LIAM CULLINS

What Makes a Good Character?

One of the biggest things that hinders the aspiring storytellers, myself included, is the fear of criticism. This is my first time in years writing something for my own personal satisfaction, and two sentences in, I’m already beginning to pick it apart. Anyways, to the point. Characters are the basis of any story. They’re the vehicle that drives the plot along, and the amount of time you spend crafting them is an indication of how much effort you put into your work overall. I mean, if your readers couldn’t care less what happens to these guys, how do you expect your work to engage anyone?

One of the biggest things that hinders the aspiring storytellers, myself included, is the fear of criticism. This is my first time in years writing something for my own personal satisfaction, and two sentences in, I’m already beginning to pick it apart. Anyways, to the point. Characters are the basis of any story. They’re the vehicle that drives the plot along, and the amount of time you spend crafting them is an indication of how much effort you put into your work overall. I mean, if your readers couldn’t care less what happens to these guys, how do you expect your work to engage anyone?

Note how I said ‘couldn’t care less’. Please, everyone, make an effort to stop saying ‘I could care less’. It just sounds foolish.

Anyways, back on track. My point is, your characters should be the first thing (things?) you brainstorm so you can make sure to get them right, no matter what genre or medium you’re writing for. All too often (especially when regarding horror movies), I always hear the criticism that the characters are one-dimensional, most likely because anyone who shows up on-screen in one of those isn’t there for the audience to get invested in, unless by get invested you mean get digested, molested, dismembered, disemboweled, and brutalized in some gore-tastic fashion. That makes me think, why on Earth do people watch horror movies? Gross.

My question is (as you can guess from the title of this post) what makes a good character? While I’m at it, I might as well continue to shout questions to the void only to answer them myself. Then again, that’s what every high school teacher tells you to do when writing a paper, so I guess I’ve done something right. My diploma is becoming useful after all. Also, it makes sense, because it reigns in the focus of said hypothetical essay, unlike where I’m going with this post. Sorry about that.

What are some of the elements that surround a character? I use the word ‘surround’ because I’m not referring to things that are reflected in the character by himself/herself, such as his/her physical appearance or personality. A rude, tall, dark-haired person can be just as well-crafted a character—or not—as a friendly, short, blonde person. And yes, I was totally implying everyone that’s tall and dark-haired is rude. My uncle is the rudest person ever in that case. What I am referring to are things such as their relationships with other characters, their past (assuming their birth wasn’t the first thing you jotted down), and perhaps most importantly, their motivations. Their motivations, to be completely cliché, are the basis of who they are, because it’s what’s going to (hopefully) drive the plot along. Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father were what drove Shakespeare’s play. Katniss’s hatred for the Capital is what drove her to almost eat those berries. Obviously, the intentions don’t always have to be good, because that’s what keeps readers interested—conflict. It doesn’t even have to be conflict between multiple characters—Severus Snape is an excellent example of how the internal conflict of one character can keep an audience guessing until the very end. Also, Cast Away and Gravity are two examples of character-vs.-environment stories. Yeah, I know, I reference movies a lot.

What you want to avoid doing is making characters’ relationships the same throughout the whole story arc. We need to see their relationships grow throughout the story—in fact, that a quality to strive for for your characters in general, so I can kill two birds with one stone discussing this. Poor birds. If you go through an entire story and the characters are exactly the same as they were when it started, then A), not much must’ve happened in your story, or B), you’re forgetting to detail the effects that the story’s events have on them, which would manifest naturally if they were real people. Fiction is an illusion, and the best illusions are the most convincing. A good example of story with characters who don’t grow or change is Iron Man 3. Yes, I know, another movie reference. Sue me. In the end, the day is saved, Tony just magically gets over his PTSD, and Pepper is no longer mad at him, even though the suits he’s been building out of paranoia attack her twice in the film. Although they introduced problems early-on, they never develop past square one, ultimately becoming an afterthought by the third act.

However, as much as I’ve been writing about making sure your characters go somewhere, be careful not to manufacture conflict between characters for the sake of “interest”. If it completely goes against the characters you’ve established or is an irrelevant hindrance to the flow of the story, get rid of it. Relationships between characters, as I’ve said before, should feel natural, as if they’re real people. Think of your writing a sandbox that your characters are dropped in the middle of. Once they begin to interact with one another, your goal should be to merely guide them along the way, so that their motivations and mannerisms take hold and shape their actions, and therefore the story.

Another thing to note is that you can spark intrigue about your character right from the start just by having a good setup. My choice of Winslow Homer’s ‘The Fog Warning’ as the header for this post wasn’t just because it looked nice. If you’re reading this on a mobile device and can’t see the header, here’s a link to the image. I don’t know if there was any real-life inspiration for the painting, but if there is, wipe it clean from your mind for a sec. Look at this painting. What adventurous tale is hidden here? Why is this man on what looks to be a lifeboat? Where is he from? If we could swivel around the perspective, would we see the burning, sinking wreckage of his ship, or has he been on that lifeboat for some time? Does he recognize the ship in the distance, and if not, what might happen if he manages to make contact with it? I know that this is a visual medium and I’m talking about writing fiction where you picture everything yourself, but my point still stands—just from the scenario and imagery, I can generate an incredible amount of interest about this man, and I haven’t even given him a name yet. If you choose to use this technique, however, you can’t rely solely on it, because eventually, you’ll have to tell people more about him, and if the “more” is bad, then the whole experience is ruined. That just goes to show how every aspect of characterization has to work equally well together.

One last thing. Man, this post is getting long. I said early-on that a character’s mannerisms and appearance aren’t most important when trying to write a well-rounded character, but when writing characters in general, you have to be careful not just carbon-copy yourself every time someone new is introduced. Embrace variety. If you’ve decided that your antagonist is rotten to the core, then show that in his actions and personality, even if you yourself are not (which, hopefully you aren’t). On the other end, if your antagonist is simply someone trying to achieve the same end through different, less admirable means, that should reflect in the way he/she deals with certain situations. Try having certain characters’ traits manifest themselves in unconventional ways, especially his/her subconscious. For example, if a character is frequently paranoid, they might double-check to make sure they’ve done something right, such as locking the door behind them. Also, don’t fall into the trap that some people do when deciding on the look of your character. I realize now that the joke about assuming tall, dark-haired characters were mean makes sense in this context. You may not always want your villain to stand out as being the villain the moment they’re mentioned on the page, and the same goes for your heroes. People are complex. Characters are allowed to have both light and dark inside them, and usually those are the ones that end up being the most interesting.

Well, if you’ve made it to the end, I congratulate with you by awarding you with…nothing. Well, other than the happiness that comes with knowing you made me feel like I’m actually a good enough writer to keep you interested. Also, I’d like to point out that I am not a professional author by any stretch of the imagination, so everything I’ve said is subjective. That being said, I’m glad if you found any of this useful. Thanks for reading.

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