The Spice and Wampum of
By 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.