Creating story characters is an exciting part of writing. As the creator of your own micro world, there are new heroes and villains just waiting to be born. But in order to capture your reader’s attention and make them want to read your story up until the very last page, you need to create compelling story characters they will care about.
So before we start, let me ask you some questions. When you read a book, watch a film or a television show – what draws you in? What captures your imagination? What inspires you to go and see a film or buy a book? What gets you hooked into a television show? I am pretty sure your answers to these questions will be… the characters – real or fictional.
It does not matter whether we cheer for the hero or whether we hate the villain, characters are the most important elements in the story-world. We all have our favorite characters (and I don’t mean actors or actresses). Who is your favorite character? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, or maybe a cartoon superhero – Batman, Superman or Iron Man? Or maybe you are a fan of the villain – the hero’s nemesis!
The best characters are complex and fully developed. They have distinctive traits (actions, speech and external appearance). Characters appear more complex when they develop new traits or undergo a metamorphosis or a personal transformation throughout the story.
What do we look for in a character? Human qualities like sensitivity, empathy, strong values, bravery etc. We seek to identify with characters on some level. Do they laugh, cry, or experience conflict? Do they experience crushing disappointments and celebrate long-awaited victories?
Even though I am a self-confessed bookaholic, I believe the world of filmmaking has the greatest potential for creating dynamic characters. Since the creation of film, in the late 19th century, audiences have been quite happy to sit in a small darkened room, separated from their friends and other captured viewers, whilst being held transfixed by the moving images on a screen.
In the 21st century, we continue to repeat this much loved cultural activity, either at the cinema or in our self-created home theatre. And in these social places of magic and wonder, we are suspended in time and space. So what keeps us spell-bound? Forget the special effects, the digital sound and computer generated imagery (CGI). It’s all about the characters! Whether we admit it or not, we live vicariously through these imaginary people who seem to live eternally in the magical story-world.
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
― William Faulkner
I love this quote about story characters. Faulkner’s experience reminds me of what can happen when you breathe life into a character. Once you have drafted your character’s backstory, their actions, their trajectory, chances are, he or she can sometimes develop a mind or will of their own. There have been countless times when my characters have surprised me. Their personalities have undergone a dramatic reversal and they seem to want to direct the plot themselves. I thought it was just me and I had been staring at the computer screen for too long. I had spent too much time in the fictional world. But one day I attended a catch-up meeting with some other ‘creatives’ from the film, television, and theater site, Stage 32, and when I asked one of the writers do your characters sometimes change during the writing process? The answer was Yes!
So, why do characters change mid-story? As writers, we have the power to create characters that can mirror real life people. And just like real people, your characters can develop a mind or will of their own.
A character will possess universal human characteristics and can be drawn from people we know. We can relate to them on some level and we hope others will too.
Of course, characters are not only restricted to humans; they can be animals, extraterrestrials (E.T.) or toys that come to life (Toy Story). The possibilities are endless. And sometimes there are characters we can not relate to, but they also have an important part to play and have an important story to tell.
“Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into a story is our overwhelming creative task.”
Robert McKee, Story, Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
Characters are the active agents in your storyworld that drive the plot forward. They get things done, they react to situations and to other characters. They put the heart and soul into your story. The dialogue and monologues uttered by fictional heroes and villains are often the words we fear to say in real life.
As a creator, we can make our characters do things that we are afraid to do in our everyday lives. An example would be: having the courage to talk to someone we have admired from afar, or being bold and accepting a challenge.
Yes, sometimes characters can achieve the things that we can only dream about.
I also think that creating characters can be very therapeutic. When I’m angry, stressed or depressed – creating a character helps.
Here are a few tips or ideas to get you started:
1. Create a backstory for your character/s – even if you are only writing a short story. A short story can develop into a novel or screenplay! Create a character profile: name, age, appearance, occupation, etc.
2. Just like actors do when they are preparing for a performance, ask yourself these questions about your characters? What drives them? What are their passions, fears, goals?
Let your characters lead you. The fictional world is their domain. Let them take you on their journey, you never know where it may lead. So have fun creating compelling story characters your reader will love.
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