February 23, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 1

If I told you I’ve mastered character creation, I’d be lying.  I often wonder what will make my characters come to life on the page for my readers.  After studying characterization from Dwight Swan, Larry Brooks, Michael A. Stackpole, Max Drake, and others I’ve forgotten, I’m still wrapping my head around the concept. 

What I’ll discuss here can be applied to villains, henchmen, and “bit part” characters.  It might be overkill in some cases, but that’s your choice to make as the writer. 

Max Drake taught me that it’s usually better to start by figuring why you need a character and the role that character will play in your story.  Consider this before you develop the character.  If they serve no purpose in the story, or serve a purpose that an existing character could easily handle, this new character isn't needed.  For the characters we do need, we want them to be three-dimensional and (usually) likable for the reader.

In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks tells us a three-dimensional character combines:
  • Outer Affectations – These are things other characters can see.  This might include their clothing, their habits and rituals, their quirks, and so forth.  We don’t know why the character is this way, only what we see.
  • Inner Reasoning – The reasons why the outer affectations are what they are.  Perhaps the character is afraid of water because her big brother tried to drown her as a child.  Note that the character may not even be aware of the reasoning for what they do, but the author should be.
  • Behavior Under Pressure – What does the character do when their back is to the wall?  Will she jump in the lake to save her best friend, or will fear keep her safe and dry on the shore
For Dwight Swain, a likable character embodies one or more of the following qualities:
  • The character is a victim of undeserved misfortune, such as having their home destroyed by a tornado.  It’s important that the misfortune isn’t something they caused or could have foreseen, as this could make them look stupid, self-destructive, or evil.
  • The character is in danger of losing something important to them.  This doesn’t have to mean physical danger.  Going broke is a danger even though it won’t kill you.
  • The character has a likable manner, a good heart, and is well-liked by other characters in the story. 
  • The character has a sense of humor, and the courage to make jokes we wouldn’t be able to make in the same situation.  (Note that this doesn’t mean the character makes inappropriate jokes that offend others, but rather they might poke a finger in the bad guy’s oversized belly and call him a “dough boy”.)
  • The character is a powerful, strong, capable individual.  The character defends what they believe in, gets back up when knocked down, and behaves competently.

If you think about popular fictional characters, you’ll see these in play.  Consider the Indiana Jones character from the movies:

  • He suffered undeserved misfortune.  His mother died when he was young and his father didn’t give him all the attention he wanted.
  • He’s often in danger of losing something important to him, whether it’s a woman he loves, his father’s life, or his own life.
  • He has a likable manner, a good heart, and is well-liked by most of the other characters.
  • He has a sense of humor.  He plays tricks on others, cracks jokes, and laughs at appropriate times.
  • He is powerful, strong, and capable.  He doesn’t back down from the many huge challenges in the movies.

It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean our character shouldn’t have flaws.  No one is perfect.  Despite his courage and heroism, Indiana Jones feared snakes and wasn’t always a nice guy.  Those flaws helped us see him as a real person.

In next Monday's post, I’ll discuss how we create a character with the qualities described here.

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