I have spent my days stringing and un-stringing my bow
Whilst the song I came to sing remains unsung…’
You want to write a great book? Then let’s get real!
Creating Great Characters
Character creation is probably the most talked about aspect of the author’s art and craft. A subject that has been hashed and rehashed to death. It has been done so many times, plagiarized so many times, and adjusted and re-presented so many times that it has created a quagmire of useless, misleading information lacking in both integrity and originality. Do I sound a little angry about this? I am. When pseudo experts lead aspiring writers down misleading alleyways, solely to buffer their own ego’s or bank balances they automatically become just one more obstacle in an already difficult journey.
Here I will present a totally new and different approach to Character Development. One I have created, developed and taught over the past 10 years. And, whilst you are considering this, make sure you check out the teacher, the guru, the one you are handing money to, to teach you how to write. Have they written anything worthwhile? Are they published authors? To my astonishment I found that the vast majority of ‘Writing coaches’ have never been published! Put bluntly, they’re striving to make a buck out of naive people who are struggling to learn the art and craft of the writers profession. OK, enough of the negative! Let’s just say that there are writers and writing gurus out there who are honest, devoted and fantastic teachers. And some of them are either low cost or free, as is this blog. These are the people you can trust and follow. So, check’em out!
OK, the foundation stone of my program is this diagram. There are actually 8 Stages of Character Creation. Initially will be examining these four. Work -Love- Mental- Physical. Later we will take a good look at the remaining four. I do this for simplicity and clarity. Today we pull apart Stage 1. Work.
First, let’s give your character a name. Don’t just toss any name in. Think of a good name if you can. (but don’t get hung up on it!) Give your main Character some gravitas. Mary Brown might not hack it! I love Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, the hero in Michael Connelly’s thriller series. He’s known to all the other cops as Harry, but it’s a great name to hang on a main protagonist. So,what about you? Is your character male or female? How old is he/she. And then, the big question. What do they do for a living?
The first method we will be using to create powerful, memorable characters will be by identifying and examining their work life. Why? Because in most cultures people tend to classify others by their job title. One of the first things people ask, shortly after being introduced is; ‘So, what do you do for a living?’
Some may use it as an ice-breaker, an innocent query to get the conversation going, but usually it has a much deeper meaning than that. We tend to make an initial assessment of a new acquaintance by finding out what they do for a living, what they work at. It’s a form of ‘social sniffing’, similar to the way dogs tend to sniff at strange new dogs in an attempt to pick up more about them, to see if they’re safe, to see if they fit into the ‘tribe’, to see if they’re above or below expectations.
So when the new acquaintance confides, ‘I’m a minister in the Anglican Church,’ our perception of this stranger alters immediately. Our barriers may rise, our filters switch on. Watch your language, some inner voice warns, not too many edgy jokes tonight! But if our target tells us; ‘I’m a musician, I’m in town to play at the jazz festival on the weekend,’ we relax a little; this guy/girl could be fun! (Depending on where each character fits into the story of course!)
We tend to put people into categories, stereotypical boxes that confine and limit our understanding of them as human beings. We all have hidden prejudices and hang-ups, and many people are racist, at least to some degree. But we now live in cultures that insist on political correctness. As children we are told: You mustn’t stare at black people, you must be friendly towards Jews, Catholics, Muslims, etc. Soon, as our space program expands, those admonitions will almost certainly extend to ‘You mustn’t stare at Martians, Moon people, or three headed wombats from Uranus!’
Truth is a lot of us still will, and some of your character’s will also have varied reactions to other people they will meet in your book. Your characters can’t always be politically correct. There are many among us who simply aren’t like that. We need to identify some of these characteristics. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or like them. Doesn’t mean you have to approve of them, or their behavior. Doesn’t mean that some of your own prejudices are leaking out in your writing. It means that you are a good enough writer to expose some of the idiosyncratic behavior that haunts the shadowy corners, quirks, and subconscious drives of otherwise ‘normal’ people.
This is an essential tool for creating memorable characters. Therein lies the art and craft that we all must learn and develop if we are to produce multi-faceted individuals who will populate our books and movies with idiosyncratic characters who may charm, horrify, or mesmerize us in accordance with the complexities of their fluid, unpredictable, natures.
Most of us suffer from prejudices and irrational dislikes of one sort or another. We need to investigate and explore these inner forces in ourselves if we are to understand the hidden demons, quirks and foibles that inhabit our fictitious characters, quirks and traits that make them memorable and intriguing.
We’ll take an example. Let’s imagine that one of my secondary character’s is Robert, a 47-year-professional man from a country town in N.S.W. Married, one child, lives a calm ordered existence. He does a lot of community work in his area. He’s a member of Rotary, a civil rights lawyer who’s heavily into social justice, boat people, Aboriginal affairs and various other oppressed groups in Australian society. He loves his family and is known to be a good family man.
But when his 17-year-old daughter, Melisa invites her boyfriend, Simon home for dinner for the first time, and Robert opens the door to find a black Jew from Ethiopia standing there with the biggest smile he’s ever seen, what happens? I don’t know. What do you think happens? Think about that. You’re the writer! He’s been caught completely off-guard! So, how’s he going to handle this situation? Maybe he’d start with:
‘Well! We’re delighted to meet you, we’ve heard so much about you! Come in.’ Trouble is, Simon has already picked up a certain tension, the expression, the body language, the hesitation. The cautious, ‘Come in,’ didn’t help much either. Dad glances across at Melisa, who’s totally oblivious to the unfolding drama. She was born in 2000, a totally different era to her parents! Multi-culturism was never heard of when her dad was a young man. He’s all for it intellectually, he’s talked about it, even lectured about it, but it’s not ‘in him, as him!’ Its learnt behavior. He agrees with it, of course, but it’s an acquired belief.
Melisa’s mixed with all sorts of people all her life. At school, at Uni, teacher’s, friends, professors. Black, pink, Asian, African. It didn’t even cross her mind to say, ‘By the way, dad, Simon’s black’. But Dad’s amazed, he wasn’t warned. Warned? She would think. Warned about what?
They’re in the lounge room now and Dad has become aware that he’s smiling way too much. He needs something to kick start the conversation. He’s concerned, he’s already wondering what how dark the baby will be. What will his friends think? Could it be as black as Simon?
Amusing? No. Some people would respond exactly like this and we need to recognize that. If you’re going to create characters without flaws, if your character’s are all going to be honest, wholesome, non-racist, squeaky-lean, cardboard cut-outs, your readers can throw away their Valium and their sleeping pills, your book will do the job just fine.
But let’s get back to dad. He’s beginning to pull himself together now, although mum still looks a bit concerned. ‘So, tell me, Simon, what do you do for a living?’ he asks hopefully. Hopefully because he already knows that they met at Uni. Uni means professions. To dad Uni means doctors, accountants, engineers, politicians, opera, rich people, academia, acceptable, Australian, standing.
“I majored in music, man. I’m here to play at the jazz festival on the weekend.’
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It’s very common. Most of us tend to make initial judgments or assess people on their professions or their jobs, what they do for a living.
But in character development we have to go way deeper than that. If I’m going to tell my readers that Sean Harrigan is a detective in the Sydney Drug Squad, they will need to know a whole range of other things about him before he actually comes to life.
Take another look at Chart 1 – Work. As you can see, there’s a light and a dark side to the Work Station. Yin and Yang, positive and negative, light and dark. We need to know where Harrigan lies in relation to this. We need to know everything there is about Sean’s Harrigan’s work life. Why and when did he join the Police Force? That comes up fairly early in the story as he is reminiscing about his now dead partner, Michael Jameson. And I quote:
… but soon my thoughts were drawn back to Jameson and the nightmare I was attempting to leave behind. The way he’d died had sickened me. We’d been partners for years but our history went back a lot further than that. I’d known him since I’d arrived in Australia. We’d gone to the same school as kids and we’d entered the Police Academy together. We’d graduated the same time and with the exception of a one-year exchange stint he did in America with the NYPD, our careers had run parallel courses.
He’d been a big drinker too and we’d done a lot of crazy things together. But after he went undercover things changed and our friendship began to decline. Unlike me he’d loved the life and when the Endor file had come up he’d been one of the first to volunteer.
So here we are looking at the two main characters in ‘Endor’s Way’ a murder mystery that begins on Bondi Beach. In just a few sentences we learn that both men were keen to join the police force. They were childhood friends, they volunteered for the Police Force together, they were keen. Later on, at the ‘Back Story’ station, we will learn why. (Sean’s father was a detective in Belfast, Ireland) We’re also learning about the Work station of his partner. It’s obvious that Det. Jameson loved the life he was living as an undercover cop. There’s also a hint that Harrigan may be tiring of the job. We have also learned that both men were big drinkers, a factor that has already damaged Harrigan’s career.
So in just half a dozen sentences we can learn a lot about our main protagonists work lives. But there is more, a lot more. Now let’s take a good look at your own main character’s work station. (We’ll look at secondary characters later.)
- What is her/his profession? Is she/he good at it. Are they perfectionists? Do they pursue their work late at night, driven by a need to excel? If you’re writing a memoir the work station can be a great place for your readers to get a good sense of who and what you are. You must draw word pictures to fuel their imaginations.
- Describe how you felt when you landed in Mt Isa to begin a new career. Talk about the adrenalin rush the first time you rode a wild brumby or operated a twenty-ton bulldozer. Make sure they feel the fear, the danger, make them feel that thrill. Make them experience it.
- How did your hero come to work in that field? Tell us about how they got started in that job. Was it a passion, or did they just drift into the position. Maybe a casual job that became permanent?
- How long have they been at that job?
- Do they still love the work, or has that changed? Do they plan on staying, or do the dream every day about getting the hell out of there? (Over 60% of people in the Western World are dissatisfied with the work they do for a living) Allude to that, help them to identify with the hero/heroine.
- These are not, yes or no questions. If they’re tired of their work we need to know why. Why? Because it affects how they act, what they say, and how they respond to pressure. Are there too many rules and regulations. Or is it because someone is making their job more difficult. Is the boss a bastard? Is it because there’s too much pressure. Are the hours too long, or the pay too little, or both?
- Are sexism, racism, glass ceilings, office romances or office secrets and petty feuds destroying the esprit de corps of the workforce. Or has your heroine just simply outgrown that position and needs a change.
- Tell us about their superiors. Do they get on with them? Are they casual and friendly, or high handed and aloof?
- What hours do they work? Do they take their work home? Does that interfere with their home life? (We’ll be looking at that next in the following station: Love Station)
- Are they self-starters, motivated. Do they wish to change the work ethic of the company?
- Are they attracted to the boss? Is he or she pestering them? Is there an office romance?
- What chances are there for promotion? Do they want to advance in that particular company? All of this information can be pertinent, and much of it may be essential if you wish to create memorable characters that will capture your readers’ imaginations.
- And remember, this is not a test or a race. We all begin somewhere. This is why I created this method of teaching. It’s step by step, one-character trait at a time process. We build our characters one brick at a time, one piece on top of another. Do not look at this and think it’s too much. It’s not. It is simple. One trait at a time, one habit, one quirk, one detail, one more piece of information. Then sooner rather than later, you’ll be living with your new creation. Talking their talk as you show us how they walk their walk. This is the beginning, add your own insights. You can’t get too much detail. When you fully understand your hero, you will then know exactly how they speak, how they react, how they love and hate, and at that point, your readers will too.
For the male writers, this is as close you’ll ever come to being a mother. For the Femmes, perhaps you’ve given birth once again. This time to a character dreamed up by your imagination and brought to life by your pen!
We need every detail about our main character’s work life. The more the better. Why? Because once you know the answers to all those questions, once you have filled out their background, you will know how your protagonist thinks, feels, and responds to the variety of situations that will arise at her work place and in her/his ordinary, everyday life.
Not only will you know how she responds, you will also know the hidden drives that may cause a furious row, a tender moment, or a complete breakdown. The best part of all this is, when we enter the skin of our character, we will become their voice. Not our voice. Their voice. We will get angry for them, with them. We will cry with them. We will stand up for their rights with them. And in the case of one of my favorite character, Sean Harrigan, we will tell Chief Superintendent Kearney together to go and get; “BLANKETY, BLANK, BLANK, BLANKED!!! when Harrigan’s finally had enough of all the back-biting, lies and intrigue, in the NSW Drug Squad!
* * *
There are variations on the above theme of course, as there are with all the other Stations on the Character Creation Chart. Our hero may not have a job. She/He could be retired, out of work, on a lengthy sabbatical or studying at a school or university. Even so you will find that most of the questions and concepts above will apply to whatever hobbies, studies or vocations we are involved in.