(The first key to dynamic storytelling is to create interesting characters for your novel. Because I think this is one of the most important elements, I’m going to devote a full series of articles to it over the next few months.)
So, now that you’ve got your story idea in mind, you’ve chosen your genre, and you’ve come up with a world in which to set your story, what’s next? Well, you’ll need to populate that world with people – with characters. Mark Twain once wrote, “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have seen him before – met him on the river.” (Life on the Mississippi)
Every character in your story is an opportunity for you, as a writer, to create folks for your fictional world whom we have met on the river. In effect, it’s an opportunity for you to play God. You can create your characters in your own image, or in the images of people you have observed, or you can even draw completely upon your powers of imagination. Keep these things in mind as you create your characters:
• Every character thinks he or she is the star of the story. As they say in Hollywood, there are no small parts, only small actors. In other words, even your minor characters should come to life as living, breathing, three-dimensional people. It adds depth to your writing.
• You must know your characters inside and out – even if that knowledge never makes it onto the page. For example, you don’t have to tell us your character never went to college if it’s not integral to the story, but if you know that, then you know what he does or doesn’t know, how he speaks, and maybe why he strives so hard to overcome his lot in life.
• Make each character unique and original. That probably goes without saying. We are all unique and original, with our own mixes of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. At the same time – and here comes the balancing act – there should be something about each character with which your reading audience can identify. In other words, your characters should be new and different, but familiar.
Function of major characters.
Major characters generally fall into four basic categories, within which there are various subtypes. Each category serves a function in moving the story along. They are:
• Protagonist: This is your hero, the person who drives the story. This is also most likely the character through whose point of view you’ll tell your story.
• Antagonist: This is the character who stands in the way of your hero, who hinders him or her in achieving his or her goals. A lot of people confuse this with villain. Though the antagonist is often a villain, it doesn’t have to be. Anyone or anything that stands in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants is an antagonist. It can be an ally, or even a spouse, who simply has a difference of opinion with the protagonist or undermines him or her, even with the best of intentions.
• Best buddy/reflection: Once upon a time, this character was called the sidekick—think Gabby Hayes or Andy Devine in old westerns. This is the guy the hero talks with, formulates plans with, bounces ideas off of, and bares his soul to. Unfortunately for the best buddy, he often dies or gets killed, especially in thrillers.
• Love interest: This one speaks for itself, so res ipsa loquiter. Sometimes the love interest can also be a reflection or even an antagonist.
Three Dimensions of Character
You’ve probably heard the term “three-dimensional character” and may have wondered what that means. Well, this is your lucky day because you’re about to find out. Here are the three dimensions of character:
Physical makeup: This means exactly what you probably think it does – what the character looks like, sounds like, acts like. Or, put differently – and halving the number of words – appearance, speech patterns, and mannerisms. In other words, painting a picture of the character so the reader can conjure up a visual image.
Appearance means what it says – is he/she tall, short, fat, thin, bald, hairy, clean-shaven, bearded or mustachioed, missing teeth, sporting false teeth, old, young, scarred, unmarked, brown-haired, blonde-haired, and so on. But don’t forget other aspects of appearance – well- dressed, sloppily-dressed, always alone, always surrounded by an entourage, and so on.
What are their speech patterns? Do they speak in short, curt sentences or are they blowhards? Are they blunt or do they talk all around the issue? Does their speech reflect their education, their background, their political or religious beliefs? Are they glib, halting, do they speak broken or pidgin English? Do they pontificate or keep their opinions to themselves?
Mannerisms also add something to characters that allow the reader to visualize them, as well. Do they chain smoke, have nervous tics? What do they do when they’re nervous, angry, happy, sad?
This is partially what you often hear referred to as the backstory – what is it about the character’s past experience or environment that (a) led her to where she is today; (b) made her what she is today; (c) drives the actions she takes and the decisions she makes? As Goethe said, “A talent is formed in stillness; a character in the world’s torrent.”
Again, as we noted before, a lot of this may not ever be revealed to the reader, but it all goes into the mix of establishing your characters. Of course, if specific portions of the backstory are pertinent to the action of the story, you’ll need to reveal that – but do so in a subtle or understated way so that it doesn’t come across as ham-handed exposition. I’ll discuss exposition in a later article.
You can probably see in your own lives how your past influences your present. The same is true for fictional characters just as it is for real people. Are you driven to succeed because you grew up poor? Has there been some tragedy in your past that influences the decisions you make today? Where would you be had your decisions in the past been different or the events that were out of your control been different?
Personality, Philosophy, Attitudes: This is the third dimension, and often the most difficult to establish. The trick is to use the first two dimensions to reveal the third. To make a character three-dimensional, you need to delve into such things as intelligence, emotional makeup, value system, talent and abilities, and attitudes. These can often be revealed through a character’s speech patterns, mannerisms, and even appearance.
Appearance? Well, think back to the 1960s when men grew long hair as an expression of their attitudes or today when kids wear “colors” to show their identification with gangs – and all that goes along with that.
The temptation is to reveal this dimension through dialogue or through straight-up exposition. The better way, though, is to reveal it through the character’s actions – the choices they make when confronted with decisions or the actions they take to deal with the issues that confront them.
In the words of an anonymously-written poem:
Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
Mike Farris, a retired entertainment attorney and litigator, was lead attorney in the lawsuit in Fort Worth that involved royalties to the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy, which resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client. He collaborated with his client to write a book about the case, the award-winning Fifty Shades of Black & White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon. He is the author of four other non-fiction books, including the Hawaiian true crime books A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow and Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga. In the world of fiction, Mike is the author of ten published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.