Getting to Know Your Characters

character

noun char·ac·ter \ˈker-ik-tər, ˈka-rik-\

: the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone’s personality

: a set of qualities that are shared by many people in a group, country, etc.

: a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/character

A literary character is made up of personality, behavior, and appearance—it is these things that separate out one character from another. But, how does a writer put all these pieces together in a way that is both believable and complete? If each character was, at one point, a “future writer’s toy,” how are they made into what gets on the page?

Sometimes, a writer will base a character off a real person, Even famous characters have bits of real life people in them. It’s a safe bet that writers will unconsciously incorporate traits and behaviors of people around them, characters on television, or other stories. If we didn’t, the characters we produce would be complete alien with no familiar personality, habits, or beliefs and they would quite difficult to relate to!

I know when I’m building a new character that I think of it sort of like a puzzle. I start, first, with a need. I need a villain, I need a mentor, a doctor, a powerful woman, a father-figure, etc. I think of them initially as a silhouette and I will slowly illuminate the person hidden away in shadow.

And how do we go about this illumination? Literary Hunger Games.

Seriously. I take my new, shadowy person and toss them into various scenarios with other characters—characters I anticipate them interacting with in the book itself—and I see what happens. Usually, I’ll start with the next most relevant scene and play around with personal details until I get my new character to do something that moves the story forward (in the direction I want to go). Once I have a few basic traits in place, I’ll revisit old scenes or hypothetical scenarios—some I am considering for use in the book and others I know will never see the page—to, again, see what the character does in certain situations. I build up more and more information about his backstory during these trials and his reactions change, accordingly. At the end, I have a puzzle that’s about 70% completed and needs to be put into the story for real to be fleshed out to 100%.

For example, I’m working on building a primary antagonist now. I wasn’t happy with my faceless organization approach so now I’m trying a true, terrifying monster on for size. His working name is Ericor Carver and he specializes in interrogation and breaking the will of the prisoners of my faceless organization and he is perfectly positioned as an antagonist for DawnFire, my main protagonist.

But Ericor is, currently, a 1-dimensional sadistic psychopath and that’s not what I want. My loftiest goal is to have a sympathetic antagonist—one the reader actually believes in a little bit, one who makes the reader question whether or not the protagonist is right.

I have never seen this in YA fiction. I am sure it exists but the genre calls for more black and white than gray and, while I have read villains with decent, realistic motivations, I’ve never sympathized.

Enter Netflix’s DareDevil mini-series. That Kingpin was AMAZING. An entire episode was dedicated to his story and I really believed in it! I liked his intentions, but not the way he carried them out. I felt conflicted about the ultimate defeat I knew would come around (it’s a superhero series, you know the superhero will win eventually).

I want a villain like THAT.

This is not the story for it. I don’t have the time or the need to focus on Ericor that much. We are a little crowded with Dawn AND Sky serving as main characters, throwing a third person vying for the necessary attention isn’t going to work.

But, back to the idea of drawing from people we know/have seen on TV…

It’s a very real possibility that I may go back and watch that DareDevil episode and see how the writers decided to humanize this villain and make him relatable. Since I, hopefully, don’t know any real sadistic psychopaths, I’ll be relying on fictional ones to help me flesh out Ericor into the memorable, human terror that I want him to be.

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is INNATE, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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