So I mentioned about a month ago in my post Analyse This! that I create character sheets for important characters. And when I say important I don’t just mean my protagonists. If you have read some of my chapters you’ll be familiar with the names Hajeel, Nashana and Trillan, though they have only cropped up in the introduction and two chapters. I have some character sheets for characters that haven’t appeared at all yet and some that have only briefly been mentioned. I know some of you are writers yourselves so probably take a similar approach to forming your characters. But I suppose it’s more than likely that we go about it in different ways.
In your usual schooling there never seems to be a class called ‘Creating Characters’ and that means that this is something you are likely not to have learned from anywhere in particular. As a lover of good stories I consume them in as many formats as I can, books, TV, film, video games etc and from that I have learned that having three dimensional characters is critical to forming a great story. There are a number of pitfalls that are easy to fall down when you begin creating you character. And I thought it would be interesting to figure those out so as writers we can build more depth of character and as readers we can more easily spot sloppy writing and avoid giving it attention it doesn’t deserve (*cough* 50 shades of grey *cough*).
One of the biggest problems I can think of is using cliches to build characters. Well known tropes and stereotypes make for a boring and predictable read. A few months ago I heard a programme coming out of America called Blindspot. It had some good actors linked with it and some good reviews, the only trouble was that when I started watching it with one of my siblings we quickly realised that we could start a drinking game with this show. Every time we stumble across another cliche, drink. We would have been plastered in no time at all, it would have been like drinking every time Shaggy said ‘like’ in Scooby Doo. A confused and memoryless beautiful woman needs saving by the cold and distant man, an emotionally wounded rugged action hero. It wasn’t long before their hacker was saying ‘I’m in.’ and I’m not sure we could watch much more than three episodes. People don’t generally want to be able to guess what is going to happen next in a story but they’ll forgive a certain amount of predictability in the plot line if the character development is unpredictable or satisfying. I personally would also forgive the use of cliches if they are done in a mocking manner. If they are used to make fun of those predictable stereotypes then I get on board.
There’s also a tendency for people to create characters that are just a little bit too perfect. It’s hard to like perfect characters because the don’t seem real, they can be a bit Stepford Wifey and just not normal. Everyone has flaws so don’t be afraid to give your characters a flaw or two… maybe three or four, just don’t go mad giving them every flaw imaginable. Make yourself aware of what your characters strengths and weaknesses are, because if you don’t know then it can be easy to tip the scales too far in one direction. If any of you watched Castle you’ll know that the characters were beautifully crafted up until about the sixth season if I remember correctly. Then they changed the writers and it became a bit of a mess sadly. But the biggest mistake that really sticks in my mind is when one of the new writers decided that their leading lady was too perfect and had no flaws (I guess they hadn’t been watching the first six seasons…) and abruptly gave her a husband she didn’t know about. It seemed like a completely bizarre move and didn’t fit with the person that she had been until then.
And that leads me onto another issue, inconsistency. One of the reasons I keep character sheets is so that it’s all organised and I know which characters have which personality traits. On the whole I don’t need to refer to the sheets, particularly not for my protagonists. But the mere act of having written out those sheets means that I have sorted it all out in my mind and will probably remember it. People don’t want perfect characters because it’s hard to relate to them and similarly it’s hard to relate to an inconsistent character. If their personality is constantly flip flopping for no reason whatsoever it’s just confusing. An example of this messy character creation surprisingly comes from Shakespeare. Granted maybe not everyone will agree with all my examples and this will perhaps be my most contentious example. But when writing Anthony & Cleopatra I feel as though Shakespeare either didn’t care enough about Cleopatra (despite her being a title character) to flesh her out properly or he didn’t write what he intended well enough for her to make sense. Her personality changes three or four times during the play and you get no sense of who she is. It’s even more disappointing for any one who knows anything about the real Cleopatra.
I’m currently running out of those big and frequently repeated character issues that bug me but I have got one last one. That bloody “moonlighting effect”. This does tend to relate a lot more to TV shows than books and films but it can still be a problem. Moonlighting was an 80’s American TV show with a will-they-won’t-they relationship between the leading characters. When the writers finally put the pair together in a romantic relationship the show lost a lot of it’s appeal and became a bit dull before being axed. Ever since writers are often afraid to take the plunge and put an on screen pairing together. Shows often build a fan base from the sexual tension between characters and viewers get heavily behind the “ships”. So the worry is that by putting them together officially it will end what built up the shows popularity in the first place. My argument however is that it’s not the absence of that will-they-won’t-they tension that kills the show it’s the absence of good writing, or rather that the writers no longer know how to write the relationships. It is very possible to continue a show successfully, to continue a books story arc or even continue a movie series without problems as long as the characters are well defined in themselves so that the interest in the characters isn’t solely based on whether they are in a relationship with another character or not.
So I hope these are some helpful thoughts, it kinda helped me to think through them anyway. I suppose the summary of this post is that you have to fully form your characters yourself. Don’t rely on pre-existing ideas to create believable characters. My sheets include a description of the character for consistency when describing them (not that you’ll really need it once you’ve done it once or twice) a list of character traits (these can be both positive and negative) and a summary of their life (think about important moments in their lives and write about them to get to know your character). If your characters lives have intersected with the other characters before your book then note it down. Know how long they have known each other. Know their birthdays and how old they are whether you need it for your book or not. There is a lot I know about my protagonists that I don’t actually write on their sheets. It doesn’t help me to write what their favourite flavour ice cream is on the sheet but the more I know about them the more of them I can get across in my writing. I do realise it sounds silly to know their favourite ice cream flavour but it all depends on how you look at it. Stark likes chocolate, he’s a big kid and his palette is quite ordinary. Polly prefers sorbet but would choose mint chocolate chip ice cream, she prefers fresher flavours in general and has a much more refined palette than Stark. Dantil doesn’t know it but if he tried them all he’d like Butterscotch because he is very partial to sweet foods. Little bits of information add to your understanding of your characters, so even though this information may never enter a single chapter I like to know it.
Anyway that’s about all I can think to say about characters right now, I’m sort of planning to do a post about Story time lines next, which I hope is of interest to you. Happy New Year everyone.