Even if you are interested in learning new ways to think about your fiction writing, you probably hate to be ordered around. Because of that, I have avoided stating any rules or using "you" language in the following sections. You may find it tiresome to read so much about what I do—but I think that's better than telling you what to do.
Friends of mine sometimes worry that I will put them in a book as a character. For some reason, no one seems to look forward to this! But they needn't worry. I always invent my characters. I don't copy characters straight from real life.
After an artist has drawn subjects from life for many years, he or she can doubtless make a sketch drawn from a blend of the subjects already in his or her head. And I am sure that an architect who has spent a career designing hotels would be able to draw up a blueprint putting together the best features he or she has encountered. I build up my characters from elements rather than slavishly copying a model. Not only does this allow me to keep my friends, but it gives my imagination more room to play, and that means I have more fun at my writing.
People who live in the real world may falsify it in their own perceptions, but those of us who deal with false worlds cannot afford to do so. Our characters need to behave like real human beings, so we have to know as much as we can about how human beings really behave. Novelists should be the most sympathetic listeners and the most kindhearted observers of our race because we cannot afford any illusions or blindness about what makes people tick.
When we study the people around us closely, we learn how strengths and weaknesses, taken together, make up a living, breathing person. We understand that a great love of detail, for example, will result in a person who is both precise and picky. We know better than to wish aloud, as others do, that a strong-willed and action-oriented person would be more sensitive to peoples' feelings. Novelists realize that the good won't exist without at least some of the bad being present as well.
Everything that we notice about the people around us can help us later in our writing. The outfits that people wear, their favorite jokes, their nervous habits, their family histories, and their ways of handling their spouses and children can all improve our ability to create a good character. As we observe, we learn that the characteristics, likings, pet peeves, virtues, vices, and educational background of any one person make up a set so complex and extensive that we would not want to be constrained to use the whole thing at once. Instead, we wind up taking a habit from here and a petty dislike from there to build up an entirely new character. The variety is so great: we are spoiled for choice, and the world gives us more raw material each day.
I almost never meet people that I truly dislike: there is something interesting about all of us. A lifetime of examining real-world people has given me a wealth of details to draw from as I assemble my characters. Even when I am selecting reading material, I like to find nonfiction items that will add to this stockpile of specialized knowledge. Memoirs and autobiographies make particularly fascinating reading matter because I can observe the rationalizations people develop to explain their own lives to themselves.
As soon as a new character appears in my mind, the first thing I ask myself is "Where did he come from?" I want to know all about my new character's background. Researching a character's cultural norms, parents, and childhood reveals many things about how that character will act and speak. Did my character have a happy time growing up, with lots of friends to play with? Then he may have an easy time getting to know others, and he is likely to speak with confidence. Was my character's father domineering and cruel? Then he may turn to harsh criticism himself as a way to express love and concern.
I generally know many things about even my minor characters that the reader never learns. The reader doesn't need to be burdened with these details—she's trying to enjoy a story! But I am my characters' only chance at life. What I don't know about them will hurt them. People are very complicated: they operate on many levels at once, and some of these levels are so deep that the characters themselves don't know about them. I have to understand my characters' motivations, the things that they don't want to know about themselves. Only then will these motivations show through in their words and actions.
As I learn about my characters, I put them through parallel universe experiences. I create crisis moments for them that are not within the scope of my plot, just to see how they will behave. Maybe my character doesn't experience a death in the family within my plot, but if she did, how would she handle it? The things I learn from these "out-of-plot" experiences clarify my characters for me, and that extra information comes in handy as I monitor their ideas and feelings.
Everyone has certain nervous habits, certain daily routines. Fiction characters need these, too; they help readers to visualize the characters and relate to them. But it is important that these quirks and habits have some internal consistency, some reasonable origin. If I understand where my characters' favorite little tricks and habits come from, I am more likely to be realistic in my treatment of them. But, once again, this is something that doesn't need to concern the reader directly.
For instance, in The Hollow Kingdom, my goblin King, Marak, has a habit of fooling with his long hair. He wears it loose and refuses to keep it in any sort of order except when he is conducting his most important business, holding court. This annoys my tidy heroine to no end, who cannot understand why a grown man would want hair hanging in his face.
Now, as his creator, I know that Marak has always been quite pleased about his full head of hair (horse-tail hair, actually) because hair on the head is not that common among goblins, and his own father was entirely bald. Growing up around this bald authority figure, Marak was very aware of his own hair, and his habit of playing with it goes back to very early childhood. A mother like Kate would have discouraged this, but Marak's mother Adele, herself flamboyant and unconventional, never minded it, and Marak's father, very reasonable and patient, would never have seen any reason to forbid it. That's why Marak is so unselfconscious about it in maturity and why Kate's disapproval doesn't deter him in the least.
The one feature that really distinguishes the human race is our ability to choose our words and actions. The future is unwritten; we can decide what to do. Even when we are severely constrained—in chains, perhaps—we still have a certain amount of choice. We may refuse to work with a captor: we may fall to the floor and force him to drag us. Or we may try to charm him into liking us with jokes and stories. Many people have remained free even under the harshest threats. They have chosen death rather than cooperation.
Our characters have to have this same freedom. They must be able to work within their own fictional brains and hearts to decide their courses of action. I may have a fairly clear idea where my plot is headed, but I can only get there with my characters' help. I have to provide them the means to decide on their own to take the story where I want it to go.
My attitude as I write reflects my respect for my characters' independence. I never say to myself, "Now, I need her to do this." Instead, I say, "What will she do now? Among the possible choices, I need to work toward this direction." The actions of the character need to make sense. Even if they are irrational actions, they need to be "in character"—consistent with how that character is put together psychologically.
Occasionally, I have thought out the broad plot of a manuscript before I have gotten to know my characters that well, and I have found a character unable to accept the course of action that my plot demands. In Close Kin, for example, one character is assigned to marry another, and it is important for my plot that he do so. It never occurred to me that the character might not want to do this because he is ordinarily obedient to commands, and he knows that such a marriage is very prestigious. But I also made this character very nice: he has a hard time distressing people. When he finds out that his partner deeply deplores the marriage, he is thrown into real turmoil. I was writing this section one morning and thinking, "What will my character say in response to that?" And I was quite disturbed when he blurted out, "I can't marry you!"
I sat there and thought about it for a few minutes. There was no question that this is what my character would say, and making him say something else in order to save the plot would break his free will. So I modified the plot instead to work around my character's decision. That's what my creativity is there for, after all: there are many ways to reach the same end.
Whenever I have truly disliked a book or movie, I have found that my dissatisfaction lay with the characters. I have said to myself, "Oh, come on! There's no way she would ever do that!" And every time I have given a writing class, I've asked how many people have stopped reading a book because the characters' behavior wasn't making sense. Invariably, the whole class raises hands at this question, and they generally become quite vehement about it, too: "Such-and-such-book! The characters are so stupid! No one acts that way!"
We value our freedom of choice, and we refuse to identify with characters who aren't equally free. No amount of clever plot-building can overcome characters who have been turned into puppets. Given the choice between breaking a plot or breaking a character, I always break the plot. Plots can be fixed, but a broken character is not real anymore, and nothing can bring that character back to life.
A very good man was unhappy with me because of Marak, my goblin King: "He's brutal and vengeful. He teaches the world all the wrong things." But a young woman felt quite differently about him: "I just love Marak! He's so kind and sweet!"
To tell the truth, I am uncomfortable with both reactions. They are too simplistic and extreme. Marak isn't actually brutal, but he isn't sweet, either. He's insensitive, quick-tempered, and inclined to recklessness, but he is also well-disciplined, orderly, intelligent, and tolerant of others. His personality holds a mixture of virtues and vices, a situation which is true of all of us.
No hero should be without failings, and no villain should be without virtues. Every person alive is endowed with natural strengths and weaknesses of character. The real question is not which of us has the greatest natural gifts but what we do with the gifts we have. Those who struggle to overcome their moral weaknesses may wind up being heroes if they struggle long and hard enough. Those who give in to their own worst inclinations are villains, no matter how gifted they may otherwise be. Our characters should reflect this reality.
No evil person thinks he is evil. He will make clear to you, if you let him, just why he has behaved the way he has. I like to give my villains a chance to explain themselves because readers should learn to weigh for themselves the complexities of human behavior. Readers who want easy choices, the white hats against the black hats, are developing a habit that will serve them poorly later when they start looking for emotional simplicity in everyday life.
I once attended a meeting of some target readers who were discussing a manuscript of mine. They were talking about one of the least likable characters in the manuscript—something of a villain—and several of the girls were passionate about their dislike of him. But one eleven-year-old disagreed. "I liked him," she explained seriously. "I just didn't like it when he did what he did."
This girl had seen the good in my character and had realized the degree to which he had let himself down with his own bad behavior. Because she saw him as a person, not a black-hat villain, she realized that he was capable of better things. I'm proud that a character of mine was complex enough to produce such a mature and well-reasoned response.
It is a sad thing for a character when even her own author isn't interested in her, but that does sometimes happen. I know of a book by a brilliant author who has written classics of children's literature. Generally, this author is known for her colorful and lively characters, but there is one poor little girl in this book who is nothing but a paper doll. She exists only to be a foil for her mischievous twin brother, and she has absolutely no personality of her own. I can tell that her own author didn't give her more than a minute's thought.
I think that characters who are in the book for a page or two still need to live real lives. They need occupations, places to go, and families to return to in the evening. They need their own favorite words and habits, something to call their own. In short, we can't let them realize that they have a walk-on part in a book: they, too, have to think like real people.
If we succeed in giving our minor characters lives, our readers won't realize that these characters are minor, either. They will feel that they could follow these characters home and have an interesting new story. And when that happens, our readers will forget for a little while that they are reading a book. They will be living inside the world we have created.
"Ideas about Creating Characters" copyright 2004 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.