How to Write Characters
Every great writer knows the complexity of character drives the plot. If you have a good, solid character that you know innately, you can put them in a situation and they just go and do stuff. They’ll take the reins from you. This is a good thing because then writers can be surprised.
We’re not writing the story ourselves. We’re allowing our characters to test their boundaries. We’re building a person and then a place and then we get to sit back and watch it come alive. It’s really special to see your creations taking flight without you. It’s incredible. It’s also sometimes strange. I find sometimes when I’ve written a character, and I know who they are, we can be in the middle of a scene together where I’m a director but they’re the actors and I say, “Do this.” And they look at me and go, “I don’t think that’s right. Let me try this instead.”
They know who they are despite the actions we as writers try to force on them.
Here’s a secret though. If you give them the free rein, and tell them where you want to end up, they’ll do all the rest for you. They’ll create the intrigue themselves, the loopholes and subplots. They know when to leave it all on the field and give it everything they’ve got.
What’s really important for you as a writer though before you get out of their way, is to understand them as a separate human being, and trust them implicitly.
That’s why I talk a lot about getting to know your characters. It’s the basis of your story.
Let’s look at a few examples:
-Rick Riordin’s series stars Percy Jackson, who is a HUGE fan favorite. He’s a regular kid until external forces spur him to make the perilous trip to Camp Half-blood. Here’s the thing though. It’s in Percy’s nature to do the things he does. He reacts to those external forces which in turn drives the plot. One of the main themes of the series is his unfailing loyalty and how he winds up in trouble for it.
-Luke Skywalker’s unfailing loyalty also landed him in trouble with Darth Vader, when Han Solo and Princess Leia were taken hostage. Otherwise, that specific conflict could have been avoided altogether.
-Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth chooses to laugh over Darcy’s rude remark about her, but her pride still drives her to follow through with her avoidance of him. Still, she is a human being and can’t put off those feelings driven by her nature: compassion, understanding, forgiveness.
-You touch John Wick’s dog, and what’s he going to do? That was the plot. And it spawned within the first few minutes of the movie.
Building your characters doesn’t have to take a lot of time either. From the moment of their inception, they’re building themselves in your mind. They’re voice becomes instantly familiar and shapes the story as they begin to form as well. Before I knew what my characters looked like, I knew their voices.
It’s funny because when I first heard the voice of Pawns and the Fallen, I thought it was Dahliena speaking, but I soon realized it wasn’t. It was a more experienced voice but with the same unerring faith. It was an older, wiser, version of Dahliena, but it wasn’t her as she was. She was smaller in vocal stature. A little more bound and afraid by her current predicament.
The voice began to speak. They told me the story of their nation’s situation with “Capture a Leader, Capture a Nation,” which I used as my working title.
You can tell a lot about people by understanding the words they use and why. Even if you don’t actually pay attention, you get impressions and vibes. It’s psychology.
We’re hardwired to make assumptions about people in a matter of seconds. It’s herd mentality. Likewise, we make assumptions about our characters by the words or phrases they use.
It’s very easy to grasp their particular style when you understand them. And you will understand them through practice and a lot of writing in conjunction with them.
If it helps, think of them looking over your shoulder as you write, dictating the story to you. Remember, it’s real to them. It’ll feel real to your readers. And if you want to give your characters a fair shot at their story, it has to feel real to you.
I love them, these little pieces of humanity stuck within the spheres I created for them, but it is their reality. They don’t know any different. When I’m with them just talking, it’s my reality too.
I mourn the death of my characters. It rips my heart out to write about, then edit, then reread. I don’t want to spoil any books for you, but when I wrote for Nanowrimo of 2017, I almost couldn’t finish because I dreaded writing what I knew had to happen. I couldn’t avoid it within the story, so I stopped writing it. It was so terrible. So bleak, so heart-wrenching for me, that I threw myself into a mental and emotional tizzy that lasted weeks. But it had to be written or the story couldn’t progress. I wrote the thing I was so afraid of writing. I trembled with every click of the keyboard, tears flowing down my face, sobs hiccuping in my chest, and a roll of toilet paper slowly diminishing in width near at hand.
I truly loved my character. They were real to me. They had a real voice. Real dreams. Real histories and experiences that they unabashedly owned. They were progressing in life and helping my other characters. They were a true mark of grace, the sunshine and beauty in my made-up world, and then suddenly, they were gone. It hurt. I felt their loss as if it was real, because to me, it was.
I still dread going back to those scenes and losing my friends all over again.
Let your characters be real. Let them take over and do their own things. They will create fantastic adventures on their own. Be true to them and you’ll be true to the story.