Make Them Real
By S. C. Green
How do I create solid characters? Well, I hate to dispel the magic here, but they don’t happen from the get go. I have to finesse them onto the page one word at a time. Let me give three techniques I have used on numerous occasions.
1. Visual Aids
For me, knowing what the character looks like is extremely important. This is the image that will play out in my head for the remainder of the story (and beyond, if he/she is compelling enough). This is also helpful in keeping descriptions straight throughout. If you happen to find a random picture that resembles your character, cut it out or print it up. Stick it in your writing area and let it help give you insight on the character.
I have a character in my book named Zeke that for the longest time didn’t pop off the page. He was boring in two-dimensional black ink. Then I went to my cousin’s wedding. The gentleman that officiated the ceremony captivated me. He was the physical embodiment of my character, Zeke. I have no memory of what his real name is, nor do I know anything about him. All I have is his image, and from that moment on, Zeke was alive.
With a body and face picked out, now it’s time to fill it with brains and emotions. I need to know where they work. This gives me an idea of their level of intellect. Remember, just because they empty your trash, doesn’t mean they can’t correct your calculus. In other words, whenever possible, avoid stereotypes. Not that they can’t come in handy, but they usually become boring fairly quick. Since most people are familiar with stereotypes, it’s easy to guess at what decisions that character will make. The dumb jock will always do dumb jock things.
From this point you have to throw them into a situation. Find out what they’ll do. Yes, this is organic writing. Let it happen. It doesn’t have to end up in your final piece. Most likely it won’t. It took me several hypothetical situations before I realized my main character in Raven’s Mark was a thief. At one point he used to be a doctoral candidate working in a lab. It didn’t fit, but I had to experiment to find the right fit.
Hopefully by now you have a grip on who your character is. If you don’t, I have one more suggestion.
3. The Interview
I use this as a last resort. A last resort only because I feel silly interviewing someone in my head. I know it doesn’t make sense. How can I fabricate entire worlds and cultures, but feel weird interviewing one of them? The world is filled with inconsistencies. I’m no exception.
The trick is to write everything down. Start out simple: How old are you? What’s your favorite dessert? Do you like pets?
Write out the answers as they come to you. Don’t stop to think. It could also help to do this long hand.
Ask tougher follow-up questions to the previous answers: Why do you open the former resident’s mail? How does it feel getting passed on that promotion? Where was your father through all of this?
Don’t ever interrupt an answer. You might find your character rambling on for a couple of pages. Whether they answer you boldly or do their best to dodge the question, you’ll get something out of it.
It might be helpful if you have someone else interview you as that character. Again, this feels silly, but it can work if you let it.
There’s no steadfast rule on which you should try first. None of them might appeal to you. Each way I’ve listed resulted in a more vibrant character for me. Some characters needed more than one technique, others didn’t require any. So if you’re stuck on a character, but don’t want to give up on him or her, give one of these a try. If you have another idea, I’d love to hear about it. One can never have too many tools.