“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
– Ernest Hemmingway
Arguably the most important part of any story you tell are your characters. Regardless of your writing skill, your characters are what hooks your audience. You don’t need to look too deeply into Google to see that some of the most successful books and films out there have great characters set against dubious plot devices and narratives.
Take the Stephanie Meyer series, The Twilight Saga. Whilst I am not here to comment on other author’s works or abilities, allow me to use this as an initial example. The plot of the four-book series is essentially Girl meets Boy, Boy loves Girl but, for reasons, can’t be with Girl, Boy leaves Girl, Girl gets upset, Girl uses Other Boy as rebound, creates forced love triangle, Boy comes back for Girl, Boy and Girl get married and live happily ever after – with some mild jeopardy and vampires thrown in for good measure. Hardly a social satire or a clever political thriller. So why has this series sold more than 120 million copies?
You could ascribe it to 120 million lovestruck teenagers, or a 120 million lonely housewives or middle aged unmarried women; perhaps a combination? However, we would be making wholly unfair assumptions on those people and that is something you should never seek to do as an author. Some of these 120 million may be your future readers, your future fans, and in order to attract them you should take the time to understand them.
Take a look at this simple Literature Map that displays a correlation of readers who like Stephanie Meyer and the other authors that they are interested in.
Top names associated with Meyer readers are JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Anne Rice and JRR Tolkien. All acclaimed writers. So is it possible to make an assumption that the groups of people previously generalised can be into the same things some may say more intelligent people are into? Again, that would be grossly inappropriate to assume 120 million people are all idiots.
So what has attracted them to this book series? Film franchises always work wonders for the original books, but in order for there to be a film in the first place there has to be something that grips the audience. One possible reason is that these characters resonate with the reader.
Hapless teenage girl in love with an older, mysterious man? Who hasn’t been there? Boy falls out of love with you? How many of us can remember that heartache, that desperation to be near someone?
My argument is that it is not always the story that ensnares the reader: it is the characters and as complex or as dull as they may be, they need to above all be relatable.
The first stage of character development is to understand the person you are creating. You may already know what they look like and perhaps you already know where in the plot they are going, but no matter how amazing your story is, if you haven’t got a relatable character that attracts the reader, then few people are going to finish the book.
A rich, powerful protagonist whose fate is intertwined with the end of the world is going to read rather dully unless you focus on what makes them human: their flaws, their insecurities, the way they speak and even their view on life.
As the image of your character forms in your head, you need to be sure of what image you are creating in someone else’s. To address this, you need to answer some important questions.
Forget what a character looks like. The reader will bring that to the table for themselves. All you need to do is quickly describe your character’s appearance – if it is important.
So your character has wavy brunette hair? You don’t need to remind the reader of this on every page, or even in every chapter. To paint a picture of someone, the reader only needs a few pieces of information. Don’t go for the Lego Minifigure character description, starting with the hair, then face, then the height and what they are wearing. Unless its intricate to the plot, readers will find this sort of thing very tedious.
Plot Dependent Characteristics
The only time it may be appropriate to go into this level of detail is if you are world building – perhaps they are wearing futuristic spacesuits that help with interstellar travel, or maybe there’s a murderer on the prowl and your character fits a description from an eye witness…
However, it is easy to fall into the trap of over description. If your story is set in the future, and you have a lot of explanation for how their space suit works, then break it up. Give the reader snippets during character dialogue, or perhaps a narrative that creates the scene at the same time and shows the reader glimpses of the setting and the technology in increments.
Information overload is a massive turn off for many readers.
Similarly for the murder suspect, you don’t want to tell the reader he is a suspect. You want to leave little breadcrumbs for them to follow. If the witness heard a deep voice, then try not to repeat that description for when your character speaks – use of synonyms and metaphors will help to achieve this.
This is a very intricate part of character creation and development. We all have little traits and habits. Some are endearing, others annoying. Imagine someone close to you. When they are angry at you, how do they act?
They may sigh, they may ignore you, they may even just rage at you. How do you translate that behaviour on to the page?
First of all, try to steer clear of simply saying that the character is angry. Their actions, the way they move and hold themselves reveals a far more detailed description than simple adjectives can. Perhaps they are unable to look at the protagonist? Or maybe they are resorting to other mediums to vent their frustration? Alcohol, narcotics or doing something they know they shouldn’t, like revenge sex or humiliating the person who has angered them. We might huff and puff in the moment, but some anger is deeper than just primary school acting classes.
Annoying traits are great to develop a personality for your character, but watch you don’t over do it. I like to follow some simple rules:
Clumsy does not mean inability to walk/stay on your feet
Insecure does not mean the character necessarily would address the source of their insecurities. Allow doubts and worry to fester for a while in your characters through their actions. Not everyone has the strength to call out what they are feeling insecure about all the time.
Socially awkward does not mean they don’t like parties or large groups. Lack of ability to say something does not precipitate that the character doesn’t have anything to say. Where some people would return silence, others may panic talk in order to cover their awkwardness.
The Character Established
Through a combination of spattered description and character traits, an image can be created of how this person is and how they exist in the world. Using traits to complement description can create deeper and more meaningful images for the reader.
The bearded man slumped against his chair, shifting uncomfortably and adjusting his arms. The heat intensified and a trickle of sweat poured down his brow and dripped on to his T-shirt. He stared out across the courtyard at the slender figure he’d been watching all day.
A few times she looked over, and he dipped his head immediately into his book, eyes creeping up in their sockets to lock on to his prey.
In this snippet, I have created the impression that the character is a creep, even a stalker. There is a chance he is socially awkward, as he does not know how to hold himself in public for he adjusts his arms and shifts in his chair. We also get the impression that he sweats profusely, and perhaps that has given him a complex regarding his appearance, and is the reason he is unable to form confident connections with women – and this is the reason why he cannot make eye contact with the object of his desire.
It’s a lot to extrapolate from the short segment above, but it’s good to remember that when you are creating your characters, you don’t need to do it all at once. Using little paragraphs and sentences to describe someone’s behaviour can over time build a whole character. Harry Potter wasn’t born in a few short sentences about his scruffy hair and a scar on his forehead, and neither should your characters.