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Ten Top Tips for Creating Great Characters

August 11th, 2014

Tove-&-Moomins-blogCharacters are the heart of a story, without them – nothing happens. And whether they’re as sweet as Christopher Robin or as dark as Lisbeth Salander, the one thing they must always be is ‘believable.’ Now a believable character starts with you, the writer. Because, whatever you’re working on, one thing is certain – if you don’t believe in your characters, no one else will.

So, what can we do to make our characters more believable?

1. PROFILE. Writing your profile down is optional, but if you’re working on a long piece it’s probably a good idea. You can go into as much detail as you like, but here are some things you may want to include: age, place of birth, family details, education, occupation, strengths, weaknesses, appearance (hair; eyes; height, etc). Working on a profile doesn’t need to take a long time, but it will help you visualize the person you’re creating – and that’s half the battle.

2. MOTIVATION. Everybody wants … something, and it doesn’t have to be fame or world domination. It can be as hum-drum as ‘a friend,’ ‘that car’ or just ‘to feel safe’. Human beings are complicated creatures and it’s often hard to explain why they do the things they do, but if you can get under the skin of your characters and work out what they’re really after in their heart of hearts, you can get them doing incredible things, and your readers will be with you all the way.

3. CONTINUITY. Obvious, but still worth saying. Once you’ve gone to the trouble of making your profile and deciding on your characters’ motivations– stick to them. If her eyes are blue in Chapter One and brown in Chapter Five … you’ve lost them (readers, that is).

4. LARGER THAN LIFE. Now, you don’t have to do this. Tove Jansson, for one, wrote wonderful stories using charming, everyday folk involved in nothing more than life’s little dramas. But generally, the tales we love are peppered with extraordinary individuals: Hannibal Lector, James Bond, Mary Poppins … If you can create someone like this, a superhuman character who leaps off the page, and surround him, or her, with common mortals like the rest of us, then you may be on to a winner. But don’t forget …

5. THE FATAL FLAW. Back in the early 1960s Stan Lee (founder of Marvel Comics) started a revolution in the world of American super-heroes by using one simple device. He made sure each of his impossible characters (Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man etc) had ‘Feet of Clay.’ So, Peter Parker was a wimpy kid who couldn’t get the girls, and Tony Stark had a fatal heart condition … in a way, they were just folk like us. And did this work?  Well, according to Celebrity Networth.com, Mr. Lee is currently worth some $50 million; so something did!

6. TIMING. Of course, once you’ve worked out your profile, your motivations and flaws, don’t let it all out in one big ‘dollop’. That will slow your narrative down to a dead stop. Instead, feed in descriptions in small drips and let your characters show the reader what they are like, rather than you, the writer, telling them.

7. LITTLE BY LITTLE. Don’t introduce too many characters at the same time – this will only confuse your readers. Give each character time to become established before introducing the next.

8. DIFFERENCE. And then, make sure the next character you bring in is  significantly different from the first. That way your readers won’t get mixed up. In fact, throughout your piece, you should try to give each character a distinctive way of looking, talking and acting so that each has a unique personality.

9. STEREOTYPES. Avoid stereotypes at all costs! The bumbling professor, the brain-dead blonde – they’re OK for a cheap laugh but they just aren’t realistic. Even villains need to be rounded individuals. Most people have some redeeming features, so don’t just make monsters out of your antagonists. Intriguing quirks and likable traits will make them much more interesting.

10. And last, but not least – GET THE NAME RIGHT. You can suggest a lot about a person’s age and background by the name you give them. Doris and Edith are probably elderly ladies, where Chelsea and Britney are more likely to be in their twenties. There are no hard and fast rules for this, but it’s important to select a name that accurately reflects the personality and social status of the person you are creating. Give it some thought and, like choosing  a meal in a restaurant, you’ll know when you’ve made your mind up, because it just ‘feels’ right.

Keep on Writing!

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