Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Four Character Essentials

A popular post from February 2013

By Josi S. Kilpack

I was recently on a Fiction Writers Panel with Steven Peck and Greg Park. It was interesting that the three of us were there as we have all had unique experiences. Peck is a biology professor, Park is a creative writing teacher. All of us are novelists and write very different things. One of the questions we were asked was what were the most important things about creating characters.

What we pulled out of our collective hat were four things: A flaw, a special ability, a prominent physical feature, and a personal history.

Greg shared a quote I hadn't heard before. I have gone online and tried to find who to credit it to but the best I can get is that it's Angus's Grandpa in the movie Angus. He'd said to Angus that Superman wasn't brave, then explained "He's smart, handsome, even decent. But he's not brave . . . Superman is indestructible, and you can't be brave if you're indestructible" Greg went on to explain that yes there is Kryptonite, but that doesn't affect his courage, just his abilities in very specific circumstances. As I've thought about it I think I figured out his flaw, however. He was different. That's what's hard for him. He is not a mortal, he is in the wrong world and this causes him trouble. And therefore, every character has flaws. Readers want it because they want characters they can relate to, characters who feel real and we know that no one is perfect. Flaws are also fabulous in regard to how they can affect plot. Using your characters imperfections to create tension.

A special ability:
This doesn't mean they have to be a master wizard or an expert archer or genius IQ, but they do need to have something that makes THEM the person to change the 'world.' By world I mean whatever sphere he is battling in the story you are writing. Maybe they are clever, maybe they are small and manage to hide somewhere no one else could, maybe they know that the "rules of haircare are simple and finite." It doesn't have to be better than everyone else, but it needs to set them a part, even if it's just a little bit. When things are dire, they will use this special ability to come out ahead.

A prominent physical feature:
Harry's scar, Ron's red hair, Katniss's beauty, Elle Wood's blonde hair, Scarlett O'hara's good looks. For my character Sadie, it's her hair--which changes in most books--and her non-slim figure. It doesn't mean you choose something different than anyone else's, but just something that helps to solidify the view of the character in the mind of your reader. It keeps your character visual and while it might become essential to your plot--Harry's scar, Quasimodo's deformities--it might just be an element of your story but it should be there.

A personal history:
All three of us agreed that it's history that creates motivation and motivation which creates plot. The Phantom is who he is because of where he came from and the trauma of his childhood. Harry wants to belong in the wizard world more than anything because he's never fit anywhere. Aladdin hides who he is because he's a street urchin and he's used to being discarded because of his class. Knowing where your character came from and how his life has shaped him will make a lot of the plot points fall in to place far more organically if you do it backward; start with motivation and then try to figure out why it's there. Many authors I know create very detailed backgrounds on their characters, most of which will never show up in the story but which is essential for them knowing how this character will shape the story.

I love to hear your favorite character and how all of these four points are reflected within them. Please share!


Debra Allen Erfert said...

A very wise woman once told me that every character needed a flaw--that a character couldn't, and shouldn’t be perfect or he/she wouldn't be realistic. I didn't understand nor appreciate her gentle critique at that time. It actually took me years to notice that most protagonists are deeply flawed on one level or another. Their flaw is what makes them relatable. If they can't grow over the course of the story, the reader won't care about what happens to them, and then what will entice that reader to continue to read? I think the personal history plays hand-in-hand with their flaws.

I have a character, Grace, whose mother suffered from cancer while Grace grew up. She was left with her parents' friends and family whenever the mom had to go through another surgery or out-of-town treatment. Although the book doesn't start with her childhood, that background trauma and feelings of abandonment bleeds through to her adulthood and into her relationships. She's flawed, hopefully not too deeply. I had her cut her otherwise bland brown hair into short bob within the first chapter and highlight it with blonde streaks. Midway through the book, when she saw her love interest on a date with a real blonde, she berates herself for having to wear a shower cap and have her blonde hair painted on by a beautician. She’s insecure, and not just about her appearance, but about feeling like she’s in the way, and making another wrong choice in a relationship; massive flaws she developed from her childhood, flaws that she conquers by the end of the book.

I would've loved to have been in the Fiction Writers Panel's audience and heard some of the other questions. Good post!

Crystal Collier said...

All important aspects. I especially back the history. Every character deserves the personal attention of the author--enough that they are unique. Cardboard characters should NEVER appear in a book. Everyone, even people who appear for a total of 3 seconds, should have a sliver of personality showing. Just like real people.