Today we’re going to talk about characters, or the people you will have in your novel. If you’re like me, you have the characters of at least ten different novels running around your head all the time, asking “when will you write me.” That makes me sound pretty crazy, but they are all filed away in my notebook, and someday I will write about all of them.
Over the weekend, I had the Oswego region’s Kick-Off party. While there was only a handful of us that were able to make it, it allowed me to get to know some of the participants better. We also got to talking about our books and characters. I was asked a question that for some reason, I had trouble answering
What are your character’s flaws?
Shit. I drew a blank at that question. I knew that my character isn’t perfect. She’s involved in some pretty seedy things and gets herself into a hell of a lot of trouble. But it got me thinking– what exactly are my character’s flaws?
I spent the rest of the weekend trying to mull it over and read through her character sketch at least ten times. I went from ‘I’ve got this” to “Oh my god I have no clue what I’m doing next month” and then went back and forth a couple of times. This morning I did a quick Google search for “character flaws” to try to come up with something so that I could stop freaking out.
I found generators and lists of character flaws and explored them. I wasn’t looking to create a character based on flaws that a generator came up with, but ones that I knew would fit my character and her personality. While I browsed through lists they came to me, and for the time being I feel much better about my NaNoWriMo novel that I will begin in just a few, short days.
In order to be realistic, your characters need to have some sort of flaws to go with their redeeming or good qualities.
Otherwise you tun the risk of having flat, boring characters that are dangerously close to being a Mary Sue. One of my biggest fears is realizing that after spending so much time writing and revising my book, that I have a Mary Sue main character on my hands.
No real person is flawless and we want our characters to be as real as possible— why would we expect our characters to be flawless?
Giving your characters flaws makes them feel real to the reader, makes them more dynamic, and gives you something to help them grow and change throughout the novel.
Likewise, your antagonist can’t be all flaws. You want them to have some redeeming quality somewhere (even if it has to do with their past or back story).
Overall, I’m really glad that this issue was brought to my attention.
Even if it did cause a whole weekend of self-doubt and “can I do this?”. My characters and novel will be so much more interesting as a result– and even better, my main character will not be a Mary Sue, and I understand her so much more.
In all of my behind-ness I am just now creating my characters for my novel next month, which brings me to the question…
How do you craft interesting and exciting characters?
No one stays interested in a Mary Sue who gets whatever she wants all the time and cliches make characters fall flat for many readers. As a writer, I want to create characters that my readers will come to care about. It’s so much more than what that character happens to look like.
What do you need when creating your characters?
We need to know who they are physically, socially, and emotionally— most of all we need to know what they want.
Each character needs to have an objective
- They need a goal that they want so badly they will do pretty much anything to get it. They also might have smaller objectives along the way (in each chapter or scene) but they should be moving toward their overall goal to push the plot of your novel forward.
To create conflict, other characters may have opposing goals— and try to get in the way of that character’s objective.
Which brings us to motivation
- Why does your character do the things they do? Why do they want to achieve their goal?
- Your main character, secondary characters, and antagonist(s) all need to have some kind of motivation for their goals.
And finally action
- How does your character reach or fail to reach their objective.
- Each character can’t reach their objective— what made them fail? How do they feel about it?
You also want to think about the following when Creating your characters
- What are some of the best possible things that can happen to your character?
- And the worst
- You want an interesting story? Throw some curveballs in there. We want to see your character react to those heart-wrenching or terrible moments. We see who your character really is by how they react to them. It makes us care more (even if they don’t react very well).
It’s important to have internal and external conflict
- Sometimes a character has to sacrifice something they love that brings them further from their goal.
- They should always be struggling with something internally and externally throughout the novel.
Know your character’s back story.
- Even if you don’t use all of it in your novel. It’s usually behind their motivations and what makes them want to achieve their goal. Knowing it as a writer, helps you craft believable, multi-dimensional characters.
Most importantly, how does your main character grow over the course of the novel?
Sometimes we don’t know this right away. I usually don’t know until revisions when my plot it tightened up a lot and I can see my character’s arc.
It’s ok to not know this when you first begin your novel. Just try to keep it in mind as you write. You want changes in your character to be natural, a progression from beginning to end. There has to be a turning point where there is no going back and your character can only push forward.
The most helpful book I found to create well-developed characters is Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Cole.
In fact, a lot of the information from this blog post came from there :). Some of her chapters are really long, but she poses great questions to really get you in the mind of your character (and also helps to develop plot, etc).
Other great resources:
I love Susan Dennard’s blog. Right now she is posting a series about crafting characters that I have been following— check it out.
Susan Dennard is the author of Something Strange and Deadly (and it’s sequels) which I have been meaning to get my hands on for some time now.
Google Character Questionnaires to answer a series of questions that will help you get to know your character and their back story a little bit more.
Character questionnaires by Gotham Writers
The Young Writers Program (YWP) also has an excellent Character Questionnaire in their workbook.
And just for fun, the Mary Sue Litmus Test
Not sure if your main character is a Mary Sue? Try this out. (It’s actually pretty fun)
How do you create your characters?
If you’re a pantser:
Do you go in with a character/goal/motivation already in mind? Or does it unfold as you write?
If you’re a planner:
What do you do to get to know your characters? Do you fill out questionnaires?
I love hearing about the process you all have for coming up with characters or planning your novel, so let’s chat!!!