Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


The Spice and Wampum of Characters

By Bonnie McDaniel
© 2005,
Bonnie McDaniel

Characters are the meat in the novel sandwich. However, by definition, a sandwich needs bread and condiments to be complete. Likewise, your characters need realistic backgrounds and flaws, or theyíre just cheap wooden puppets for the writer to manipulate. 

These aspects of characterization -- how a person got to where she is, and how many times she screwed up along the way -- are by far the most interesting to me. Many writing books suggest creating detailed dossiers on a character, down to what she had for breakfast nine years ago. I donít think this is necessary. If I want to know the name of my heroís third-grade teacher, Iíll make it up in the paragraph where it becomes relevant. What does matter is my character watching his parents divorce during that year, and how this sowed the seeds of his wife-beating twenty-five years later.

Motivations donít come from a vacuum. There are always experiences, good or bad, which lead to a particular viewpoint, and this viewpoint determines how a character acts. In this vein, instead of creating a character dossier, I think we need to create a character timeline -- the past events underlying his current actions, and when those events took place.

To continue the above example, letís say your antagonistís parents divorce when heís eight years old. The characterís father, a rich, vindictive S.O.B., wins custody, and spends the next few years running down the childís mother. This misogynistic attitude will carry over into the characterís adult life, particularly if heís dumped -- unfairly, he believes -- by one or two girlfriends along the way. Perhaps his first love is an ardent feminist who wonít put up with his nonsense. Her rejection only adds to his hatred and mistrust of women, feelings which rise to the surface when he marries.

Therefore, the antagonistís first punch (and how good it makes him feel) is the culmination of everything that has gone before.

Iím not saying the writer has to describe every year of a characterís life, but if your character is a wife-beater (or a spy, or a backwoods eccentric who has fled from society), the reasons for his being so need to be fleshed out. Some of them will obviously be revealed in the story. The fact that you, the writer, know them in even greater detail will lend subtext and nuance to your characterization, and create a person who will ring true in the readerís mind.

Flaws are important to both protagonist and antagonist. They make the former more human, and show the way the latter may be defeated. In an ideal world -- and not all of us get there, to be sure -- a characterís greatest strength and weakness is the same trait. Letís say your character is loyal, sticking like Superglue to her mentor. Said mentor (to borrow themes from a book idea Iím playing around with) plucked the protagonist from a nasty situation that would have resulted in her death. However, her mentor is a charming sociopath, with a deadly personality that becomes more evident as time goes on, to everyone but the protagonist. How long will the protagonistís loyalty last, and what will be the defining event that finally opens her eyes?

Creating a good antagonist is one of the most rewarding challenges a writer faces. Just mention the names Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader and youíll see what I mean. I think the antagonist -- particularly if heís a charming sociopath -- should have the most detailed timeline of all your characters. The inevitable question everyone asks when faced with a cannibalizing, murderous monster is: ďWhy? How did you get to where you are? What made you think such actions are appropriate?Ē The writer needs to descend into the heart of darkness to answer those questions.

As has been pointed out in many writing books, even a villain is the hero of his own story. A villain walks a fine line between sympathy and repugnance, so he needs bigger flaws than the protagonist. Perhaps he truly believes, by virtue of his intelligence, self-control, or ďenlightenedĒ personal philosophy, that he is superior to other people. He views the rest of Homo sapiens as weak, racist hatemongers (completely ignoring the same traits in himself). Eventually his ego, the very thing that led him to this point, will ensure he is defeated, and rightfully so. But the reader will know why he acted the way he did, whether or not she agrees with those actions.

A detailed background and realistic flaws are what complete the sandwich and makes your characters shine. Now they no longer jerk to the authorís invisible puppetry, but stride off the page as real people, into the hearts and minds of your readers.