on characters

Some might say that a good plot is the most important thing in a book. And don’t get me wrong, the plot is important. In a mystery, or a crime novel, you have to be able to construct a good central ‘case’ for your characters to navigate, one that makes sense, and the conclusion can’t have your Reader throwing the book across the room. Or, it can, I suppose it depends on what sort of reaction you really want to create.

All books have a plot of some kind, if it’s a case to solve, or a hero’s journey to save the kingdom, but in order to tell the story of the Quest, you need a Character to take it on. Your book is going to live or die according to how well you can create a character. Your plot could be flawless, but if you populate your book with two dimensional people you’re not going to have much at the end of the day.

So, let’s talk about characters. Your character should have the strengths that she needs to get through the book, without swinging too far into “Mary Sue/Author Insert” fantasy fulfillment territory. If your main character, or any character, has no flaws, then they’re not a realistic person. Everyone has regrets, weaknesses, and personality flaws/quirks. I’m not talking about a YA heroine who “doesn’t know how pretty she is, and is oh so clumsy and awkward yet somehow also graceful” – I’m talking about a character who feels real.

Think about their past, and what shaped them to be the person they are today. What was their childhood like? Was there love in the family, or abuse? Did they join the military to get out of a dead end town in BFE, striving to make more of themselves? Or maybe they signed up because they had a surge of patriotism, which was quickly beaten out of them by the experience of war once they were shipped off. Any of these options open up a whole range of emotions and reactions that your character will experience as they navigate the plot of the story.

The older your character, the more of this stuff is inside them. The stuff that makes them human and feel real to your Reader; the experiences of a long life. No one wants to read a perfect character waltz through a novel, unless perhaps they’re experiencing some sort of comeuppance and learning something through the course of it. And then, again, the ‘perfect character’ should be perfect on the outside only. Inside their head they have the same hopes and fears of everyone else. Maybe they have a debilitating need to present perfection, borne from a strange childhood where their mother put pressure on them constantly. Perhaps they simply have had a charmed life, and the story is about their downfall and how they learn to pick themselves up.

You don’t need to fill out a huge character sheet in order to create a believable character. I think all you need is a good handle on a few key questions.

What is your character’s motivation to move through this plot, and why? (This will inform you about their past, and why they have a soft spot for kids in danger, or anger against the government, or a blinding desire for justice, etc)

What was life like for your character as a child? (Happy family, or a deep trauma buried in childhood? The answer to this will tell you how your character is going to approach the problems you throw at them. Formative events as a child will give them strengths and fears.)

What are their main weaknesses? Strengths? (Don’t populate this with “clumsy and awkward, but intensely loyal” or at the very least, not just those. Think about some of the great characters you love to read or watch, and think about what their strengths and weaknesses are. Take Adrian Monk, for example, from the TV show Monk. His nearly unbelievable detective skills are balanced by his crippling OCD and inability to relate fully to those around him. The stronger the strength, the more balance you need on the other side of the scale.)

Like I said at the beginning, your character needs to be able to navigate to the end of your plot successfully. Just like you don’t want an amazing Mary Sue character who glides through the book with ease that surprises everyone around her/him, you don’t want someone with no strengths to get them through. No one wants to read about the main character who was a blubbering mess that got dragged to the end by the sidekicks. Actually, scratch that, maybe that would be interesting – but only from the POV of the sidekicks …which would make them the main characters…

So. Anyway.

In conclusion: inexplicably perfect (and occasionally clumsy), 2D character = bad! Believably flawed character with inner strengths = good!

I rambled on a bit, I hope this is helpful. See you next time!

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