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Writing Exceptional Characters
 

"What a character!" A common idiom generally used to describe weirdos. But have you ever found yourself that enamored over the crafting of a character in a work of fiction? Characters aren't just vital to our stories, they're absolutely necessary. Because without characters, there is no story! A simple patch of dirt where nothing happens. And yet, for something so integral to the craft, the quality of characters can so often be neglected. I speak specifically (and the primary reason as to the writing of this article in the first place) of the "animated" forms in our modern media. Animated films and shows, comics, video games, ect... And many of the fans of these works, brought together through the miracle of the internet, coo and fawn over and make fan art and draft prose on how much they love these characters. But it seems to me that in this media, where the visuals are such an integral part of the presentation, that characters can be more about their appearance than the actual nature of their person. The "costume" being more the character, while the personality becomes as simple and one dimensional as possible. If there's one point for me to make in all of this, and you can stop reading now if you're strapped for time, is that a good character is NOT a costume!

Now, simple characters have existed as long as stories have. You see them in pillars of classic literature such as Journey to the West, the plays of William Shakespeare, or The Iliad. You know, those beloved tales that are hundreds or THOUSANDS of years old? And while characters such as these serve their purpose, we can do so much more in our own pursuits. The intention of my endeavor here is not to have you crafting the deepest characters ever, but that you might simply begin considering their depth at all. Because characters are the absolute backbone of your stories, and the richer they are, the richer everything else can be.

History

Every life has a beginning, and your characters are no different. Of course, plotting out an entire autobiography for each of your characters isn't really feasible, assuming you'd even be so inclined to do such a thing. Indeed, crafting a history for your character is possibly the most daunting task on our journey, but this is where we need to begin! (skipping around in steps is certainly viable, and indulge if this is integral to your creative process, but starting from the ground up will almost always require the least amount of changes and editing.)

I know that plenty of you will want to minimize this step as much as possible, and that is completely understandable. I will do my best to break this process down into two simple steps, and you can be the judge as to how much time and thought to dedicate to each one.

For any life to begin, it must be born. To that end, our fist step is to know manner of family your character has. Now unless you're writing some epic spanning the stories of multiple generations, you don't necessarily have to plan out a whole family tree. But what is most pivotal in the development of any person is their parents. How in depth you'd like to go is up to you, but parents will always be the root of any life story. It is perfectly acceptable for your character to not know or have no relationship with their biological parents, but remember that such a fact is a BIG deal. And besides that point, someone has to raise and provide for your character through their early childhood. Not nearly as important as parents, but given weight because of them, are siblings. As a person can be a reflection and inversion of their parents, so to the siblings offer insight into what "could have been" for their development. Not to mention how one's life is altered when being raised amongst siblings. Beyond this immediate "household" family, further details are up to you. As with all the advice you will find here, the amount of background details you come up with should be directly related to how important your character is in the story.

Now that you have family out of the way, comes the timeline. A whole life has been lived from birth up to the point of your story, after all. Sound daunting? Don't want to be writing additional stories for your story? Just relax, and focus on a few very simple points. Further details can always grow off a few simple moments. Let's break this down into three distinct points of development: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Each of these points needing just one moment to form as a blanket statement for that entire period of life (younger characters, of course, mean you can skip some steps). The childhood is a time when lessons learned can have lasting weight. The adolescence a time of growth and complication, when the first awkward dalliances into romance occur. And adulthood is where the trials and challenges of adolescence become burdened with responsibility. Give each of these points one simple scene, not a thing that must be produced as a flashback in your story, but something that could be if necessary. I bet you could do this exercise for yourself as well. We tend recall our memories as scenes such as this. Knowing the things that shaped you as a person will give you the power to conjure what might have shaped your characters as well.

Here is the big kicker to all this life: the majority of this information may never (and generally, shouldn't) be given to your audience. "What?!" I can hear you screaming, "so why even bother?!" The answer to that question is almost always the same, regardless of context. Because you care. And if you can't be bothered to really care about your characters, why should anyone else?

And beyond caring, you need to understand your characters. Your audience may want to, or they might not be that committed, but you absolutely have this responsibility. However, do not feel disheartened by the weight of this task, but confident that it shall bear fruit. Because the history of your characters is a foundation on which all your narrative shall spring forth. And with a strong foundation, you will find new dramatic facets and intricacies. All these details you are mostly keeping to yourself create a overflowing bank vault of information. Best of all, since you started here first, details and plot points will come across naturally as you progress through your writing process. Without it, details and motivation will need to be crafted on the fly. Before you know it, you'll be trying to shove square pegs into round holes and find yourself loosing a grip on logic and reason. And you don't want to try and hold up a flimsy narrative structure on a poor foundation, do you?


The Vacuum

This point is directly related to history, it could be mentioned before or after it, but is integral to why history is important. It is because strong characters need to exist outside of your story, not because of it. How might we take the conviction of some brave and noble character seriously if their whole existence is limited to three pages in a book? How might we weep for the loss of a character's life when that life is just a five minute scene in a movie? This is all an extension of world building, which we aren't going to get into because we're talking characters. But ask yourself if the world and lives of your characters exist outside the context of your story, or if what is there is nothing but a white void. A vacuum of nothingness where things are static and unchanging. Your life is much more than what some stranger on the street can see of you, right? Well, their life is no different. All the humanity you grant your characters, even that which you think remains solely in your mind, will silently ooze out and give richness to the background of the tableau that is your story!

The Two "P"s

So, after you've skimmed down the extensive history section, you find yourself here. Don't worry, this is the place where we'll do our best to salvage your impatience. And we'll be doing that with two humble "Ps."

Our first P for your characters is personality. Personality is the absolute most bare bones aspect a character can posses. It is the way they behave and how they generally react to stimuli. Even if a character has no personality, having "no personality" is what will be their personality! When you talk about "flat" or one-dimensional characters, this will be the crux of their nature. They will be a simple personality paired with a physical appearance, and that will be all to their name. However, personality on its own can't be the source of much depth. You can only make a personality so complex, as it is by nature a direct and uncomplicated aspect of one's nature.

Thus, we move on to our second P, perspective. Perspective is the frame of reference to which our characters will process stimuli, a sum of all their experiences. If you ignore perspective completely, the character will still behave in the same manner due to their personality. But the perspective is where we will give depth to the personality, in effect, giving us a two-dimensional character.

Allow me to illustrate the power of perspective with an example. We'll use two characters in this exercise: they are both attractive young women. Both are kind, saccharine sweet, honest to a fault, and maybe just a little bit naive. Perhaps these two girls have different hairstyles and outfits, and to a sizable fanbase, that would be enough. They would draw fan art and argue over which girl was best. Judging things by their appearance is something we all do, for characters in fiction and anything else. But with any small examination looking beyond appearance, with the information we have above, these two characters are exactly the same. Now, for the perspective. The first girl is a princess, she's lived a life of luxury and ease. Everyone at the castle is nice to her. Our second girl is an orphan. She's lived a life of poverty and hardship. Everyone in town despises her, and she's been subjected to abuse and wickedness. Simple enough, these two girls come from opposite walks of life. And yet, in spite of this, their personalities are the same. Now, if our princess should suffer hardship, if she finds herself in a place where people are mean to her, would she find it so easy to be kind? Would her pleasant demeanor falter, or would she prove to be more than just the product of an easy environment? What of our orphan? Should she come into wealth, would she be charitable? Maybe she would become like the townsfolk her were so mean to her? And perhaps her naivety would cede to cynicism. However things may pan out, even when ignoring appearance, we now have two very different characters.

While drama and conflict can come from personality alone, as I hope was made clear above, deeper drama is made possible through perspective. Perspective is what helps us decipher what in the personality is only skin deep, and what is truly in the heart of a character. AHH! But I have you now! To know one's perspective, you must know a little about their history. If you've already that fine foundation of history, you're golden. But if not... you'll find yourself needing a few more details, filling in a thing here and thing there. And before you know it, you'll have our history section covered in spite of yourself!

Get Motivated

Now we move onto the most important facet to keeping your fiction quality, the all important motivation. Motivation obviously isn't something inherent to a character's nature, but there is so much overlap when we are talking about their behavior that it deserves to be discussed.

I'm sure that any basic literary or film writing courses will harp on about motivation, so I will do my best to be as concise as possible. In fact, we can parse this down to one simple word. Whenever I write, I like to think of an obnoxious child repeatedly asking "why?"

Again, let us indulge in an example: You have written a villain who has crafted a deathray to destroy a super hero. And here, our obnoxious child has a question. Why? "Because he has to destroy the hero!" Why? "So that he can take over the world." Why? "Because that's what villains do, they always want to take over the world.." WHY? "Because they're evil!" WHY? "They just are, OK?!" WHY? "Look, he just hates the super hero. That's why he wants to kill him." WHY? "Because he's foiled the villain's plot so many times!" WHY? "I DON'T KNOW WHY, OK?!!!" WHY? "I'M GONNA KILL YOU, YOU LITTLE BRAT!!!" WHY?

And that, my friends, should never be your answer. "I don't know" simply isn't going to cut the mustard. You should always know the why of your characters' actions. But knowing and understanding the whys can't help but take you back down to perspective, which takes us back down to history. Do you see how this works? If you try and skimp out on details in the beginning, you'll only find yourself dragged back if you want your characters to have any depth.

Touchy Feelies

Now that we have a foundation for our characters and understand their motivation, let's talk a little about feelings. Now this is purely a personal preference of mine, and something that surely makes sense given my penchant for strong characters, but I have a serious distaste for melodrama. Melodrama, by definition, is a work that focuses on drama over characterization. But in practice, I tend to classify any overt and overbearing display of emotions as melodrama. You know the scene... screaming "NOOOOOO!!!" up into the sky, rain pouring down. To me, the only thing this is screaming is a lack of faith in both audience and the drama that has been written. Of course, there is a place for everything, but nothing will ruin a seriously toned work more than a bit of melodrama.

So how to avoid melodrama if it isn't your intention? The operative word is subtlety. When a sad thing happens to a character, the audience understands that they will be sad. If it is necessary that the character will cry, you don't need to show or tell in great detail how they weep. Indulge in a long crying scene, and you've fell into the melodrama trap. The point should be that your character is sad, not to show them dramatically sobbing.

Dialogue should be your next caution point. A big dramatic speech can be potent, but is a tool that should be used sparingly. Too often we forget there are ways to show what a character is feeling besides having them say it. And I don't mean reactions such as the above mentioned crying, I mean actions. Because, as in life, actions speak louder than words. Again, let's have an example: Two pairs of lovers. For our first pair, one gives a long and dramatic speech about how much they love the other. They are set in as romantic a setting as possible. For our other pair, one amongst them has become very sick. We see the other going through extreme hardship as they take care of the infirmed. The only conversation they have is basic small talk. And yet, which pair do you think an audience would see as more devoted?

Before we move on, we must talk about the other side of the melodrama coin. You must remember that just because it is not required to have a character showing emotion, that does not mean they are not experiencing it. With each event and action, you must be the psychiatrist. "And how does that make you feel?" Always be asking this of your characters. Because as you move on with your narrative, these hidden feelings can take us back down the list into the land of motivation. And knowing your characters' motivation is infinitely better than not knowing it!

The Struggles of Self

With all these basics covered, we now should have some strong characters! Thus, our last section here doesn't really have anything directly to do with the characters at hand. This is something you'll have to deal with yourself as the writer. Unfortunately, this can only be a warning as opposed to strict advice. What you must keep in mind is that when you write a character, that will always be filtered through the lenses of your own perspective (and I hope I've made clear how important perspective can be). If things go horribly wrong, you'll end up with a whole cast of characters that are just like you. What's so bad about that? Well, the characters will certainly seem less vibrant and unique if they all have the same personal quirks. And once similarities begin to crop up, the audience will start zoning out. They will pay less attention to the characters as individuals as those similarities get filed away in their brains, like how you stop hearing some white noise after being exposed to it for an extended period of time. Your other problem will be drama. How might anything but vapid, surface level conflict evolve if your characters all think and feel in similar ways? One quick little test to do is to ask yourself how your cast of characters are different from each other, and how are they the same. Then, ask the same question on how they are similar and different from you. But keep in mind that you still ask and answer these questions through that filter of your own perspective.

Obviously, there is no simple solution to this problem (apart from using multiple writers, but there arises its own suite of issues). You can only ever write with your own mind. The best advice I can give to you is to culture yourself as thoroughly as you can manage. Subject yourself to different people, different perspectives, even if you may find them challenging. You can do this through media and fiction or real world experiences as well. Be a student of feelings and actions and perspectives, and know that everything you take in can contribute to your craft (advice that can be given for any artistic pursuit).

In Conclusion

So, there you have it. My quick(?) and efficient(??) guidelines for creating strong characters. I hope you have found some of this enlightening and have seen some changes in your thought process for character writing. But, perhaps, you are defiant. "Why does everything need strong characters? The whole of media ain't that Oscar bait shit." Well, obviously the tone of your work should have bearing on how much effort you'll be putting into crafting your cast. A "cartoon" character being a common euphemism for one completely lacking in depth. But I think you'll find that even the smallest extra bit of detail in your characters can go a long way to adding substance to your work. And unlike so many things, "character depth" is a spice you can't use too much of. If you find yourself spending too much time on one's details in your work, that's an issue with the pacing, not the character.

Thus, I'd like to hope that should always strive to have richer characters in your works. After all, aren't we only just characters in this story called life? Perhaps some of you may think this way. But others might object. "Of course not! I'm not a character, I'm a person." And if that is truly how you feel, you'll find that once you see your characters as people, all of you shall be richer for it. The same can be said for real life, and how you perceive the others your interact with.

 
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