Hannibal Lector. Scarlet O’Hara. Elric of Melnibone. The Bloody Nine.
What goes into creating a great character in fiction? Where does the core concept come from, and how does an author use that concept to tell his story?
I have a piece of paper hanging beside the computer where I write. Printed on the paper is the phrase. ‘Character is the story.’
I put up that sign about seven years when I sold my first short story to always reminder myself that no matter what story I am working on, no matter how elevated (or vulgar) my themes, character is the engine that drives my fiction. As long as I remember that, I can be true to myself and my readers.
For my debut fantasy novel, Shadow’s Son, I created the main character (or protagonist) from a short list of ideas. I knew his profession, social class, marital status, place of residence, some physical traits like height and build. But these were just a grocery list of ideas to get me started. The real character building didn’t occur until Caim appeared on paper (well, computer screen). I had to write him in order to learn about him. The more I wrote, the clearer he became in my mind. By the end of the first draft, I felt like I’d know Caim all my life. After all the rewrites and edits, I knew him better I knew than myself in some ways.
My primary goal when writing a character is to make her feel ‘real’ to the reader. Dialogue is an easy place to start. If it doesn’t sound like something a real person would say, I work until it reads more naturally. One good technique if you run into trouble is to read the dialogue out loud. Sometimes hearing dialogue spoken can cue you in to specific trouble spots.
Actions speak louder than words, as the old saying goes. A character can say one thing, but do another, and that sheds new light on what we (the reader) know about her. Or perhaps she is forced into an unpleasant situation. How she deals with that unpleasantness can say a lot about her. And I’m a big fan of action over exposition. Action shows us what a character is like. For example, it’s one thing to state that a character has violent tendencies. You can even get more specific and say he is a contract killer. But that doesn’t hit home until the character is standing over one of his victims, with their blood dripping from his knife. Now he’s a killer. And how he feels when he receives his payment (ashamed? proud? aroused?) shows us more about him than pages and pages of exposition could ever do.
Another thing I like to do is write scenes where my characters are doing mundane things. Maybe making something to eat or shaving. Not only does the way the character approaches everyday events say a lot about them, it lets me get inside their head. Now, those scenes oftentimes get cut from the final manuscript because ten pages of a character making a salad and reading the newspaper aren’t riveting prose, but sometimes that kind of scene makes a nice change of a pace, a breather for the reader before I plunge back into the story action. But I try not to overdo it.
Change. Most of us fear it in life, but we crave it in fiction. We want characters that grow beyond their roots and experience new things. When our favorite characters change, they change us also. In small ways, certainly, but don’t we all want to read a book that changes our perceptions? That’s done through characters. When one of your characters speaks out against injustice, they’re brave. When they put their life on the line for that cause, then they ascend into the pantheon of immortal heroes.
Lastly, memorable characters do memorable things. Frodo Baggins agreeing to carry the One Ring into the heart of Mordor. Sturm Brightblade’s last stand. Darth Vader uttering those words that changed the course of a galaxy, “Luke, I am your father.” That’s the stuff of memorable fiction.
Strive to make your characters relatable and real. Give them authentic voices. Allow them to grow and change. And find moments in your story when your characters can do something astounding and unexpected. Your readers will thank you for it.
Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books). The upcoming sequel, Shadow’s Lure, will be out in June of this year. Find him online at jonsprunk.com.