Creating characters


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Creating Characters


Have you ever heard of the term, “Mary-Sue”, in relation to stories? If you don’t know what that is then I’ll explain. A “Mary-Sue” story is where the hero of the story is basically you. But not exactly like you, though; a better looking, stronger, braver, more popular, richer you, with super powers! These type of stories are usually pretty obvious, and often draw a lot of flack from people. Mary-Sue’s are not popular, other than with the person that wrote it.

But I’m going to go against popular opinion somewhat and say that Mary-Sue’s aren’t all bad. If you’re starting out in the big scary world of story writing then a Mary-Sue type story is almost certainly one of the first types you’re going to write. And that’s okay, it truly is! You’re still learning, and the only way to learn is to write, make mistakes, learn from them, keep writing, make mistakes, etc. So go on, write those Mary-Sue’s, but perhaps you should just keep them to yourself, or maybe only show them to select friends. But you really should be striving towards writing non Mary-Sue stories as soon as you can.

But don’t let anybody tell you that published author’s never base characters on themselves, because they very much do. They always have, and they continue to do so. Most successful authors have written novels containing characters that are them to varying degrees. The lead characters in some of the most successful novels have been a carbon copy of the author. But that’s the whole point: the character is just like the author, and nobody is perfect. Every single human being has flaws. And it’s their flaws that makes a character interesting, not their perfections.

When people write Mary-Sue’s, what they’re really wanting to see is them as the kind of person they wished they were, so they make them gloriously perfect. Because don’t most of us wish we were perfect? I know I do. But that makes for boring reading for everyone other than the person who wrote it. People can’t relate to perfect characters, because we’re not perfect. People can relate to flawed characters, though, because we ourselves are flawed. But that’s why we like to see the flawed hero triumph, because we can put ourselves in their shoes, and we cheer them on, wanting them to succeed against the odds!

You can go overboard with the flaws, though. Unless you really want your character to be thoroughly broken then don’t forget to give them some positives. A character that is so utterly damaged can be difficult for most people to warm to, which is a potential problem if this person is going to be the hero of your story. Those kind of characters can work, though, but usually only if they find some kind of redemption at or near the climax of the story. Still, if they’re thoroughly unlikeable then the journey to that point can be a tough one for your readers.

But what about your hero’s friends? What are they like? The temptation for some is to follow what we see in movies and TV series: one friend is black, one friend is gay and one friend is Asian. This sort of political correctness has no part in stories! Take a look at your own circle of friends? Is that really what they look like? Do you actually know anybody who genuinely has a circle of friends like that? Don’t get me wrong, if your character is white then I’m not saying they can’t have any black friends, gay friends or Asian friends. Sure they can! But unless a person lives in a highly multicultural and diverse neighbourhood then it’s extremely unlikely that a person will have that exact make-up of friends.

Another temptation is to follow a different type of movie or TV series, which is where each friend is wildly different than the other friends. Opposites attract only in bad fiction. In reality, opposites tend to get on each other’s tits after a while. Again, think about your own friends. Do you have friends who are all totally different from each other, as in nobody has anything in common? I highly doubt it. Maybe you might have one weird friend who is quite different from you, but there’ll still be at least some things about this person that you like, otherwise they wouldn’t be a friend, now would they. Make the friends realistic, not politically correct.

What about the villain of your story? Unless you’re writing a super hero or anime-based story, then your bad guy shouldn’t be a cartoon-style super villain, not if you want them to be believable. Just as you want the hero of your story to be someone the reader can warm to, the villain should have the opposite effect on the reader. You really don’t want people to be cheering on the bad guy, unless that really is the type of story you’re going for. Exactly how bad the person is really depends on what type of story and character you’re writing. Is the bad guy you’re garden variety bully and thug, or is he a psychopathic murderer? If he’s just a thug then you don’t want to go overboard and inadvertently turn him into a small town super villain. While you don’t want your audience cheering on the bad guy, you do want the readers to find them believable. If they’re too unbelievable then the reader can start to loose connection with your story.

Creating realistic, believable, relatable characters shouldn’t be so difficult. All you really need to do is to take a look at yourself and your friends. If you’re having a hard time warming to your character then so will everybody else.

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Good reading.

After I decide I’ll need a character, I typically use a random picker to give me a list of traits/hobbies/allergies/phobias, and I’ll see if any work for what I want out of the character.  If it’s a marginal character, I’ll pick more freely.  If there’s a specific/important reason for the character, I’ll be more selective and reselect until I get something closer.  And, after I select, I will record them (I’ve got dossier files for each character) – this is perhaps the most critical, because if I work with the character later, I can keep him/her consistent.

At the threat of a mild spoiler, this process helped me this week, because a character needed to eat a lot of a particular food.  As I was editing his dossier to make it his favourite, I noticed that I had previously made him allergic to it.  This suddenly made the character richer in his personality for deliberately eating something he’s allergic to (and suffering the consequences of it later), and strengthened the plot a bit since I no longer had to make it ill-prepared food. 

So, for me, my process helps me, helps me have a diversity of characters with different traits, and it helps me when writing because it can fill in those awkward moments, like, when one character gives a gift to somebody else, where the friendship is deep, then what’s the gift? 

My day job involves software so I have to be very rational, logical, and considering subtle nuances; this is something I carry over into my writing.  So, maybe somebody else will find my process useful. 


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