November 23, 2011

Writing Tips #5: Characters

So, what’s the next thing we have to consider in our writerly career? Why, characters, of course!

Okay, perhaps not “of course”. Some people believe in handling the plot first and generating ad hoc characters later, but I don’t. Not saying that it’s wrong, per se, but that I cannot do it. The reason?

The key to my characters is the pesky presence of the question, why? 

First off, for example: why is the character invested in the plot? At this point, perhaps, we have no idea what the plot’s going to be, but we should flesh out our characters to the point that, once we’re thinking and planning, we can answer the question off the top of our heads. In general lines, a character will become invested when there’s a situation that affects something regarded as “important” (hey, I did say “general lines”) so let’s start by figuring out what’s important for them:

Friendship? Love? Revenge? Money? Power?

Okay, not too bad. We have a starting point. Except, isn’t that one-word a bit too vague? If the important thing is love, are we talking family love, soul mate love, passionate love? Revenge is all nice and fair, but who’s the target? An ideology, a corporation, the neighbour?  Not even power gives us a straight answer: does he seek power over others? World domination? Or over his own emotions? Ah-ha! It gets much more tricky, doesn’t it?

The good thing is that, while you figured out what was the important thing for your character, you most likely stumbled upon the first “why”. If you didn’t, that’s okay, you can search for it now. Come on, think and tell me. why’s “that” one thing so important for your character? You’ll find that, more often than not, it’s the character’s past (their younger years, their family relationship, etc) which shaped the answer. A character who values passion over everything else might have experienced emotional instability first, and now hides in the more physical aspects while trying to hide from the deeper commitment. Or perhaps they just grew up in an open household where physical shows of affection were the norm. They might want revenge against the neighbour because he is a creepy, violent man who terrorized their youth or because, I don’t know, accidentally killed their flower bed.

Whatever your answer, the “why” will say a lot about where your character comes from, about how they face the situations life throws at them, and about where they want to go. It’ll also offer a good potential for conflict, as they try to get over their past, to accept it, or just to live with it. When you develop your plot, you’ve to make sure that it has at least one point in common with the “why”, with the “most important thing”, or else the character won’t have a reason to lead the story. Beyond being chosen by the author, of course, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason anyway...

I firmly believe that the way to an invested reader goes through an invested character. If your characters care, suffer and struggle, and your readers understand exactly why they’re fighting on against all odds, the most likely result will be a cheering bunch of readers. No matter how good the story, if the characters lack will – depth – the readers won’t be as engaged as they could have been.

Perhaps you don’t have to sit down with a piece of paper and write every aspect of a character’s past, or to sketch their dreams and hopes for the future, or their fears and their roots... But even if you don’t follow an organized approach, I think you should think about it. Have answers ready for whatever questions the plot might bring later on. Know your characters, as if they were your friends, so that you know what will affect them – and how.

And, once you’ve sorted that out, you can move on to the plot and conflict. Most of the development you’ve done should give you ideas about what kind of conflict will or won’t work, and you’ll probably have an idea about how to get your character from who he is into who he wants – or should – be. While this does not constitute a plot by itself, it’s an important part of one. It’s, perhaps, the part that will leave the reader most satisfied.

No, really, think about it: think about the novels you’ve read with enthralling plots, breathtaking action and unexpected twists. Think now about stories with real characters, with worries and flaws you could understand and relate to (my personal opinion is that understanding is relating, but let’s use both words for the sake of argument).

Now, please, ponder how many titles are in both categories. How many titles are just in the first, story-only group? How many titles are just in the second, character-driven group?

If you’re anything like me, the vast majority of your answers will fit under both, or under characters. Characters, not story.

It’s quite important to create a solid someone, isn’t it? Daunting, too, but not impossible. You just have to make sure you know who you’re writing about.

At least, that’s what I think... What is your opinion?


  1. Thanks for the great post! I like complex characters that develop throughout the book that readers can relate to. Wonderful post :)


  2. You're most welcome! And thanks for the comment! :)