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Stories need characters. Every story has at least one (the protagonist, the main character) and most have more, including secondary, tertiary, and minor characters--the longer the story arc, the more characters are likely to be needed.
Novice writers struggle a lot with character creation, and get all kinds of advice on how to do it--my way isn't the only way, but it's an approach that has worked for me and for some of the people I've talked with. We'll start with the simplest character types and work from there.
Meet the stock character: the icon of the type. Handsome prince, beautiful princess, brave warrior, brilliant wizard/scientist, cunning thief, cute freckle-faced kid, et cetera until you want to throw the book. Most stock characters have a combination of traits, but are still cardboardy stock: the handsome prince is also brave, noble, intelligent; the warrior is brave, strong, agile, and so on. As a main character, Ms/Mr Stock can work in humor and satire (subspecies of humor) but not in ordinary fiction past the YA level. The stock character works well in those background situations where you need reader recognition of a type.
The easiest way to modify a stock character is by inversion of the prime trait of the stock version: the prince and princess are ugly, the warrior is a coward, the wizard is stupid. In multiple-trait stock characters, minor variation occurs by inverting one trait: the prince is still handsome, but he's stupid. The warrior is still brave, but clumsy. The wizard is smart enough with spells, but a total idiot about practical matters. These easy inversions have all been used so much that they have themselves become stock characters--only useful as main characters in humor--unless something else is added.
What's that something else?
Complexity. But that's like a dictionary definition I ran across years ago: "To broggle" meant "to sniggle." I looked up "sniggle" and yes, it said "to broggle." Not a lot of help, there. So, what's complexity mean, in practical terms, when you're working on a story?
It means your character has a mix of traits that (as in real people) come from both innate nature and experience--constants the character has no control over, and variables that involve the character's response.
Inborn details are the contants: gender, eye color, hair color, skin color, potential adult height, handedness, relative proportion of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers (which determines athletic potential for different sports), neurological factors that determine coordination, sensory discrimination (visual acuity, color vision, hearing including pitch discrimination, taste, touch, etc.) Some personality traits are also innate (so research says)--a tendency to seek out or avoid new experiences, a basic emotional setpoint towards contentment or discontent.
People react to their innate, constant traits in large part because society reacts to them. No baby worries about its eye color or hair color or skin color. But by the age of three, children know whether their race (in general) or their own appearance (individually) is acceptable or not acceptable to their family, their neighborhood, their society. They know which gender has more status; they know where their family is socially. Children learn from other children and teachers that ears sticking out, or crooked or missing teeth, or being taller/shorter/thinner/fatter than others is cause for concern. They also learn whether their innate abilities are valued or devalued in their culture.
Experience delivers the variables: everything that's happened to your character from birth on up. Early family history--both the child's experience in the family and the family's place in society, diseases and accidents, religion (and society's reaction to that religion), school, friendships, quarrels, employment or unemployment, etc. Sometimes variables modify constants--an illness or trauma can result in shorter adult height or missing limbs or paralysis; social pressure can lead someone to change their appearance with plastic surgery or dyed hair or concealing clothing.
Experience is not just events (a fall from a bicycle at age eight) but the individual's reaction to the event and the reactions of others to the event. You know from your own experience that different people react to the same event differently. Suppose the person who fell off the bicycle was a little girl whose family had already decided her role in life was "pretty." If she gets a bruise and a cut on her face when she falls, her parents are likely to make a big deal out of it, worry that she'll have a scar. Another child, who has resented this one's "princess" behavior, might say "You're not so pretty now, are you?" This girl will feel very differently about herself, the accident, and the meaning of a tiny scar on the face, than the tomboy who gets the same cut, and whose parents say "Well, at least you didn't break anything." The child who is defined as the family clown has a different life (and different self-image) than the child who is defined as the family brain.
To create characters that feel realistically complex, you need both constants and variables. Real characters need both strengths and weaknesses--they can't be good at everything, problem-free, and they can't be bad at everything, nothing but a mass of problems. Both perfect characters and totally lame characters annoy readers (and bore them.) The traits you choose to depict need to make biological and social sense (for most story types anyway)--heritable traits will be found (to a lesser or greater degree) in the character's family; experiences should have known, familiar consequences. Another point about strengths and weaknesses: they may reverse value in different situations. What was a weakness may be valuable; what was a strength may be useless. Characters--like us--may have depended too much on one talent, and have to learn to use others.
Character and plot collide to make story; the collision points are the constant/variable traits you've shown in your characterization. Traits that have no plot function are useless for storytelling; some of your character's traits won't show (though, the longer the story arc, the more you can show.) Plots that don't make use of characters' innate traits and experience are boring. So in developing character, think of them as burs rather than billiard balls, shiny and hard. Burs stick to things (like plot points) and a character with a lot of traits on a lot of different character axes will interact with the plot in interesting ways, with motivations that seem natural and inevitable to readers even when the actions may surprise them.
So lots of complexity in a character offers the writer a wide choice of motivations for any action--complexity in character allows complexity in plotting, creating interesting subplots and overall richness. A character may act from a strength (any of several) or weakness (any of several) in different situations at different times and have complex internal conflicts and relationships.
But--do all characters need to be complex?
That's a good question and the answer is...well...complex. All characters need to be as complex as they need to be (Mr. Broggle, meet Ms. Sniggle...) and it's up to the writer to know how complex they need to be. The more important they are--the more they move the action along--the more they need complexity. Readers invest energy and concern in major and first-level-minor characters; they need "complexity hooks" to hang that interest on, and the characters need some way to connect to the plot.
But complexity in a very minor character is distracting. If someone's purpose in the plot is mere scenery, mentioned only to add a touch of concrete detail (a baggage handler that the protagonist sees tossing the protagonist's bag on a conveyer belt) then a digression into this person's personal history is a distraction. Any details given will demand a corresponding plot point: the person must have a plot function to be given "character space."
Titrating the complexity to the level of plot-importance of the character can be difficult, especially in novels, where there's room to have more than one complex character.
The main character needs all the complexity you can manage; main secondaries need almost as much. These are the people whose problems and actions drive the plot, the people the reader wants to engage with and know. Minor secondaries need only enough to link to their plot function, to make their actions believable. If you want to create more backstory for them, fine--but the reader does not need to know more than the plot demands.
Writers with a talent for characterization are routinely mobbed by their characters who think the writer should give them more lines...resist, or write another book/story about that character. Don't let them bully your protagonist off the stage. Similarly, writers who are good at characterization can be tempted (when the plot sticks) to write more and more about the characters, while the story itself languishes.
Contents of these pages ©1996-2012 Elizabeth Moon
This essay ©2006 Elizabeth Moon