How to create interesting characters
(Author of Accidental Crime)
Think for a minute of your favourite novels, films and TV shows. Why do you enjoy them? What compels you to return to them, to stick with them even in their weakest and weirdest moments? Amazing action scenes? A hilarious script? Description that pulls you in so that you can picture yourself there? Perhaps. There’s nothing wrong with these things and our enjoyment would often be lessened without them, but I have a feeling that if there’s one thing that draws us in more than anything then it’s this: interesting, intriguing and compelling characters.
Recently, one of the most successful television dramas of all time, House MD, aired its final episode, the 178th over eight award-winning series. At one stage, it was the most watched show on TV and yet its plot formula is remarkably straight-forward:
Patient becomes ill → doctors think they know what to do to cure it → patient gets worse → doctors go through a few more theories →just when it looks like the patient’s going to die, Dr House works out the puzzle and the patient survives (normally…)
OK, so it was occasionally a little more complicated than this but, let’s be honest, who would want to sit down and watch that formula played out 178 times? And this is just the point – if Dr House was not part of this formula, would the plot be able to captivate us?
Gregory House is possibly one of the greatest characters ever created and yet he is fundamentally unlikeable. He lies, he cheats, he cares more about puzzles than human life, he disrespects patients’ beliefs, he abuses his staff, he is a drug-addict and he uses prostitutes to meet his needs for sexual contact. And yet, 178 episodes in and we’re still utterly fascinated by him. Why? What is it about him that makes him so compelling?
It is in this issue that we can assert two crucial points about creating characters:
1) Creating interesting characters should be a top priority for us as writers – having a good storyline isn’t enough
2) We do not need to create characters that people ‘like’ – we need to create characters that are interesting
How to think up interesting characters?
In many ways, coming with interesting characters can be even harder than coming up with a compelling plot. However, here are a few good starting points:
q Start with yourself – not necessarily the whole you, but aspects of your personality
q Start with those you know – again, draw on aspects of their personalities
q Take what you know and change it – consider what it might be like to have the opposite characteristic to something you’ve identified yourself having or what might happen if the character was more obsessed with a particular issue than you are
q Focus in on the crucial characteristic then build from there – what is the most important characteristic of your character? Is it vital that they are jealous, for example? If so, what might have caused them to become so jealous and how might this affect other aspects of their life?
q Try the ‘multiple questions technique’ – begin with factual questions (i.e. where does my character live?) and then ask a series of ‘why?’, ‘when?’, ‘who?’, ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions to develop these further. Ideally, answer these questions as quickly as you can so that you’re giving an instinctive response and build up as much detail as you can. Start asking questions about your character’s attitudes towards particular things and then begin probing into why they might have these attitudes – did something happen in their past or is it an irrational fear, etc.?
A good question to ask is ‘what fascinates me about this character? What makes me want to find out more about them and how they’ll react to what I put before them?’
With Dr House, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his character was his complete disregard for anyone else’s feelings, which often manifested itself in appalling bedside manner and remarkably blunt conversations with a patient’s family. It is for this reason that some of the most successful episodes are those where House is confronted by patients who challenge him on these attitudes and show incredible strength amidst their suffering, as his worldview is brought under greater scrutiny and we feel as though we learn more about his character as he responds to others. When we are writing short stories, novels or scripts, we would do well to consider how we might lead our characters into scenarios that will prompt us to re-evaluate them; effectively, we are testing our characters, seeing how they’ll cope when stretched beyond what we think we know about them, and the most successful characters are those that surprise us by revealing a greater depth and complexity than we ever realised was there. Since we often base characters (or characteristics, at least) on ourselves, developing characters throughout our narratives can therefore often be as much a process of self-discovery as it is of pure fabrication.
How do I create my interesting character?
One of the classic writing mantras is ‘show don’t tell’ and this can often be an important lesson to remember when developing our interesting characters.
Consider, for example, how to convey to the reader that a character is anxious in a scenario. We could, of course, simply say something like:
John sat down in the chair, anxious about all that lay ahead.
It’s simple, straightforward and accurate. In many ways, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, what if we instead showed how John was acting so that it communicated his anxiety and developed our understanding of how he acts and reacts? Let’s try this:
John rested his palms on the arms of the chair as he slid into position. Peeling away the sweat-dampened skin from the wooden frame, he clasped his hands together and buried his teeth in his lower-lip.
Another key tool at the writer’s disposal is that of dialogue, as carefully-crafted conversations can reveal so much more than simple description ever could. Play scripts rely entirely on speech to communicate not only the plot of the play but also the way in which characters should act and interact, and I think we would do well to remember this when writing short stories or novels.
Have a look at this extract from Accidental Crime and consider what we learn about Dawn and her parents:
‘You didn’t need to come, you know. I can handle this.’
‘Dawn, darling, you couldn’t even handle a car. How can you expect to handle this?’
Her mother smiled with mingled condescension and support, flashing her ‘first-time pass’ achievement before her daughter’s eyes for the first time in weeks.
‘I didn’t have any problem handling the car, mother,’ she replied, furtively glancing at Jenkins’ pen skipping gaily across the page of his notebook. ‘I was driving well, under the speed limit, with both hands on the wheel, eyes on the road. You know, just like all of us sixth-time passers learn to do. He came out of nowhere. That’s what happened. I had my eyes on the road and he came out of nowhere.’
‘Everyone’s got to come out of somewhere, you know,’ her father interjected, again nodding to Jenkins as if sharing a well-worn philosophical reflection.
Think about the amount of speech Dawn uses here when explaining herself. What are we learning about her from how much she says and from her sentence structure (particularly the short, list-like sentences near the end of her contribution)? And how about her attitudes towards her parents – don’t we get a clear sense of her desire for independence, that she feels as though she is being brought back to a child-like state in this scenario, treated as though she needs protecting rather than as a fellow adult? Consider too what we learn about their relationship through the terms they use for one another (‘darling’ and ‘mother’) and how the description of the smile accompanying the speech supports the characterisation here.
I firmly believe that our emphasis should be on creating interesting characters and not necessarily likeable characters. When one reader of Accidental Crime told me that he hated my main male character, Jarrod, my answer was simple: good! I would have been concerned if Jarrod had simply been liked and it is precisely because he is so unlikeable that he becomes so fascinating. In life we are often enthralled by people and things that are different and so it is little surprise that the same is often true in fiction.
If you can make your reader interested in who your characters are as well as what they do then you are on the path to creating an engaging narrative. Develop them so that the reader begins to ask why your characters are as they are and you are in a very powerful position indeed. 178 episodes into House MD, we still didn’t know exactly why Gregory House acted like he did but we felt as though we knew and as though we almost understood him. Let this be our goal with our own writing so that we are creating characters that stay with us long after the story has finished.
Sam Lenton is the author of Accidental Crime, a modern tale of coincidences and unexpected disasters in a day in the life of two unlikely house-mates. The novel is available to buy on Kindle from Amazon and in paperback from Sam’s website.
You can read samples of Accidental Crime and other blog posts at http://samlenton.blogspot.com
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