Blog: Ten Tips for Creating Multi-Faceted Characters
By Dr. Maxine Thompson
Taken From The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sells
by Dr. Maxine Thompson (2002)
When I was sixteen, during the Civil Rights era, as part of a one-way student exchange program (from the inner city of Detroit to a northern suburban, Traverse City, Michigan), I lived with a white family. This was part of an integration initiative. (For me, it was an escape from the drugs taking over my neighborhood and some other demons in my life, but that’s another story.) Anyhow, the mother of the family I lived with was an artist, a sculptress, who encouraged me to write when she saw my love of the written word. Her name is: Verna Bartnick, (http://oldmissiontavern.com/verna-bartnick-studio/). To this day, she continues to create works of art in the form of sculptures.
When she prophesied that she saw a writing talent in me, I wasn’t so sure.
After all, if, at the time, I had told my family I wanted to be a writer, they would’ve laughed and said, “Go get you a good job.”
Well, as life rolled around, I went to college, then became a social worker for the next twenty-three years, while raising 3 children. All the while, I used to wonder, when was my literary destiny going to begin? In 1989, I won money in Ebony’s first writing contest for a short story, “Valley of the Shadow,” then had a few short stories published in a college quarterly, called “Obsidian.” I was happy, but something was still missing.
Ironically, by the time my novel writing did emerge, I had buried my mother and become a grandmother, two milestones, which forced me to take action.
I realized how transient this life is.
From living, I gleaned many things about my journey, but this is one thing I can’t say enough about now—everything I learned about building multi-faceted characters I learned as a social worker.
These are ten tips for building multi-faceted characters.
1. I learned that babies will die from maternal deprivation if a process called bonding does not take place. From that, I’d like to make an analogy. I learned that, as a writer, you must make your reader bond or emotionally connect to your character or your characters will die from reader deprivation. You do this through reader identification, emotions and loyalty. The reader will then begin to root for your main character(s.)
2. Even a “crackhead” has redeemable qualities and a motivation for what led to him or her becoming a substance abuser. Give your villains (or antagonist) a motivation, a past, and some good traits. Also, I learned, just like in life, that in fiction the best lines can come from bums and what I call “street corner psychologists.”
In my novel, Hostage of Lies, these are gems spoken from my character Poor Boy, an alcoholic derelict. “When you don’t love someone, you just don’t love them. They can be ever so nice to you, but you can’t make yourself love them. And vice-versa.
“I been in love both ways. The kind where I didn’t love someone back, and the kind where the other party was just using me. I know this is sad to say, but graveyard love done killed a many people. Got more people in the cemetery than cancer.”
3. Also, just like in life, in fiction, being good is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s easier to do the wrong thing. The person, such as a do-gooder social worker, who tries to do the right thing, has the hardest struggle.
Show this in your characters, particularly in your protagonist or main character. Fiction is about struggle and the fight to do good in a world filled with evil. Good intentions are generally what lead to conflicts in books.
For example, a good mother, with well-meaning intentions, can overprotect her children, creating followers and people who make bad choices. (So if your main character is a goody-two shoe, give her a critical flaw.)
On the other hand, sometimes you can use the bad guy as the lead character. They seem to inspire a lot of admiration from ordinary, law abiding citizens. Remember how in The Godfather, more people loved the Godfather than they did Fredo, his wimpy son, who was not a murderer? So don’t rule out using anti-heroes as your lead character.
4. Things happen to people that can either build their character early in life or destroy them. One teenage mother can go on to become a lawyer; another will drop out of high school, become a welfare queen or a substance abuser. One child can grow up with a schizophrenic parent and go on to become a successful adult; another child can grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth and become a serial killer.
Remember. A character’s back-story is important, but it doesn’t always determine what kind of person he or she will become. The best early life experience does not always produce resilient, tenacious people, nor does the worst early life experience always produce bad people. That’s why it’s often said that hardship builds character.
5. Life is often about compromise. Don’t give your books neat little happy endings. In my novel, Hostage of Lies, Nefertiti reunites with her birth daughter she’d had as a teen and placed for adoption at birth, but she pays the price of always wondering what would have happened had she opted to raise her child at a time when society was merciless to “unwed mothers.”
6. People generally grow during downward spirals. The worse life experience can sometimes turn out be the best thing that can happen. The grandmothers who had to take in crack grandbabies often looked younger than their crack daughters and were really better mothers the second time around.
Hitting rock bottom is often where people grow (or become discombobulated by life’s mishaps.) Put this in your fiction.
7. Show the dark side of your characters; this adds to complexity. How about a man who works with children, then goes home and batters his wife? People are full of contradictions. Or, the flaw could be more subtle. Perhaps look at how people get stuck in bad relationships and refuse to move on—that is, until something happens (the death of a child) such as in Anne Tyler’s novel, The Accidental Tourist, which forces the characters into action.
8. In the capacity of a social worker, I buried an AIDS baby and a Down Syndrome’s baby. I witnessed the after results of murder—a man had killed his wife—(which I revisit in my novel, LA Blues), and I had to place the surviving children in the middle of the night.
From this I learned: the line between life and death is tenuous.
Capture this dichotomy between life and death in your fiction.
9. Life is full of stories. The caseload’s foster mothers used to tell me stories. My clients told me stories. My clients’ families related all the family skeletons as they pointed to the “black sheep” of the family as the fault-line.
From this, I learned that everyone has a story. Everyone has a secret. Show me the inner life of your characters.
10. The Ten Commandments were written because man is essentially in need of God. How different men find their spirituality and their salvation can be a rocky road such as Paul on the road to Damascus. Take me, as the reader, on this journey. Walter Mosley does this in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, as we travel with Socrates, as he redeems himself for the murders that he committed earlier in life.
In summary, show how your flawed characters try to redeem themselves.
Try some of these tips and see how your readers will fall in love with your characters.
About the blogger:
Dr. Maxine Thompson is a novelist, poet, columnist, short story writer, book reviewer, an editor, ghostwriter, Internet Radio Show Host, and a Literary Agent. She is the author of Novels, The Ebony Tree, Hostage of Lies, LA Blues, LA Blues 2, and LA Blues 3, A Place Called Home (A Short Story Collection), The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sell, a contributor to bestselling anthologies Secret Lovers, (A Black Expression Bestseller) All in The Family, and Never Knew Love Like This Before, (Also a Black Expression Book Club, and Kindle Bestseller).
She is also an ebook author of The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sell 1, 2, The Hush Hush Secrets of Making Money as a Writer, The Hush Hush Secrets of Creating a Life You Love, Novellas, The Katrina Blues, Capri’s Second Chance, and Summer of Salvation, contributor to Proverbs for the People, and Editor/Contributor to anthology, Saturday Morning.
Her novels, The Ebony Tree, (Won a Pen Award in 1997), Hostage of Lies, (Voted a Best Book of 2009), LA Blues, (2011), and LA Blues II, (2012), which were featured in Black Expressions’ Catalog in August 2012. LA Blues 3 was published in August 2013.