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Some Recommendations and Cautions when creating Fictional Characters

  • Keep in mind that your task is to write a fascinating character. Fascinating in fiction is one who is simply one the reader can't take his eyes off of.
  • Remember, you are writing fiction and not trying to be true to life and not trying to write a transcript of someone you made up to make them look like real living characters. The tendency is to try to make them seem like real people. (Read that: Normal people) But normal people are boring. Fascinating characters are not like real people. They are exaggerated in some aspects of their persona. Pick any facet of your character and stretch it. At the same time, select those everyday aspects of your character and diminish those that seem normal or lifelike.
  • Set your character's problems in his path and not in his past. His past is over, done, and he survived whatever it was. When you stop to flashback or fill in backstory about your character's past, you stop the story's forward progress to visit something that your character survived. So your reader knows, right away, that whatever is in that backstory, it won't be fatal.
  • Turn your character toward the problems in his path and not away from them. In real life, we see potholes ahead and try to avoid them. In good fiction, we either let the character see them and try to avoid them and fail. Or we don't let him see them, and we drive him into the potholes in his path.
  • Recognize that your character has to be neither admirable nor positive nor heroic. With a goal of writing a fascinating character, you can easily engage your reader with a character who lies, cheats, steals, and even murders. Some of the most fascinating characters in literature are not nice guys. Even cannibals make fabulous characters.
  • If your character comes to you quickly and with ease, it is probably a stereotype or a cliched character. Dig deeper. Make him different.
  • Flaws make your story and your character more compelling for the reader. In fiction, a flaw is something about your character that can or might impede his ability to achieve the goal you have set for him. In nearly every scene, you write the problem of that flaw appearing, and keeping your POV character from achieving his goal in the scene creates Dramatic Tension. Dramatic Tension is that sense in a reader that before the scene ends, it could go terribly wrong for the POV character. It doesn't have to. Just the possibility creates that desired tension.
  • Don't believe the recommendation that ". . . before your story ends your character must change." If that were true, by the time we got to the 13th year of McGyver, M*A*S*H, or NYPD Blue, we'd never be able to recognize McGyver, Hawkeye, or Sipowitz. A good substitute for this is to let the situation change by the end of the story. The threat has been eliminated, the danger has been removed, the antagonist has been killed off, the shark has been killed, etc.
  • Take the time to decide what your character believes to be true (even if it isn't). "Only connected people get ahead." "All politicians are corrupt." "I'm owed something for the way I was brought up."
  • And try to avoid explaining the current behavior of a character by how he was treated as a child. Just let him be himself. Dirty Harry has always been Dirty Harry without explanation of why he is that way. We didn't find out how Hannibal Lector became a cannibal until the 3rd novel. And we were okay with that. Resist the urge to explain.
  • Project your character through the introduction of his name. Names can say something even before the character makes a move, a decision, or speaks. Stacks Johnson, Maude Wilson, Nguyen Van Sen, Skippy Smith, Skeeter Jones, Karma Kominsky, Marley Jacks are all names that project an impression the minute they are read.
  • It's a waste of time developing backstory, biodata, and a character's history. No one gives you all that once you meet a new person. You find out about him/her by the choices he makes, the actions he takes, his behaviors. Put your character on the page, give him a goal he can't dodge, avoid or shrug off, and put him in motion to achieve it. He will flesh himself out without you explaining where he came from, what happened to him in the 3rd Grade, and how he was treated by his stepmother. Let the pursuit of his goal and the obstacles in his path forge him.
  • Put other demands on your character with obligations in subplots. Stretch him thin. Pressure is a great worry for your reader.
  • When in doubt, do something that will worry your reader.