Creating Great Characters in Fiction

 

renoir-table-close01Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.

Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.

In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”

When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.

You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.

It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.

Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.

Highland cr in winter

Highland Creek, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.

“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story

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The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Your story lives and breathes through your characters. Through them your premise, idea and your plot come alive. Characters give your story meaning; they draw in the reader who lives the journey through them. Without them you wouldn’t have a story—you’d have a treatise.

Here are some questions you need to ask each of your characters:

  1. Will the story fall apart or be significantly diminished if you disappear? If not, you don’t need to be there; you aren’t fulfilling a role in the book. Hugo award winning author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job”: they tell a story. In real life, people may act through no apparent motivation, be confusing, incoherent and make pointless statements or actions. Story characters show more clear motivations, coherence, and consistency. They don’t clutter your story with muddle and confusion like real people do. They fit into your story like a major puzzle piece.
  2. What is your role? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.). Each character fulfills a dramatic function in your story. You can’t just be there because you’re cute. Well, ok, maybe. But even being cute can and should provide a dramatic function in the story by exploring how that quality is viewed and treated by others. As with setting, which serves a similar purpose as character in story, every aspect of both minor and major characters interact with and illuminate story theme, premise and plot.
  3. What archetype do you fulfill? In the “hero’s journey” plot approach, each character fulfills one to several archetypes, which help define how they service the plot and theme of the story. The mentor archetype, for instance, generally believes in and enables the hero on his journey. The threshold guardian, on the other hand does not have faith in the hero and obstructs him on his journey. The hero archetype, usually on a quest (for truth, forgiveness, home, victory, faith, etc.), must negotiate her world of archetypes to reach her destination.
  4. How do you contribute to the major or minor theme of the book? This is particularly relevant for all major characters and their associated sub-plots. Sawyer stresses that “your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.” All other characters, in turn, either help reflect the main character’s journey or the overall story premise and theme. If your book is about forgiveness, each character helps illuminate your exploration of this theme.
  5. Are you unique? If the reader can’t distinguish you from other characters, chances are you need to be eliminated because of point number 1 anyway. In order to contribute to story, characters must provide a sufficiently distinguishable feature, complete with sub-plot, on the story landscape. The more varied and rich the landscape is, the more interesting it will be. Fictional characters achieve distinction through individual traits that readers recognize and empathize with. Authors use vernacular and body language to achieve colorful fictional characters.
  6. Are you interesting? If you aren’t interesting to the reader, you won’t do your job. Readers need to notice you, distinguish you and find something about you that will keep their interest—even if it’s something annoying. Just remember to be consistent—unless inconsistency is part of your character.
  7. What is your story arc? Do you develop, change, and learn something by the end? If not, you will be two-dimensional and less interesting. This is just as true for minor characters as for main characters. The more characters the author imbues with the depth to develop, the more multi-layered the story will become. This is because each character and her associated arc provides her own perspective to the theme. This is what is truly meant by “richness” — not the richness of infinite detail, like a baroque painting, but of infinite meaning like an impressionist work. Choose your minor characters as you choose your major characters.
  8. What major obstacle(s) must you overcome? You need these to struggle and “grow” and change; otherwise there is no tension in the story, no development and movement and no story arc. Your character will be like a still-life with no movement, no direction and no interest. The more your character changes over a story, the more she will be noticed and remembered.
  9. What’s at stake for you (theme), and for the world (plot), and how do these tie together? If a writer is unable to tie these together in story, the story will fail to evoke emotional involvement and empathy. It will lack cohesiveness and will not give the reader a fulfilling conclusion with ultimate satisfaction through the character’s journey related to theme (the hero’s journey, essentially).
  10. Do you change from beginning to end? If you don’t develop throughout the story, then you aren’t growing as a result of the thematic elements and plot issues presented in the story. In other words, you haven’t learned your lesson. While it’s ok for some characters not to develop (e.g., to be one note or flat or plain old stubbornly the same) this is disastrous for any of your main characters. Just ensure that the changes you make your character go through are warranted and relevant to the theme.

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2Characters help the writer achieve empathy and commitment from the reader. Characters are really why readers keep reading. If the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, she won’t really care what happens next. It is important to be mindful of the emotional and narrative weight of a character and achieve balance between characters. For instance, the foil of the protagonist should carry equal weight; otherwise the reader won’t believe the match-up. Equally, a large cast—often used in epic fantasies or historical pieces—can be used successfully, but only if each character is given a clearly distinguishable personality and role.

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Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.