Characters matter

10 05 2010

To paraphrase Forrest Gump – Writing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find.

Everytime I sit down to write, it’s like an adventure. Many people read books because it allows them to enter a fantastical world that creates an escape from their boring, everyday existence. For me, writing is like that. In my novel, I have created a world. In the case of my current novel, the world happens to be very similar to our real world. But in this world, I am in control of my characters. It’s like playing “The Sims” only better. There are no limitations, except my imagination. I get to say what happens to them. I get to say who lives and dies. Who falls in love and who lives happily ever after. Who saves the world and who fails in their mission. Guess I must be a control freak with a God complex. Or maybe I’m just a wide-eyed daydreamer with a story that I want to share with the world. Yeah, I think I’ll go with the latter.

Sometimes when I sit down to write, I already know what scenario I am going to put my characters in. Other times, I am making it up as I go.  Either way, it is exciting to imagine who these people are and how they would react when faced with a particular predicament. I know these characters inside and out. I did create them after all. So it’s up to me to get inside their heads and share their thoughts with the reader.

For me, that’s one of the most important parts of the story – the characters. Of course you have to have an interesting story; one that the reader cares about and is curious about or else they have no reason to pick up your book. But if all you have is a good synoposis on the back cover of your book or the inside of the dust jacket, that won’t get you very far in the long run. You may get someone to buy your book and maybe even start reading it. But if you don’t populate your story with interesting characters who face challenges and are forced to struggle and grow during the story, the reader likely won’t make it all the way through your book. And they probably won’t be tricked into buying your next book that also has an interesting synopsis on the back cover.

How do you create good characters? Often writers will fall back on using an archetype to create many of those characters. Archetypes are universally recognized symbols or a prototype on which other things are patterned. For example, in literature, archetypal characters are the hero, the villain, the sidekick, the girlfriend/boyfriend of the hero, the mentor, the young lovers. You get the idea. If you’ve watched enough movies or read enough books, you’ve seen these character archetypes pop up in most of the popular media of the day in one form or another.

While these archetypes are a good place to start, you need to add a little more depth to your characters than just the vague, nebulous description that these archetypes bring to mind. For me, I need to make my characters more realistic. In real life, most people don’t fit perfectly into these archetypes. We are all flawed and imperfect, with quirks and challenges that make us interesting and unique. It is these touches we as writers must add to allow the reader to relate to our characters. Most of us can’t imagine having super strength and super speed and being born on another planet and being able to do almost anything. But when this character has a fatal flaw (Kryptonite) and a weakness for a certain brunette reporter (Lois Lane), suddenly Superman becomes a lot more like one of us. We all have our own personal Kryptonite and we all know what it’s like to be in love or to pine for someone we can’t be with or shouldn’t be with. Or imagine a character who has physical limitations because of their size and also has to deal with prejudice because of their race. Then imagine this character nearly succumbs to the temptation of evil. Yet this character is able, with the help of a team made up of other archetypes, to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and save the world from evil. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve either read or seen “The Lord of the Rings.” And we all have physical issues that limit us or make us doubt ourselves. We all have temptations that we must battle. That’s why these characters and stories have survived for decades.

Tomorrow, I will share some thoughts on steps you can take to create rich characters that your readers will want to get to know.

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