Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Characters Are People

By 
Feath MacKirin

©2003, Feath MacKirin

hen you think of characters, what do you consider? The best ones are people - living, breathing people, who you could meet at your local bazaar - or pub - or cell block. You've seen them in your favourite books; those wonderful, complex characters that make you care, cry and laugh. Well, you too can have those kinds of characters!  

Is your monster on the table, inert? Time to connect the electrodes and pull the switch! Here is how to make your character al-iiii-ve! 

Character sheets

Character sheets are your basic tool, and you will be using them a great deal. The more complex your character sheet, the better the cornerstone for your character. 

Name: Names do make the character, so choose it wisely. The movie industry calls it "Typecasting."  Readers will fill in a mental picture by your character's name. Without knowing a thing about the following people, what do you know about them? Marilyn, Jesse, Les, Sam, Quii'zCK!, Ashley, Octavia,  Patel. . . the name you choose will color your character, so you need to have it fit. Having the guy who runs the local 7-11 named Quii'zCK! is fine - just don't have him of Irish descent. (However, it would work to have him raised in Jersey.) 

Occupation: After name, I consider the characters occupation of the most importance. A cop is going to think and react differently than a librarian.  Generally you know what your character is going to be ("My novel is about this guy, see, who is a blind kung-fu master, and works at the local woman's shelter -"), but if you don't, you need to put something down. It can be changed later, so don't put too much worry into it right now. 

Other stuff: The other stuff, like religion, skin tone, limps, best friends - that's all good stuff to have, and by all means fill out as much as you know, but if you don't know yet, don't sweat it. It will come. Your character will 'tell' you when he gets around to it. Fill it in then. 

Stamp of Approval: Once you've decided it is done, that's it! Don't later change the character sheet around to 'suit' you. . . if something cause's a problem during the story writing, work with it, instead. As an example of what I mean, your sheet might list a character as a Christian, but half way through your book you decide to make him Buddhist. Should you change the sheet, go back and change out any mention of his Christianity? No! Once you start writing the manuscript, have your character change in the story. Have him grow. Being consistent is the biggest thing.  

Dialogue with your characters 

Once you have a character sheet, the next step is to talk to your characters. This is usually fun, unless they have a knife to your neck. Open up a notebook or other writing device of your choice, and start talking. Keep an eye open for mannerisms, speech patterns, body language and any other clues your character may be telling you. Learn as much as you can about them. Really get into their head. Do this everyday, for a week. Don't know what to talk about? How about your day - or hers? Tell her she's dying of cancer (see torturing your characters); how does she react? Then tell her it was a joke! How did she react to that? 

Play with your characters 

You have your character sheet, and you've been talking to your character every day for a week.  You are feeling pretty good about him; he's starting to come alive for you, isn't he? That's good! Now, the next step is to play with them. Put them into different scenarios and see how they react, alone or together. Remember, you are still in character development. This is just a discovery tour, so it's okay to change things around on your character sheet as you discover more about your characters. At this point, it's okay to change him from Christian to Buddhist. 

Torture your characters 

When you're playing with your characters, it's fine to take them to the local circus (thereby discovering they get dizzy in the fun house, and throw up). But you also want to torture them. Make them miserable. Give them a cold, then a nice violent fight and chase scene through snake-infested swamps. Study them, watch their every mood and eye twitch.  

This isn't part of your story - these are just fun little shorts, to get a feel for them. Get the experimenting out of the way, now, so when it's time to write your story, there is no doubt in your mind how he or she will react in any situation.  

The good, the bad, and the really ugly 

Every living person (those are the guys in your novel) have good and bad points. Good guys lie, and bad guys support charities. Having just 'good' and just 'bad' are paper cut outs, and the sign of a lazy writer. As you are talking to your over muscled, angelic hero, be sure to include a few 'bad things' (and I donít mean like the bad things you put on your resume. You know what I'm talking about. Where you list your negative traits as 'too detailed orientated' or 'frequently forget to leave for the day, because I'm finishing up that proposal.') I mean bad things.  "I watched my saintly ol' mum starve to death, and didn't tell her about the fifteen hundred gold's I had under the floor boards," kind of stuff.  

Character growth 

Which leads us right into character growth. Somewhere along the plot of your story, your characters need to grow. You could have a stagnate character, but you probably wont have a published stagnate character. So, using the previous examples, your muscle bound angelic hero, Sam, has buried his dear ol' mum, Octavia, and gone off to work in the fun house at the circus, taking his gold with him. There he meets the bearded woman, Marilyn, who has cancer. Taking the advice of Quii'zCK!, the guy who feeds the tigers (and has a very strange relationship with them [I smell a sub-plot - or is that tiger poo?]), he takes Marilyn to see Dr. Patel. The good doctor tells your hero, Sam, that Marilyn is dying. But, the good news is Professor Les Shyster has a new treatment available for just this kind of illness. The cost of the treatment is 15,000 gold, and Sam's Christian soul. What will your hero do? Well, that's up to you.  

Good vs. Bad 

There is no difference between your 'good' guy and your 'bad' guy in character development. You must spend the same amount of time on both for a well-balanced story.  

Congratulations Dr. Frankenstein 

The more alive the character is for you, the more alive you will make him to your readers. If you spend at least a week on each of your main characters -- if you've thrown everything at them, up to and including death -- you have created A Character. Because by now, they should be living, breathing people, with good and bad points. They will have breath and depth, laughter and fears, humour and quirks -- all the tattered ear marks of Legendary Characters.

Congratulations, Dr Frankenstein, your characters are now al-iiii-ve!

With any advice on writing, this cravat will be applied: find what's best for you. Everyone writes differently, and there is no 'best way.'