Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Create the Characters Your Novel Needs by Closely Observing Real People
By Charles Jacobs
One of the most enjoyable challenges in writing fiction is to create characters for your novel or short story. I agree that molding a character to fulfill a specific function in your book can be challenging. But it is also a great deal of fun. If you stop to think about it, every time you meet and/or converse with someone, you consciously or subconsciously analyze him/her, and that's essentially what you do when creating a character for your book. But the challenge goes well beyond just plucking an idea for a fictional person out of the air. It requires a good deal of careful thought.
Think about some recent conversation you had with friends or acquaintances or better yet total strangers. You react immediately to their attire. What they wear. The colors they choose. The neatness of their clothing. Next you respond to their mode of speech. What they say and how they say it reveals a great deal of important information about them. You subconsciously are always alert to the content of what the others are saying. You become aware of any nuances and what the words they use really indicate. These impressions and the many more available to you can be used as tools to tell your reader much about your characters without being forced to revert to dull description.
Conduct an in-depth interview with each of your major characters to probe every aspect of their background, persona as well as likes and dislikes. Then write a detailed description of that fictional person and keep it readily available to refer as you progress through the book. This will support your efforts to maintain the consistency that makes your characters believable to the reader.
What you are doing is creating an image. The specific one your story requires for that character. You must understand that fictional person thoroughly enough to maintain the image consistently through all the trials and tribulations that confront him/her in your story. Your character's reactions must always remain consistent with the image you created. You can only accomplish that essential task if you have come to understand everything about the character's background, personality, physical condition and appearance, unique traits and so on and on.
Ensuring Your Fictional People Are Believable
Most authors reach out through their own history and experiences for real-life people after whom they can mold their fictional persons. Often it is a friend or a family member. But that can be risky. An angry person could charge you with invasion of privacy. But that shouldn't restrict you from taking a characteristic from one person, melding it with compatible ones from others and developing a composite character. In fact, that's what many authors do with regularity. The fact that you have gathered attributes from several people assuredly does not affect the credibility of the fictional persons you make. What destroys their believability is when they act or react in a manner that is not consistent with the composite you have created.
Avoid One Dimensional Characters
Readers are far more demanding of the friends (or enemies) they make in a book than they are in real life. Many times you excuse a one dimensional acquaintance who has bored you in conversation, and so you find an excuse to leave. As the author, you certainly do not want your reader to toss down the book because he/she is bored by a "cardboard" character. Single dimension people simply do not work well in fiction.
Real persons have a tendency to shift their views of issues or change their reactions to other people. Not so in fiction. Readers will not tolerate any twists or turns from the basic persona you developed.
Now that doesn't mean they are to remain stoic and flat on every page of the book on which they appear. What it does mean is that you have another difficult challenge: maintaining a character's balance throughout the book. That doesn't completely rule out change. But any shifting, any deviation from the norm you have established must be motivated. There must be a reason for change. The motivation must be placed earlier in the book so that when the change occurs, it is believable.
You may ask and justifiably so, "Isn't the essence of a novel the way in which the protagonist grows and is transformed by the events of the story. The answer is yes, but that transformation must not conflict with the fundamental beliefs, persona, lifestyle and sense of morality you have initially given the protagonist. You can move your characters through high and lows, depression and joy without ever becoming inconsistent. The level of emotion is very different from the way in which a character reacts to a situation.
Make Your Characters Distinctive
It is particularly important with the major characters of your story that you imbue them with defining features. These can be physical identifiers (scars, blemishes, limps, etc), traits (nose pickers, twitchers, boisterous talkers, etc) or mannerisms (shyness, braggadocio, invective, etc). Multiple characteristics, as long as they are compatible, can create an even stronger identity. These are what makes them particularly memorable, and you want your reader to remember your book and the people in it long after reading it. Favorable word of mouth is the finest publicity you can achieve, so you want your readers to remember and talk about your characters for as long as possible.
As you know, the most valuable publicity your book can receive will be word of mouth. The impressions that strong characters make on the reader are the most lasting. Make sure that the fictional people you create touch the emotions of your readers.
Charles Jacobs is a writing instructor, coach, editor and "Best Book of the Year" author who devotes much of his time and effort to helping other writers improve their skills. His award-winning book "The Writer Within You" has been praised as one of the most comprehensive guides available on writing, publishing and promoting your book. The more than 60 original articles found on his website http://www.wisewriter.com covers these subjects in depth and are available free.