I'm your host, Edgar Allan Hobo and today we will be discussing methods for creating believable characters and strategies for keeping them that way. Feel free to jump into the comments with questions or relevant discussion!
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Characters are an important element of storytelling. While it’s certainly possible to write a compelling story that lacks characters, we can at least agree that most stories will have characters and, in these stories, the characters need to feel believable in order for a reader to connect.
So, what is it that helps readers connect to your characters?
In most cases, the answer to that question is: How real they feel.
So, how to you write a character who feels real?
Glad you asked!
Whether you’re an obsessive outliner or a pantser, you need to know something about your character(s) before you dive into the story. Whether it’s how lazy they are or their hatred of another town or their unrequited love with the kid who sits in front of them in English class, you’ll need some starting point.
For some people, this start point comes in the form of a character outline. For others, it’s the moment that character makes an appearance in the first draft. There’s no one perfect way to develop your character as long as you are getting to know them, who they are, what they want, and how they think. Nothing breaks immersion like getting halfway through a book only to see a main character make an uncharacteristic decision for no discernible reason.
So, treat your character like he/she/it is real. Get to know them thoroughly. If it helps, answer strange questions about them in your spare time.
Here’s a little list of some weird questions:
It might be tempting to spend hours and hours on a name, but James and John and Kophalgar Delusious IV don’t matter unless their portrayal is consistent and believable.
Some people go so far as to take the Myers-Briggs personality test as their character.
Do you need to do any of this? No way, not at all. But, you should find your own way to sit down and become well acquainted with the people you’ll be portraying. Of course, you’ll want to examine your genre and the complexity of your story in order to decide what method best suits your needs.
Remember, the longer your book gets, the more difficult it becomes to track character development.
So, you’re creating your character outline and you have an innocent hero, a serious mentor, the morally ambiguous rogue, a love interest, and a bad guy. Maybe even some comic relief. Great! You’ve got a cast.
But, if you approach your book from this angle, you’re going to have flat characters. Thinking of a character only in terms of the archetype they represent is an easy way to forget that they need to be well rounded. For example, if you only consider your villain in terms of their malevolent actions it becomes easy to neglect their backstory. Their motivation. In life, while stereotypes often originate from some truth, it would be ludicrous to minimise an evil entity such that their identity revolves solely around enacting evil plans. People aren’t this flat and flimsy in life, so don’t let your characters be either.
Examine your recurring cast (as well as your minor characters) and ask yourself:
Would I be offended if someone simplified me as much as I am simplifying this character?
When describing people, we often trim them down to their most noticeable / most personally important qualities. But, if you want a reader to latch onto a character or relate to them, you’ll need to tactfully expand them beyond the confines of the purpose you’d like them to serve.
This includes characters added for the sake of diversity. I promise that readers will see right through a poorly thought out character only added to diversify your cast.
A good way to to break free of a character who is struggling to break free from a stereotype is to ask yourself what your character wants and why. While you might have an absolutely stunning plot, if your character is nodding his head through the entire adventure and going along with everything you throw his way until he achieves his goal, you’re going to have a boring story. Every character should have their own motivation. Even characters in parties, while the group may have one primary goal, will have their own reasons for wanting to achieve that goal.
Think of Star Wars: A New Hope. You have Luke, Obi Wan, and Han, all of whom ultimately want to accomplish the primary goal of saving Leia. Obi Wan has a sense of obligation, burdened by guilt and knowledge the rest of the party aren’t privy to. Luke is driven by a thirst for adventure and the need to rescue a princess (how exciting!). Then we have Han, who’d really like to get his hands on some money.
These motivations create tension, stall plot, and allow the viewer to better understand each character as an individual outside of their party.
In the same way that people latch onto character motivations, relating to those driving forces behind the characters they connect with, flaws will bring potential for a more intimate connection with your characters. Why? Because we have flaws.
The second your reader goes “heh, me too”, you know you’ve hooked them. They aren’t going to relate to every single character, but adding flaws makes it infinitely more likely that at least one of your characters will resonate with your reader. So, go ahead and make your good guy wide-eyed and over excited for adventure, give your bad guy a weak spot for his estranged son, and make your side character greedy. People will relate to these elements and it will add another dimension to your now pretty darn round characters.
At this point, we should have a character who has personality, is not simply a plot device, has unique motivations, and a few flaws. What happens as the story progresses?
What happens when your character’s motivations, flaws, or other elements of their personality lead them to make a decision that is not in line with your plot? You freakin’ celebrate. That means you’ve made a dimensional character and not a plot device. Guess what? Forcing a character to follow a plot that they’re rebelling against is liable to flatten your character. After all of the work we’ve done creating well rounded characters, that would just be counter-productive. It’s fine to let your characters take over your book for the sake of seeing how they would reach the intended endpoint without all of your meddling.
On that note, keep in mind that your character should change and grow as they have experiences. If your character is really optimistic and over-ambitious in the beginning of the story but encounters failure, loss, and has to spend a bunch of time running around with a tiny green man on his back, he’s going to be different when the tale comes to an end. Let him grow!
When all is said and done, the best advice I can give is this: if you’d like people to see your characters as real people, you need to treat your characters like real people.
While I won’t be free all day, I’d like to replace the discussion question section of this post with a character AMA event, which will take place in the comments.
I will be posting several top-level comments containing a few questions each. You can reply to those comments for as many characters as you’d like (please keep it contained in a single comment, though). From there, feel free to engage your fellow community members and ask them follow up questions. I’ll do my best to continue to ask follow up questions myself. Please understand that, as an author and a parent of a toddler, my time is limited so I may copy and paste questions between people.
The goal of this exercise is to help you become better acquainted with your characters and to support your fellow authors in doing the same.
Have suggestions for next month's workshop? Go ahead and let me know in the comments.
It's me again, the wonderful Edgar Allan Hobo, here to guide you through another workshop experience...or something like that. Today we will be looking at "thought" verbs and working through a small exercise in removing them from our writing.
This week's workshop was inspired by this article written by Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) and I highly suggest you give it a read. I'm not just saying that because he was the author who inspired me to write. Seriously, this is a short read and it will much more elegantly discuss what we will be going over today.
A thought verb is a verb that expresses a character having an internal thought or experience and is used to convey that thought or experience to a reader in a straightforward manner. Examples of thought verbs are: thinks, realises, dreams, remembers, wants, fears, understands, worries...so on and so on until the end of time. There are a million of them.
So, Hobo, why shouldn't I be using these verbs?
The answer is simple. It's a shortcut that can potentially take away from your writing and the reader's experience while reading your work.
Does that mean you cannot use them? No. freakin'. way. Chuck Palahniuk, himself, uses a truly massive amount of thought verbs in his writing. The point is that you should learn how to tactfully unpack these thought verbs before you decide how often you're going to use them. All I want to do here is challenge you to think critically before you toss an easy "I thought" or "He remembered" into your story. Maybe, just maybe, there's a better way for you to get that information across. More often than not, you'll find that removing "thought" verbs will grant you very natural opportunities to inject personal narrative into your story. This will help minimise narrative info dumps!
A particularly good point from Chuck's article, which deserves repeating, is to identify whether or not the sentence is acting as a thesis statement for the rest of the paragraph. For example, a paragraph describing a bad memory about elevators with a first sentence of: "I hate elevators". The author might consider removing that first sentence entirely because, by the end of the paragraph, the reader ought to be able to infer that fact themselves!
As is the case with any so-called writing rules, it's not so much about always following the rule as it is understanding why it exists in the first place.
Let's start with a sentence.
Nancy knew how much Todd cared for that teddy bear.
The goal of the sentence is to express to the reader how much Todd cared for his bear while indicating that Nancy is aware of that fact. Unpacking it, expanding it to be more insightful, might look something like this.
Todd used to bring the bear everywhere. Whether they were out to the supermarket or travelling to Florida to visit her parents, she kept an eye on that little brown bear as if it were her second child. Now that it was gone, its absence left a void in both of their lives.
Boom. We've conveyed the information and were also able to provide the reader with more insight into the impact the bear had, both when it was present and when it was gone.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, hey Hobo! This sounds an awful lot like "show, don't tell" And you'd be correct! It's just a little more specific and easier to pinpoint in your own writing. Ultimately, though, you are trying to show your reader a specific thought process instead of simply telling them that it's happening.
I'm going to post several simple sentences here, all of which include thought verbs, and it's up to you to expand them in a meaningful way. If you're bored today (or tomorrow, or next week), consider looking back at an old writing prompt and doing your best to unpack all of the "thought" verbs! Remember, you'll want to imagine these as a sentence in a larger story, not as a prompt or a premise for a story to be written.
Don't like any of these? Want to get some feedback on your own work? Grab a sentence or two from a previously written piece and apply the exercise to those examples. I'll be giving feedback and answering comments on and off throughout the day.
Have suggestions for next month's workshop? Go ahead and let me know in the comments.
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I just read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and I'm a big fan of the voice she gave her narrator. Her writing style is fascinating to me. Before that I read the Patrick Melrose series, which I was also very fond of, though for much different reasons. I've been experiencing a nagging urge to reread both, and it occurred to me that it might be super interesting to read Patrick Melrose reinterpreted by Flynn.
Are there any books that you might be interested in rereading if the text were reinterpreted by another author? Same plot, same characters, different style.
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Matilda loved to watch the sunrise.
It's 5AM in Glasgow. She sits on a hill in the park, grass tickling her icy legs, and misses before. She'd made so many mistakes over the years that they seemed to burden her with a physical presence that curved shoulders and rendered her sluggish. Her mother used to envy her posture but now she envied her mother. It must be so easy to lie straight in a coffin. Prior to the day that she believed divided her present from the now mystical and idealized land of her past, a very specific pivotal point in her downhill journey, she'd watch the sunset every morning. Now she only sees the ground beneath her feet. The moving shadows as the sun reclaims the sky.
She sees the empty bottle. It clinks against the strap of her sandal as she tries to sweep it away with her foot. If she could take the first step, she could take the second, and perhaps the third too. This was step one.
Matilda stood up and staggered down the hill.
It's 5AM in Sienna. She watches the sunrise over the piazza. Long shadows move in slow motion across clusters of lazy birds cleaning up from the night before. All of those people, all of the food. She's hungry but this second step comes with a required fast. A purge. Her past returns to her in bursts that fade like the smell of a perfume dispersing in the air, leaving her with only an impression. Floral something. Pear whatever.
She knows that there's a solution, an easy fix to her problem, but she stays seated on the wall. The town sleeps around her. Surrounding her like a warm blanket. Her mother used to send her duvet for a tumble in the dryer before bedtime, wrapping her up in the heat and calling it her love, reminding her that it will always be there.
Matilda hops down from the wall, shoes clattering against the stone ground.
It's 5AM in Paris. She's taken in a stray cat with a missing eye due to a sense of comradely through shared displacement, relating to the ugliness of the creature. It needed to be protected. It climbs with her, out of the window of her tiny studio apartment and onto the roof to enjoy the colours in the sky. She prefers the days with orange and pink. Still, she doesn't complain when it's blue or green or purple. It really can't be helped and she's not in the habit of starting a row with the sky. Especially not when it's so beautiful. As the cat rubs against her side, Matilda feels the warmth of her mother's embrace and is struck by the beauty of her new memories. Her travels.
She'll never stop walking. The journey, she knows, is endless. Her problems, while not much different than the problems of the butcher or the post man, have no easy solution. The town is waking up. A baby here and a shift-worker there, all rising, some falling for a day-sleep. She sits comfortably and wraps her arm around the cat, offering her love the way her mother had to her, remembering that it will never go away.
Matilda climbs back through her window and starts her day.