What makes a good character?
It’s not an easy question. My first thought is that characters have to be realistic. But considering some of the fantasy characters out there this does not seem to fit. Some of the most popular characters out there are larger than life and in many cases do the things that people wish they could do. Classic characters like Spiderman, Gandalf and Dracula are, for obvious reasons, far from realistic.
So is that what it takes to be a good character, to be larger than life? Again it doesn’t hold true. Characters like Quoyle in “The shipping news” are obviously well written, but they’re not larger than life. In many ways they seem to conform more to the first idea of being realistic.
What I really think is important for good character is that they have to be believable. They have to have three dimensions. It doesn’t matter if the character is a spell casting sorceress or a fat baker, there has to be more to their life than just those simple points. No one on this earth can be summed up in a simple stereotype. No one is not in the middle of their own story. So why should it be any different in writing?
I was watching a TV show recently called “Firefly” and the writer, Joss Whedon, seemed to understand this perfectly. There was not a character in the series without their own plans, motivations and agenda. They were not characters centred on the life of another person, but rather they were people who were centred on themselves who happened to be colliding with other people. The science fiction setting just seemed to be a back drop for the human interaction.
If I was going to make my own list of rules for character creation, “Everyone is the hero of their own stories,” would probably be top of the list. The second rule would be, “There are no ‘bad’ guys.”
So what does this mean? There are antagonists most books right? There are antagonists in “Paradigms” and “Bardo” for sure. But when you think about it, is there a single person in the world that honestly thinks they are the bad guy? Of course not. Oh they might know they are doing some things that are not right, but they’ll have their excuses. They’ll have their own paradigms. I think in psychology it’s called cognitive dissonance. People have their own ways of seeing the world, so the terrorist is doing it for his people. In his eyes he is a hero. I think once you start seeing this and start trying to understand your villains they become a whole lot more interesting. The best stories I’ve read are the ones where I’m tempted by the villain’s way of thinking.
What about the main character? Well in many ways the protagonist is the easy one for most people. They are the centre of the story and it’s easier to explore the different facets of their personality. But there is a common problem that comes up and that is the hero issue. In short, if your character is too perfect then they are boring and unrealistic.
For me there is no bigger pet hate than the perfect hero that can do everything and has no flaws. I download a sci-fi story a few months back and it was exactly that, the captain was fighter, an engineer, a diplomat, a pilot and was the best of the best at everything he did. I didn’t download the later parts.
Flaws in many ways are what make the character real. You need the dark side to show up the light. If your character can do everything, knows everything and is loved by everyone, then there’s no real point in the story. People can relate to flaws and it’s a much more satisfying story when a hero can with great effort overcome those flaws or learn to live with them.
In addition, while slightly off track. Don’t be too nice to your character in the story either. If he always succeeds in everything he does then story is dull. The failures highlight the successes and keep up the suspense.
So where do good characters come from? I once attended a little workshop on character creation when I was in Japan. The teacher was saying you should take certain things about a typical character and then change one of them to the opposite. For example, what six things do you think about a female truck driver? Most people would say ugly or fat in there and the suggestion was that you could change this to the opposite to make it more interesting. Some people seem to like this idea, for me it creates too many characters that are all a bit quirky and it feels forced. But other people find it helpful.
I would say that in my own writing, the best character ideas I get, come from watching other people. I don’t do in a stalker kind of way – at least I hope not. But I think that many of the characters I create have some basis in reality. Often they are a merging of several people into one. At other times they are based on a person I know but the characteristics of the personality are turned up or down. I think the character I have come up with that I liked most was Judas in “Paradigms”. He was based, not on a friend, but on the image that a friend of mine often tries to project (he’s really a nice guy deep down).
Like coming up with a story, I don’t think there is one magic way to deal with your characters. But one thing I would suggest is that no matter how you come up with your characters make sure you have a fairly good idea about who they are before you start writing. Sit with them and ask questions about them – some people like to do a “one hundred everyday questions” list that asks things like “What do you usually eat for breakfast,” that they run though. Some people use a diagram to map out their personality. Others try out characters in short stories first before plugging them at the main event.
Good characters are the key to writing a good novel. Get it right and much of the story will write itself.