Ah, characters. Those we want to drive the plot, love, kill, survive, and save the day. Without them, our stories would be stagnant, as unmoving as plain, grey pavement. With them, the emotion of those same tales shines through each page as readers experience desire, agony, and betrayal right alongside them.
In my opinion, characters are more important than anything else when it comes to writing a story. Even the plot. As a reader, I get to know the novel’s world and everyone else in it through the eyes of the characters. They give me a connection to the world that allows me to immerse myself.
So what? This is the question I was told to ask myself when writing anything, creative or analytical. So what? Why do we care about characters and their importance? What makes us care? And finally, how do we create a character that readers can care about?
As with everything to do with creative writing, a writer must first see things through the eyes of a reader. We’re going to do a little writing exercise, so go grab some paper!
Take a look at your favourite book character. Do they have qualities you admire? What makes them unique? Why are they your favourite?
My favourite character is Raistlin, a red mage from the DragonLance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. He’s sickly, with golden skin and eyes that force him to see death all around him. But he has a wit that I haven’t seen in a character since, and he thinks with that most logical mind of any character I’ve met. I relate to the way he thinks and how he approaches situations. He’s my favourite because he stands out from the rest of the Companions, the group of healthy fighters and rogues that he travels with. I encourage you to take a moment to write a paragraph like this one about your favourite character.
Next, think about a character that you hate. I mean deeply, completely hate. What do they do/say that makes you hate them?
The character who comes to mind is Aspen from the Selection series by Kiera Cass. He’s introduced as the love interest, but I almost immediately hated his behaviour. He seemed overly protective of America (protagonist), to the point where he stopped listening to her. (I honestly need to read this series again to get any further into it.)
Now, the same character. What purpose do they serve for the plot? Is it valuable for their story to have them?
The answer for Aspen is, of course, yes. America needed the reminder of home while she spent her days so far away, and she needed the love interest from the beginning of the series to decide to move forward later.
It’s very valuable to have all kinds of characters and it’s important to think about how your readers are going to react to them. So, now that you’ve talked about characters you feel strongly about, try to apply these questions in reverse. When you think about your story, what kind of characters do you want/need? Would it help or hinder the story if your reader hated your protagonist? What about if they loved your antagonist?
I’ll give you a final example of a character that I’ve created while writing this to give you a bit more context. I’ll make him male because both of my above examples were.
Gharon was a young wizard, studying to be a court mage. He was known in his town for a variety of unique spells he had created, the most popular of which turned people into ghosts for a short period of time to allow them to converse with the dead around them. As he would soon learn, that would be thought of as necromancy by those wizards less powerful than him and he would be banished to another kingdom for his crimes.
That took a dark turn, but I already love the direction this character is going. But we’re missing the final and most important piece of the puzzle: motivation. Characters need a goal or direction that they are trying to head in at the beginning of the novel. Whether that changes or not doesn’t matter, but they need a driving force. Think about what you were asked when you were a teenager, just starting towards your own inciting incident: what do you want to be?
I struggle a lot with giving my characters’ motivations, I won’t lie. The two protagonists I have in the novel I was just writing for NaNoWriMo, their motivations aren’t clear at all. The story is plot-driven now, and I did that on purpose. I needed to get to know Mirna and Xaoryn and their complex world before I could give them purposeful directions. After I revise a few times, it’ll be clear what they’re trying to attain, I hope.
As an example, though, I can tell you that Gharon wanted to become a court mage at the beginning of his story and that later, he might want to try and gain revenge on the other wizards through dark magic. Or maybe he’ll want to take over this new kingdom with his magic. There are endless possibilities when you place your characters in a new situation.
What characters do you come up with today? Do you love them or hate them? Do you think any of them will help in any existing stories, or will they try and show you their own new and exciting worlds?
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