March 2, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed what makes a character realistic, likable, and empathetic for readers. 

We need to understand their role in the story and why they in it.  Then, we need to give them certain qualities which help make them empathetic and likable.  We also need to ensure they embody flaws we can see and sympathize with.  That’s a tall order.

Dwight Swain claimed in Creating Characters that a character needed a minimum number of qualities.  In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks discusses what he believes are the key variables that create a solid, three-dimensional story character.  Synthesizing what I’ve learned from several writers, including these, we need:
  • Name – The character must have a name.  Ideally, the names of the characters in the story won’t sound alike or be hard for the reader to “sound out” when seen on the page.
  • Gender – In many stories, this may be irrelevant.  In a patriarchal society, a female character may not have the rights, privileges, and freedoms she would in another society.
  • Vocation – This might be a job, or simply be a position in a family, group, or community.
  • Direction in Life – This is a need for one or more of the following:  (1) adventure, (2) security or safety, (3) recognition or fame, (4) response from others (respect, love, or friendship), or (5) power.  This direction colors the character’s actions in the story.
  • Goal – This is the character’s specific goal within the story.
  • Tags – Brooks calls these “affectations and personality” while Swain calls them “adjectives of manner.”  These are words and phrases that other characters in the story, and the reader, would use to describe this character.  It could include words like: sloppy, disorganized, easily frightened, tall, thin, or shaky.  It could include habits, tics, or quirks.  It might include clothing choices, furniture choices, etc.  The reader (and the other characters) may not know why these things are as they are, and the character may or may not be aware of them.
  • Backstory – Brooks and Drake both stress the importance of knowing what events in the past shaped the character into what they are.  Identify the events that shaped the character into who they are today.  Write scenes or stories about those events, so you can see the events as your character saw them, and experience it with them.  This will help you understand the character.
  • Character Arc – What will the character learn (or change) during the story, solving the problems they encounter along the way?
  • Inner demons and inner conflicts – What inner issue holds the character back?  Did a traumatic event in their backstory make them afraid of fire?  Are they afraid to commit to a partner?
  • Worldview – Swain referred to this as “character plus hang-up.”  It combines the backstory with the inner demons, and becomes the character’s adopted belief system or moral compass.  For example, they may believe all politicians are crooks because they witnessed local city council members taking bribes.
  •  Role in the Story – What role does the character play in the story?

In next Monday’s post, I’ll walk through an example of this for a story I’m working on.  I’ll describe the story, explain the example character’s role in it, and start “filling in the blanks” above.

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