Engineering Characters

“Miss Havisham had told me about Generics. They were created here in the Well to populate the books that were to be written. At the point of creation they were simply a human canvas without paint – blank like a coin, ready to be stamped with individualism. They had no history, no conflicts, no foibles – nothing that might make them either readable or interesting in any way. It was up to various institutions to teach them to be useful members of fiction . They were graded, too. A to D, one through ten. Any that were D-graded were like worker bees in crowds and busy street. Small speaking parts were C-grades; B-grades usually made up the bulk of featured but not leading characters. These parts usually – but not always – went to the A-grades, hand picked for their skills at character projection and multi-dimensionality. Huckleberry Finn, Tess and Anna Karenina were all A-grades, but then so were Mr Hyde, Hannibal Lecter and Professor Moriarty. I looked at the ungraded Generics again. Murderers or heroes? It was impossible to tell how they would turn out.”
from The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde

So, how does one create enduring protagonists – is it a matter of craft? When a local library offered a workshop on “twists and turns of writing character,” I came to find out how to craft memorable, believable characters. Here is what I’ve learned:

  1. A character must want something. It can be a need, desire, ambition or goal. The stronger it is, the better it can propel the character to act. Since the world (and other characters) might have different goals, a character’s wants create conflict (the bread-and-butter of every story).
  2. A character must have some fundamental fear that he keeps in secret, which makes him vulnerable. The secret can be manifested as a trait, as a pivotal event from character’s past, or whatsoever as long as it sustains tension and raises the stakes.
  3. A complex character will have contradicting traits and flaws. Complexity of character leads to unpredictable reactions (especially at times of trial). Since reaction is usually followed by action, the chain of actions and reactions move the story forward. Unpredictable reactions give rise to suspense, through increasing the readers’ engagement (they keep wondering what will happen next).
  4. Genre demands. Physical appearance, age, and even some character traits arise from expectations specific to a genre. A world-weary, alcohol-abusing fat man in his fifties can be a great protagonist in a crime novel, but he is a very unlikely candidate to be the leading man in a contemporary romance.
  5. Character names matter. Since I don’t remember the examples from the workshop, here is one from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Albus Dumbledore didn’t seem to realise that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Can anyone imagine a Hogwarts headmaster with a name like Jack or Steve?
  6. A hero of a story does not have to be larger-than-life. He can be an ordinary guy, but one who is able to rise to an occasion in unusual circumstances. Most people who have read O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation” remember Jimmy Valentine with some tenderness, although they don’t particularly aspire to become a reformed criminal.
  7. Instead of using stereotypical “stock characters,” a writer can draw from real-life people she knows (family members, neighbors, co-workers…). Composite (and unrecognizable) characters can be assembled from bits and pieces of real people. The real challenge is to create characters that will become real to the writer, so real that she’ll feel her characters take initiative to roll their own story.
  8. There is no trusty recipe of how to create an “A-grade” character. Despite all the “craft” that can be learned, writing fiction is more Art than Science.

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