By Dr. Maxine Thompson
Taken from my book, The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sells
As a fiction writer, you should create strong characters who will hold a reader’s interest for 300-400 pages, whether the character is a good person or a bad person. Who the character is will determine what he wants.
One tip: Make your character act in a courageous way that readers will admire. Test your character. Will he steal $50 if he finds it lying around?
In one of the first writing classes I taught, as an icebreaker, we played a game called ―Two Truths and a Lie.
Each attendee told two truths about himself and one lie. Surprisingly, no one ever guessed the correct answer for any of the participants. For instance, one workshop student said that he had been on Oprah’s show, had six children, and had been to prison. Everyone thought that the statement that he had been to prison was the lie. The truth was the student had been on Oprah’s and had been to prison. He also was a minister with five, not six, children.
Remember, people are full of contradictions. We used the game to show that you can’t judge people by only one aspect of their lives. This not only showed the different parts of people, it showed how a person’s behavior can change over the years.
In writing, the best characters do change and grow or fail to grow. They are also conflicted.
Another exercise we did showed the difference between stereotypes and rounded characters. We used a stereotype that has been used to death in literature and movies, for example—“the red-necked sheriff.”
We shifted the archetype and the situation. What if the character was a white law man with a conscience when a lynching took place during the Depression? Now there’s a story that goes against type and goes against the grain. (Of course, this is reminiscent of the wise father/attorney, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, who defended an innocent Black man in the South during one of the most segregated periods of time, during the Depression.) No wonder this book won a Pulitzer Prize and the movie version won an Academy Award.
Another powerful method for bringing characters to life is The Konstantin Stanislavski acting method. What would you do if you were in that character’s shoes? Act out each character’s role and put yourself in the middle of the story. One exercise was used to show the shifts in power in relationships from scene to scene. This is where you learn to use reversals such as from dominating to dominated.
In the exercise using the Rogerian theory, an attendee was assigned to interview people unlike themselves to understand their characters. This is crucial when you’re writing about a despicable character, such as a child molester (Vladimir Nabokov did this in the famous classic novel, Lolita,) or a serial killer, the infamous character, Hannibal Lecter, (from novel, Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris.)
The Carl Rogers theory was used to develop communications between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Its purpose is to have each person understand someone who holds a polar opposite point of view.
If someone asked you to describe a certain person, how would you do it?
Exercise: Write character sketches and descriptions for five different characters. Be sure to include important details about their history, personality, and context (setting—time and place). Then pick the character who interests you the most, and write a brief scene putting that character into a conflict in an imagined setting (time and place.) The critical part of this is to think, in advance, how you would describe someone to a friend if he asks you what you think of a certain person. This simple method is the single fastest, most “telling” way of getting at character that I know of.
The other key to creating interesting characters with built-in conflict is to bring together characters from different backgrounds. Your characters should come from disparate lifestyles, different classes, different races. How do they connect? Disconnect? Put together your characters and look at ways to derive built-in conflict, such as the old HBO special, ―“Oz,” where men of different backgrounds find themselves in prison.
How to Build Your Character’s Personality
1. If your character applied for a job, what would they put on the
2. What is your character’s religious background?
3. How does your character’s physical appearance affect his self-esteem?
4. What are some of your character’s mannerisms?
5. Is your character urban-bred or country bred?
6. What is your character’s social or economic class?
7. How many family members are there and what birth order was she born in?
8. Where does she live? In a house or in an apartment?
9. What kind of work skills does she have and how does this affect her
role in the story?
10. How is your character different from others and how does that affect
the story? Is your character marginalized by race, sexuality, or ethnicity?
11. Is your character married or single? Any children?
12. Any physical handicaps? Speech impediments? Quirks?
13. What makes your character an outsider from the norm in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or ability?
14. In what ways is your character conflicted? Does he have a friend, or even a child, from another race, but is part of the Ku Klux Klan?
15. What is your character’s deepest secret?
16. Outline your major scenes and use index cards for each character.
17. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen to my character?
18. How can it get even worse? I call it the “Throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-at-your character” technique.
19. Who is going to solve this problem? Your hero or heroine or a helper? (Preferably your protagonist will work out his own problems.) In Winston Groom’s novel, Forrest Gump, the main character, Forrest, with his 70 IQ, was such an innocent, loving person, that he became the agent of change, or catalyst character, who changed his love interest, Jenny Curran, for the better and the world around him.
20. Is your narrator just an onlooker, observing the agent of change, the person who affects everyone around him? In The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, relates the story as he watches the main character, Gatsby, as he self-destructs.
Remember. Characters are what make your story. People might not remember all the plot, but they will remember an intriguing character long after they close the pages of a book.
Tagged with: Creating characters • Creating fictional characters • developing characters •Fiction
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