Write Craft - Episode #2 - Creating Complex Characters
Write Craft # Episode 2 – Creating Complex Characters hosted by Bibiana Krall
MUSIC CUE: Go to Girl (Adilyn's Mix) by Snowflake
(c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/snowflake/30788 Ft: Alex Beroza, Rebecca Cannon, Sassy Gal
FADE IN: Welcome to WRITE CRAFT ™
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WRITE CRAFT is produced and narrated by ©℗Bibiana Krall
This educational podcast is about learning to create unforgettable and impactful writing. I can’t wait to get your feedback and share some helpful hints. Let’s do this!
Write Craft: Episode #2-Creating Complex Characters
Thank you for joining me here! My name is Bibiana Krall; I’m a novelist and short story writer who recently earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. YES! Today I want to chat with you about writing craft, and the importance of creating complex and believable characters.
First, let’s dispel any myths you might have about what a character in literature actually is and why every writer must think about it. Consider doing a visual aesthetic and making an index card on each person or character.
Pinterest is a wonderful place to accomplish this task and you can keep your boards private. I created this visual exercise for my own fiction writing. It really helps me pinpoint what I want the reader to know or feel. I challenge you to know your characters so well, that you know what they eat, listen to and would wear to your best friend’s wedding.
The definition of char·ac·ter. ˈkerəktər/ noun
1. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual."Running away was not in keeping with her character."
2. A person in a novel, play, or movie.
Synonyms: Persona, role, part; dramatis personae,
“The characters develop throughout the play.”
Character in the dictionary clearly has a dual meaning, but to hold steady, the latter entry is where we need to center our focus.
Notice the word develop, “The characters develop throughout the play.”
This is so important! Think of yourself as a five year old, and then fast-forward mentally to the present. Are you the same person? Would you ever consider wearing a turtleneck over your bathing suit again or eating pizza for a whole week? Do you react the way you might have ten years ago to the same external stimulus? Change and development for a character is huge. Characters, like people age, they have new experiences, change their tastes and gain knowledge -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not. A fictional character should always change and grow, just like you have.
Before you begin writing, put together a group of characters to tell the story inside the plot. Think of the plot as a commuter train. The characters are passengers that get on and off as you stop in each town. They mutually need each other to tell the story. No commuters, no train, no point.
The first order of business is naming the protagonist. Who gets to be the main character? Are they also the narrator? Pick me! Pick me!
Why did you choose them? Are they complex or mature enough to carry the story you want to tell?
Will you give a cultural, educational or socio-economic difference as part of their struggle?
These days, I read a lot about literature needing diversity and shake my head when the default button in storytelling appears to be stuck on straight, Caucasian and English speaking characters when gender, culture or geography isn’t explained. This is absurd!
Rather than getting mad about it, consider adding diversity to your stories via the voices of the world. The differences between us as individuals, orientation, culture and beliefs make us special -- who we are. Other cultures or groups are a rich place to search for complexity. This will make your character more realistic and the story stronger. Do diligent research and stop assuming. It’s your duty to understand and be respectful before you pick up that pen.
Traveling has given me the opportunity to meet many amazing people, and has opened my mind. The one thing that always surprises me is how similar we are beneath the layers of social conditioning and physical appearances. The three major definers seem to be: Wanting to be loved and respected, experiencing physical or emotional pain and fear of death.
It’s important to stay within the realm of what we know as humans to be true and possible, unless we are writing fantasy, science fiction, or horror, then the distance to that rule increases.
We need to meet the character initially from across the room or standing beside them, as if they are flesh and blood. Then the author should bring us closer and closer as the story proceeds. What are they wearing or doing? Do they have something physical that immediately identifies them? Hair color, long legs, chunky, thin, athletic? Do they slouch or stand up straight? What is their name?
Names can also be extremely effective when characterizing, for instance, the name Gertrude calls up the image of an elderly, old-fashioned woman, but what if she was a serial killer or a drug smuggler? If her name was Donatella, would you get a different image?
Thousands of psychological cues come from our mental impressions when we first see someone or learn their name.
One of my favorite things to talk about is body language. Many of us don’t realize how important it is to how we see and understand another human being. A behavioral doctor I admire for his research claims that 93% of human language is in body movements & body language rather than the written or spoken word. WOW!
Give his theory a spin. Go somewhere busy, like a mall, a large department store or an airport and bring something to write with and a small notebook.
When someone catches your eye, write five things as quick as you can that you notice about them. Handsome or gorgeous won’t do the job here, really try to listen to your gut reaction. Do they seem upset, stressed out, sleepy, dangerous?
Continue to do this for a half hour. Hopefully at this point, you haven’t described each person the same way. If that’s the case, you might need to work on your observation skills a bit more before you continue.
Use specific details when you open an active scene and introduce the protagonist. Another question you should try to answer is, why should we feel empathy for them and what is their struggle?
The most important thing you can do when introducing the main character is to create an immediate emotional connection with the reader. Do not over explain or drown us in detail. This isn’t a job interview; right now, it’s just an introduction. If you manage to throw in something about difficulty within their relationships, or identities, as in parental, sexual, romantic, career -- all the better. As humans we understand challenges, and will begin to relate or form our opinions almost immediately.
The fun part of this is that you can also introduce the antagonist this way, and use my favorite formula for drama, a triangulation. Is someone in your story having an affair, but their spouse is sick or dying or a religious leader in the community? Is the neighbor cooking illegal drugs in the shed, but the character’s father works for the DEA and the third character sees this all going down from their bedroom window?
The moment you have a character with a moral conscience, another with lower or different standards and thirdly, someone who makes it a point to focus on that for their hobby, career or holds a grudge because of something that happened previously, you’ve just created a believable triangulation that can become a major part of the plot and give your character’s actionable tasks to carry the story further.
Next up is the antagonist or antagonists. Who are they and why are they in a struggle with another person, group, government, nature, a deadly virus or village?
The villain is my favorite character to write, but in my opinion, also the most difficult. Why you ask? Because as human beings we have a tendency to focus on what isn’t good and sometimes over dramatize what makes us uncomfortable. Look no further than social media or the doomsday club to confirm this notion. An impactful and memorable antagonist must be believable and multi-dimensional, even if they’re not human.
I will take the liberty of quoting my favorite writer of all time, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” –Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The Bard understood the duality that all humans struggle with.
We must remember that this antagonist who is set to destroy, was once a child, a larvae, seed or a nanobot who had to be taught how to eat with a spoon, make a cocoon or create feedback. Someone somewhere loved or nurtured them, even if it may not have been what they needed or wanted.
Remember to give every character a little darkness and a little light.
What this will do is make your character seem real. Nobody’s perfect. Even the finest person you’ve ever known has something they try to hide or wish they could control or change about themselves.
If a villain is all bad, totally benevolent and never has introspection about a good memory or a time “before,” have some self-doubt or at the very least, a terrible sense of fashion, it simply won’t work. One of the immediate goals that becomes important -- even in fantasy, is to look at the idea that as human beings we inherently understand struggle and the strain when things have gone awry. It’s a basic part of life.
Who knows? You might end up losing the story to the antagonist if you do this effectively, because when we create an evil or flawed character and give them real, human qualities, they come to life and are three times scarier than a cutout character that hates everyone and hatched from nothingness. There must be a reason why there is fury or this need and desire to create havoc. It doesn’t come from nowhere, or at least in a fictional story it shouldn’t. It needs to make logical sense to be believable.
“What goes up, must come down.” – Sir Isaac Newton
The world can be a dangerous, complicated place and sometimes there will be influences that no one saw coming, but the strongest antagonists in a story have a reason why they are who they are and this reason or history fuels their actions. The revelation of why will help readers understand and relate to them, because perception of a truth makes things real and believable.
If you have not read any psychology or philosophy books and you plan on being a successful writer, it’s about time you did.
The why or origins of a character’s perception paint a strong and memorable picture, and it will offer insight into the struggle to create more action and drama further on into the story. To know your character is to know yourself and the world around you.
What negative qualities do you have that sometimes make you lose control, crave something or create an overwhelming urge? And alternatively what are the positive ones?
All of these complex feelings you own like a badge of courage; your characters should also have access to. I’m not saying to write only yourself into these characters, because then they will be carbon copies and it simply wont work, rather; give them flaws, give them instability or mental/physical strength, a moral compass, secret desires or something that triggers irrational fear. That’s where the story is.
Think on some of the most memorable characters in literature: Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Katniss Everdeen. Forgive me if I don’t list them all.
Why do we remember them? Is it how they look, how much money they have, or is it how they think and react?
Gotcha! The workings of the introspective mind and how that evolves in a storyline is where the growth of a character begins. If you are successful at creating this deeper layer, your character can become so real, they might even enjoy a cult following, because readers want to identify with a heroine or hero and in some cases the villain.
Another point to consider -- is this character human, an entity, an alien or an object?
The best example off the top of my head with an inanimate object as a fictional character is the creepy, gothic mansion in Shirley Jackson’s, The Haunting of Hill House. Not only does the house glower and breathe, but also it literally comes alive as a deadly antagonist. Feeling at moments in the story that if it could, it would devour all the guests inside its walls. That’s exactly what we want to do with our characters. Make them so strong, and so unforgettable, that regardless of them being, plant; animal or mineral, they reflect feelings, emotions, and desires with a strong sense of purpose to achieve their goals.
One of my favorite notes to get from a reader is when they get mad or frustrated with one of my fictional characters, and then want to have a heated conversation about it. This is a huge compliment and tells me that I’m on the right track. The people in my stories aren’t real, they aren’t able to create chaos, fall in love or fall off a cliff -- but if the reader feels it enough to take these emotions away with them, perhaps for a moment, they are real…
Finally, consider adding quirks or personality traits to amplify the other aspects of this complex, and emotional character.
Are they kind and genuine, fierce and unforgiving or all of the above depending on whom they are dealing with? Do they laugh when they’re nervous? Wash their and dry their hands incessantly, wear tons of makeup or gossip? Gossip is a great way to offer flaws and use profluence or drop hints from someone else’s point of view as to what’s coming next. The fall out from other characters talking about another one can create a motivation behind actions that happen later on in the story.
So there you have it. The basics on how to build an unforgettable character. This isn’t rocket science. It’s the unique recipe that makes up an individual human, all you have to do is distill it down and ta da!
A complex character that defines themselves with limits, imperfections and a real sense of what motivates them, is alive and breathing.
The fiction writer’s responsibility to the reader via each character’s Point of View is to offer insight into the human condition, create empathy and forge lasting connections.
Remember that all writing is subjective, but we owe ourselves as writers and the trust of the reader to explore what makes our characters tick, so we can use that emotional connection to drive the plot forward with interesting characters to keep readers engaged.
To summarize, a character is an individual in a fictional story involved in situations that must be overcome or part of a relationship with other characters. Remember that a complex character will bring your novel to life and carry your plot, especially when you utilize important literary elements, such as dialogue, point of view, imagery and foreshadowing. A rich cast of characters will reward the writer and reader with a memorable and strong story.
It sounds easy doesn’t it? If you’re a working writer or a beginner, you know it’s not, but part of the fun is the attempt to create interesting characters that get people talking.
Thanks so much for listening! The next episode of Write Craft will be about choosing your narrator and Point of View and why this matters more than you might think.
I hope you finish this podcast inspired and ready to write! If you enjoyed my show please remember to subscribe to my channel, like and leave comments in the drop down! Check out my writing blog Indite, and subscribe to my YouTube channel. For more info please visit Bibiana Krall Books on Amazon my website www.bibianakrall.com@Bibiana1Krall on Twitter
MUSIC CUE: Go to Girl (Adilyn's Mix) by Snowflake
(c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/snowflake/30788 Ft: Alex Beroza, Rebecca Cannon, Sassy GalUntil next time, find your Peace, Love, Hustle, then Read or Write! See ya!