Making Characters Into People

What makes a person a person? For writers to create believable characters, we must get to the bottom of this question.

Nobody’s perfect, that’s the main thing to remember when we need a new personality to add to our collection.

That means our bad guys are better off if they are not evil incarnate. Their causes must be reasonably justifiable, unless our scarred, monocle wearing cigar smoker who is sitting stroking the white cat in his lap is completely insane.

They should be inches away from being a hero. This enables them to consider themselves a hero without leaving our reader eyeing the villain’s reasoning with some skepticism.

My admiration goes out to those who create villains that capture a small part of the audience’s sympathy. I like bad guys that have some of us secretly hoping he gets away with his dastardly deed.

On the other hand, consider how heroes have developed over the years.

At one time, a good hero was a passionate patriot, who fought with his or her dying breath for whoever or whatever best represented their national interests.

A modern-day hero who swallowed the whole “For my king/president and country” line would be seen by the majority today as a deluded dreamer of times long past.

I think he should have some identifiable flaws, some little idiosyncrasies that give our audience a bit of an eye rolling moment.

The heroes I truly enjoy are those that get us shaking our heads and tut-tutting at their behaviour every now and then.

It is my opinion, however, that the very best writers can achieve a story that has no hero or bad guy, as such. The characters in a great novel, just like real people, are neither and both.

A good escape can be provided through an action-packed tale of derring-do against insurmountable odds. However, a complex narrative woven around ordinary people who struggle against everyday problems leaves a deeper and more indelible mark on our psyche.

Okay, we made our readers laugh, we made them cry, we made them cheer and they closed the book with a smile on their face. But did we make them think?

One of the best tools for character creations is a mirror. A good, hard, honest look at ourselves can yield many flaws and qualities that we can inject into our work.

Second to that is other people. Social settings are great opportunities to gather material from. Watch people, their mannerisms, their speech, their clothes. Listen to them, too. Their stories may well contain nuggets of back story for any character you can imagine.

Real people are much higher quality resources than other writer’s characters. It is akin to doing a drawing of a drawing, is it not?

If we are writing in part as therapy, it may be our own lives and those around us are a terrific source of character material. The harder our own life has been, the more material we undoubtedly have for heroes and villains and all those in between.

Along with that, our settings, which, to a large degree, generate our characters,  are better if they are not clichéd.

While writers of his time were focused on the military, the privileged and the nobility, Charles Dickens decided to center his work around the dirty underbelly of his society. He exposed the engine room of England for what it truly was, and made his readers think.

Social commentary is fraught with danger, of course. Thus we need to consider what we are getting ourselves into, if we choose to delve into some of humanity’s baser mores.

Melding the entertaining with the thought-provoking is a good challenge, I find.

It’s a constant balancing work that needs careful management. Trending toward social commentary can see us bogging our story down too much. Setting a frenetic pace can cause us to rush our readers straight past that which may well give them pause to reflect.

Some writers stir us to greater self-worth, drive our opinions and even cause us to change our views. Some writers entertain and distract us, giving us some time away from reality.

I believe the best writers do both.

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One thought on “Making Characters Into People

  1. I think that it depends on what type of hero you are using. There are really three types of heroes in writing today. You have the classic hero archetype. This is your typical Moses or Luke Skywalker type of hero. You have your modern hero such as Harry Potter who seem to be accidently successful rather than having great power. The third type is the anti hero such as Riddick. This type of hero is actually a villain thrust into a role that makes you want them to succeed even though at their core they are not good people. Riddick is a lovely example because he is in essence a serial killer yet we like him anyway when we watch the movie. I personally like my heroes to have a bit of naughty with their nice. A mix of Harry Potter and Riddick qualities. I try to write them in such a way that they do good things but may not do the nice thing when presented the opportunity. I think it makes them more realistic. People are flawed. Even the best of us has something we do that is not always the proper thing to do.

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