at a meeting. Visualize this person in the world. Note the idiosyncratic parts of his speech and gestures. These little things build up to flesh out a character.

In addition to the protagonist, another important character is the antagonist, whose actions thwart the desires and needs of the main character. You also need to round out this person and make sure that his or her actions will be coming out of a life filled with goals, feelings, obsessions, and desires. One-dimensional people are not very interesting. Create an antagonist who has surprisingly pleasing traits even though he or she is the reason the protagonist can't get what he or she wants. People may do evil and people may be greedy and thoughtless and tiresome, but all people have something tender and vulnerable about them. I remember hearing a former Alcatraz prisoner who had served a long sentence for murder talk about how he became motivated to turn his life around after he sat handcuffed on a train ride from one prison to another watching a twoyear- old boy stare at him. He didn't want to die without redeeming himself if he could. Certainly your antagonist, a mother with nothing good to say to her daughter about the girl's father, can have a moment of hoping that when they do see the father, he will be interested in his daughter.

In his book The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray writes about detailing characters this way:

...you need to stay open...one way to stay open is to bring a character onto your novel's stage and see what happens once she gets there. You sketch her first. You give her a past and some dreams and a place to live and a wardrobe that fits her life-style. As she comes on stage, you take notes. Let's say she lights a cigarette. What brand is it? Light falls across the glass-topped table to illuminate a film of dust. What is the source of the light? When she leaves her chair, where is she going? Staying open means not knowing but paying attention to the moment.

Whatever way you look at it, details create the character. Without the details, the character is generic, interchangeable among stories.

Midge Raymond, author of the short story collection Forgetting English, says, "All good stories start with great characters—and while they don't necessarily have to be loveable, they do have to be interesting." Developing a new character, Raymond says, is "not unlike meeting a new friend":

It's a getting-to-know-you process, and it happens gradually. First, you'll see what a person wants you to see (how he looks, what he says, what he does). Later, you learn more (what motivates her, what she fears, what she desires or avoids). Then you can take a good look into the character's true nature (i.e., what he says and does versus how he feels—and whether these are in synch or in conflict). Once you get going, you'll likely start thinking of your own questions, particularly those that are directly related to other characters and the plot of your story.

Raymond advocates asking the following questions as you develop your character:

How does your character react to getting cut off in traffic? What sort of gifter is this person around the holidays—generous or stingy? A regifter? What's in the glove compartment of his/her car, and what's in the bedside drawer? Who cleans his/her house? Who is the closest person in the world to your character, and who does he/she battle with the most? (Note: This may be the same person.) What thoughts keep your character up at night, and how does he/she treat insomnia? From here, try creating some of your own questions; then answer them. Once you get going, think of more questions, particularly ones directly related to other characters and the plot of your story.

To help you see your character from different angles, Raymond suggests writing a conversation between two people talking about your character behind his/her back. As a follow-up, you can write another scene in which your character overhears this conversation. How does he/she react?

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Ron Carlson uses the word "inventory." Give the characters settings and props. "When in doubt include things." He says,

We may have Doris over the sink trying to get the lid off the espresso maker while not getting water on the sleeves of her silk blouse, and we may not know her state of mind, but at least we have that small appliance, the running water, and her sleeves to help us into the next sentence.

David Reich, author of The Antiracism Trainings, sums up the importance of reading E. M. Forster's discussion of writing characters in Aspects of the Novel:

Major characters in fiction ought to be "round" if the fiction is to succeed, with the most important aspects of their roundness being the ability to change and learn and their ability to surprise the reader—either because they have changed in a surprising way or because they reveal an unexpected side of themselves that on first glance seems out of character but in the end makes some kind of sense.

When you write to know your character well, you will learn about the character's ability to grow and how it figures into the story and its outcome.

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