Befriending Your Characters

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How do we make our characters work?  What is the secret to creating believable, compelling characters who will capture our readers’ hearts and make our stories more than a set of plot points?  I’m of the opinion that good characters are the single most important element of effective storytelling.  There’s nothing earth-shattering about this; lots of people would agree with me on that.  But while most of us might agree on the things that make for good characters, we would probably have a harder time explaining how one goes about creating them.  How do you teach character development?  (I’ve been teaching writing this summer, serving as mentor for a talented graduate student in a master’s program, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how one explains the various components of good writing.)

I’ve written before about the background work I do on my major characters.  I try to establish a history for each of them, much as I would for a world I create:  Upbringing, family life, major events from childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood (assuming the character is an adult).  I gather as much detail as I can on the circumstances of his/her current life:  profession, friendships, romantic relationships, etc.  And I establish personality traits:  easygoing or prickly, even tempered or moody, social adept or awkward, gregarious or a loner; confident or insecure.  Naturally, the choices are not always as clear-cut as that list implies; there are gradations.  But you get the idea.  I do everything I can to get to know my characters, so that when I start writing about them or narrating from their point of view, I can get the voice right and make each character something more than a list of attributes.  Ideally, I want my characters to come alive, to begin to carry the story and even change the story to fit his/her needs.

But there is more to character than developing this portrait and then animating it in prose.  I believe that ultimately the creation and development of an effective character is an act of empathy.  I begin by gauging what my own emotional responses would be to the situations I throw at my characters, and drawing on my own emotional experiences, the good and the bad.  We all carry this stuff within us.  At one point or another in our lives we’ve felt a tremendous range of emotions.  When I was a younger man, I was prove to terrible bouts of jealousy — not admirable, and not conducive to healthy relationships.  But though I’ve learned to tame my inner green-eyed beast, I haven’t forgotten what it felt like.  And thank goodness!  I can write jealousy quite well now, thank you very much.  Many years back, I lost both my parents within a year of each other.  It was a difficult time, but one that has made me a stronger person, and that has given me insights into emotional pain that have served me well as a writer in the years since.

So we draw upon our own emotional responses, and impart them to our characters.  But first we also have to blend those personal emotional responses with our understanding of the character him- or herself.  We all respond to things differently depending on our temperament, our experiences, our upbringing, our moods at a given time, etc — all that stuff we learned about our characters when doing that background work.  Good character work takes all of these things into account.

Let me put this another way.  In my mind, my characters are real people.  They have distinct voices.  They have needs and desires and impulses.  I write them, but I don’t control them. They surprise me all the time, doing things as I write about them that I don’t expect, sometimes taking my stories places I didn’t foresee.  Now, you can argue that they are part of my subconscious and that on some level I AM controlling them.  But that’s not how it feels.  When my creative juices are flowing, they feel like independent beings and I listen to them and give them consideration the way I would my real world friends.  And that’s what this comes down to. When we deal with our friends, we don’t deal with them in exactly the way we would want to be dealt with ourselves, because we understand that each friend is different.  We try to put ourselves in their shoes, to see the world from their perspective, so that we can help them with a problem or share their outrage or their joy or excitement.  That’s where the empathy comes in, and that’s what all need to learn to do with our characters.

I have lots of insecurities, but there are a few things I feel confident about.  I believe that I’m a good husband, a good father, and a good friend.  I listen well, and I’m good at anticipating the emotional needs of the people I love.  I also write good characters.  There are others things that writers do better than I do, but I feel that my character work is pretty strong.  And I believe that the things that make me a good dad and husband and friend and the same things that make me a good writer.  I listen to my characters.  I step out of myself and into their minds and hearts, and I feel what they feel.

Befriend your characters; treat them as you would the people in your life who mean the most to you.  It will make you a better writer.  And — this has certainly been the case for me — it might also make you a better friend.

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16 comments to Befriending Your Characters

  • Totatlly true, David.

    By doing what you recommend, I found myself catching places where I would say “Character X would not say this.” or “CHaracter X would never do this.” It helps to keep your characters consistant and “in character”.

    In addition, by doing the intense background information you find all sorts of subplots and plot developments which you might have missed if you left it halfway done.

  • Characterization is one of the things I’ve always worked and prided myself on. I think an audience should feel for the characters. There’s nothing I hate more than characters I have no vested interest in. Characters I just couldn’t care less about. That’s one of the things I hate most about most horror films, or slasher horror particularly. If the writer doesn’t make you care about the characters then the killer may as well be cutting up cardboard cutouts. Even when I’m writing scripts I firmly keep in mind, what would make me feel for this person’s plight? If they die or get hurt will I care? I try to get an emotional response out of myself when I do something bad or good to one of my characters. If I feel it, my audience just might too.

  • Thanks, Mark. That’s one of the things I found myself doing as I did my read through of my recent rewrite. The lead character is also the first person point of view character for the entire book, and I had to separate his “I” from my “I”, if you know what I mean. I succeeded for the most part, but still found a few places where I’d slipped out of his voice. And yes, that background work is a great breeding ground for story ideas.

    Daniel, I agree with you. Far too many characters in books and movies lack that third dimension that makes them reach out from the page and grab hold of you. And while it is important to separate oneself from one’s characters, I also agree with your last point. When I can elicit an emotional response form myself as I write, I know that I’ve gotten the scene right. Thanks for the comments.

  • Chris Branch

    David,

    The trap I’ve fallen into is to empathize with characters so much that they’re often too nice to each other. Because when I’m in the head of each character – even the bad guys – I try to think “how would I behave here?”. But sometimes you need your character to be rude and nasty, and the problem I have is: in my mind there’s never any excuse to act this way – regardless of your childhood, current circumstances, strongly held beliefs, whatever. So let’s just say I have a lot of trouble justifying the behavior of the antagonists!

  • Chris, what a great comment. I know exactly what you mean, and have the same problem, though it’s most troublesome for me with my good guys who have prickly personalities. They do and say things I would never think of doing or saying myself. But when I’m writing them I have to turn off my own filters and speak with their voices. Very hard to do. And yes, it can be just as hard with my “bad guys.” Again, great comment. Thanks!

  • David, this reminded me of my imaginary friends when I was growing up. I had two that felt alive and real, though invisible, (like ghosts). They talked to me, shared their pasts with me, and stayed with me for a long time. I didn’t know it, but I was creating characters, and the lessons I learned from that have become part of my storytelling. Well said.

  • Never thought of it that way, Faith. I had imaginary friends, too, and was always, ALWAYS playing “make believe” of some sort. Creating characters; storytelling. That’s what I was doing. Wow. Thanks, Faith.

  • I begin by gauging what my own emotional responses would be to the situations I throw at my characters

    I do this too. Of course, it doesn’t always go far enough, or sometimes my reaction is much too different from what their reaction would be. Or, frankly, sometimes it’s just funnier (an important question with the Walker Papers) for a character to react unexpectedly. There’s a scene I absolutely love in WALKING DEAD, the latest Walker Papers, because Joanne, who is usually *reasonably* competent–at least so far as if she _has_ to she pulls it out of the hat–completely falls apart. Somebody else has to save the day. Sometimes there are things you just can’t handle! 🙂

  • Yeah, tapping into that “dark side” can be difficult, but rewarding when you create a character that people can really loathe. Pretty much everyone has the potential for great good or despicable evil, its just our moral compass and sensibilities that keep us from doing the things that the truly depraved have no problem doing. I wrote a blog about making readers/viewers love/hate your characters:
    http://danielrdavis.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/make-em-lovehate-your-characters/

    You can check it out if you want. Just my own opinions on the subject. My favorite kinds of villains though are are those that are evil, but you can’t help but, at least in part, to relate to and understand.

    When I’m writing villain scenes I kinda have to take a step back afterwards and distance myself from those thoughts.

  • One of the things I’ve been working on regarding characters is how they perceive each other as well as themselves. One particular character, who slowly transforms from protagonist to antagonist throughout the book, is introduced via another POV character’s narrative first, so the impression of him is jaded. Then this character picks up the POV narrative and you see why he acts a certain way sometimes.

    So, not only do I try and gauge what my reaction would be to a situation, my POV characters end up doing the same and, as a result, sometimes end up judging other characters wrongly, which is always great for driving plot as well.

  • That’s great, Catie. And absolutely true: None of us is completely consistent. Sometimes the strongest among us goes to pieces. Sometimes the nicest person on the planet acts like a jerk. That’s part of character, too, but you have to pick your spots.

    Thanks for the link Daniel. I agree with you: the best evil characters are not evil so much as twisted. They think they’re justified. Sometimes they are. My villain in the Sorcerers’ Plague is certain that she’s justified in what she’s doing. Which makes her that much more dangerous.

    CE, that’s a terrific point, too. Seeing one character through the eyes of another allows you to develop both simultaneously, while also working through their relationship and their perceptions of each other. Complex, wonderful stuff. Thanks for the comment.

  • Faith said …my imaginary friends when I was growing up. I had two that felt alive and real, though invisible, (like ghosts). They talked to me, shared their pasts with me, and stayed with me for a long time.

    I had a white tiger. He went with me everywhere. My parents were continually putting groceries on him when we went shopping. I know he was invisible, but you’d think after telling them enough times they’d start remembering that he was sitting in the cart. Gee!

  • Wow, you were ahead of your time — and ahead of Bill Watterson’s time…

  • I’m reading David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series and I’ve noticed one thing about David’s characters. Namely, they are distinct, and distinctive, personalities. I’m currently reading a scene in Mistress of the Catacombs where the wizard Tenoctris and Sharina os Reise are watching their friend Ilna os Kenset after Tenoctris sent Ilna’s soul of to do some investigation in the dreamlands. The elderly Tenoctris (she’s in her 70s) is calmly reading, while the much younger Sharina (she’s 18 or so) is occupying herself studying the frescoes painted around the walls.

    Ilna (the one having the out of body experience) is a very different person that either Tenoctris or Sharina. She is stubborn, has a temper, is intolerant of flaws, and is a perfectionist. She has not yet accepted the fact she screwed up early in the series, and sees herself as fatally flawed. Being Aspers myself, Ilna os Kenset sounds Aspers, and may be an example of an autistic major character in literature.

    Just something I picked up on recently. How important is it to you to make your character’s distinctive?

  • David,

    A bit off-topic, but I was reading Mark Henry’s LiveJournal and his post on world building. Mark gave an example of world building on the micro-level, showing details of one world through the eyes of a character.

    I’m also—in case you hadn’t heard :)—reading David Drake’s Lord of the Isles. After reading Mark’s world building post I noticed something about David’s fantasy. Namely the cultural detail he includes.

    I mentioned in my comment above that in one scene the character of Sharina is studying the frescoes on the wall of the room while she and Tenoctris wait for Ilna return from her out of body experience with information regarding the big bad of the story. The fresco in question is an idealized representation of life in the north of the island of Haft (Sharina is from southern Haft). Since she grew up in sheep country a number of the customs common in the cattle country of northern Haft is unusual to her.

    Drake does this thing all the time is LotI. He mentions ancient works of literature, notes that certain books are actually compilations of fact, fiction, and myth, and has artifacts of power scattered around waiting for the right person to find them. In short, the world of The Isles has culture and history. There are legends, stories, histories. What’s more, the people in the series—including the main characters—practice their religion.

    So my question to you (the whole Magical Words gang as a mater of fact) is, how detailed do you get where the art, the culture, the history of your created world is concerned?

  • Alan, thanks for both comments. David Drake is one of my favorite people in the business. He’s also a wonderful writer; a true craftsman who takes his work seriously. To answer your first question, I work very hard to make my characters distinctive, to give them different personalities, to make them speak differently, to give them all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that we encounter in people in our real lives. That’s part of the fun of writing. In my opinion, it’s what makes a book come alive.

    I also do my best to give my world as rich a cultural, social, and historical background as possible. I’m a historian by trade — I have a Ph.D. and very nearly chose a career as an academic rather than one as a writer (though I’m glad I went in the direction I did) — and I believe that creating a world that is as rich as possible in these regards is crucial to making that world a living, breathing place that my readers will want to “visit”. Religions, mythologies, history, musical and literary traditions, specialties based on geography (having one part of the world that specializes in wines, while another is good with metalwork, and another produces spices — that sort of thing). I’ve drawn upon all of these things and more to make my worlds richer. This might be a good topic for a future post. But for now, yeah, I get pretty detailed with my worldbuilding.