Characterization

Part One: An Introduction.

 

 

I have a feeling this will be a fairly long series of posts, because in my mind, characters are the most important part of any writing project, whether it's a short story, a full-length novel, or a screenplay.

 

There are main characters, secondary characters, supporting characters, and there are protagonists (good guys) and antagonists (bad guys), and then there are the countless casts of background players, and although not every single one of them needs to be completely fleshed out, they do all deserve to be treated as real people. 

Your main characters, especially your heroes and your villains, should come off the page as living, breathing beings that the reader can fully identify with. They should be as real as you and me, and if you draw them in words clearly enough, you'll have your readers hooked on your project, because they are going to start to care what happens to these people.

With that in mind, let's start off this series of posts with an example of poor characterization: how many of you have seen any of the Friday The 13th films? It really doesn't matter which ones you've seen, because this example will apply to all of them, so if you've only seen one of them, you're good to go.  

 

Quick, name a compelling character from any one of the films. Got one?

Chances are you've thought instantly of either Jason himself, or his mother from the first movie, Pamela Voorhees (It kind of hurts me a little that I remember her name). And why is that? Because, really, they were the only characters that the moviemakers put any bit of effort into creating. Just about every other character in just about any of the movies is there for one reason and one reason only: to be a victim in a creative, gory kill. You don't get to know any of them beyond their stereotype: the hard partying college dude who just wants to drink and get laid; the pretty blonde sex symbol that all the guys want to get with; the good girl who won't be pressured into drinking or sex (she'll be the one who survives, you can bet on it); and the one character who will know just enough about Jason's back-story that they can provide necessary exposition.

These characters are cardboard cut-outs that are instantly interchangeable from movie to movie, and if anyone remembers them at all it's because they remember how they were killed off in their particular movie. Your job, as a writer, is to avoid that pitfall.

You have to breathe life into characters that only exist in your mind, and you have to convince your reader that they should worry about these people, and laugh at their jokes, and maybe even spend a sleepless night if something bad happens to one of them. You have to flesh them out to the point that they're telling you what to write for their dialogue, and they'll let you know what they'll be wearing or eating. Sounds crazy, I know, but it happens. And I also know that all of this sounds daunting and difficult (and in some ways it is), but here's the good news: it's easier than you'd believe, and with enough practice, it begins to come as second nature.

Trust me.

Part Two: The Main Character.

 

 

Many years ago, during my first attempt at a full-length novel (a complete mess of a book called The Limits Of Flesh, which I still have in a shoe box somewhere), I created a main character called Michael Chapman, a freelance photographer who becomes caught up in the plot and barely makes it out alive.  He's the good guy, and one of his problems is that he has no real problems. He's too good a good guy.  He doesn't do anything wrong throughout the book; he never makes a mistake or makes the wrong move, and in his spare time, between the scenes I wrote him into, he probably volunteers to bathe homeless puppies or something.  The bottom line is that he was not a very well-drawn character. 

And looking back, I can see why: because I created him while the story was already in progress. I was about a third of the way through the first draft and realized that I had no good guy.  Most of my characters were punks and losers, and violent and offensive, and although there was a central conflict between several of them and I knew which side the reader would identify with, I didn't have a main character that anyone would really want to root for.  So I created Michael Chapman, dropped him into the mix, and went on from there.  He was the good guy now, the hero of the story that would save the girl and destroy the evil.

 

But he was also as cardboard as a character can get.

When the book was finished and I thought it couldn't get any better (yikes), I sent it off to a literary agent, hoping he would represent me and sell the book and change my life.  It came back in the mail a few weeks later, rejected, but with pages and pages of notes regarding what they thought worked and what didn't.  And in those notes (which I still have, in that same shoe box), one point that stood out to me was that they felt my main character had come from another book; he didn't fit his surroundings, he didn't fit in with the rest of the characters, and he just seemed very bland.  It was a tough lesson to learn, but I'm grateful they pointed it out to me, and glad I learned that lesson so early.  (Another valuable tip the agency included was that a main character should move the story along, not get pushed around by it, and I will address that in a future post.)

So I was guilty of creating a dull main character, and caught red handed being lazy in not taking the time to flesh him out, and that long story I just told you serves the purpose of illustrating how a weakly-drawn main character can kill an entire project.

When you're creating a character (especially a main character) take the time to get to know him.  Go beyond a simple physical description and look for what makes him tick.  Give him problems and issues, and annoying habits, and a sense of humor.  In other words, make him a real person.

 

Real people make mistakes all the time, and real people lie to each other and annoy each other every single day, even the really good ones.  Give your characters those quirks that make them stand out and feel genuine to a reader.  And for God's sake, please give them flaws.  Michael Chapman was about the most perfect human being to ever walk the planet, apparently, because I didn't even give him any flaws.  Make your main character come alive by giving him something like a drinking problem or a bit of a mean streak.

And you don't have to include all that stuff right up front, when you're first introducing him.  Readers will pick up a lot of it from things your character is doing along the way.  If he's starting the book out with a bit of a hangover, the reader will surmise that he hit the bottle pretty hard the night before, and you won't have to say a thing.  Or if this guy is working hard to avoid taking a certain phone call, your readers will be intrigued, and realize he's in a bit of a jam about something. 

Hint at what he's like inside and keep the reader curious.  You'll have to eventually fill in the blanks, but if you keep your character as real as possible in your own imagination, it will carry over into the work.

Part Three: The Main Character (continued).

 

 

In the previous post, we took a look at the need to create a living, breathing main character that your readers will not only sympathize with, but empathize with as well.  If your main character feels real to your reader, that reader will hurt when your character hurts, and be scared when he is scared.  And they will want, more than anything, to follow your character all the way to the end of the story.  This is not only a desirable reaction for any writer to elicit from a reader, but one you should strive to achieve.  In fact, if your characters are strong enough, you, as the writer, will become very attached to them as well, and that's a good thing.

All that being said, however, creating a realistic character is only half the battle to that character's purpose in your book.  Because as your mouthpiece, through which you will convey your story, ideas, themes and subtext to your readers, he must also become responsible for carrying the story. He must be involved in the twists and turns, and bear the weight of this complicated plot on his shoulders.  That's a lot of responsibility, right?  Absolutely.  But isn't that hard to do?  Sure, for him. But for you, the writer?  Nah, it's not that difficult, really, if you keep in mind that your readers are sticking with your book because they have come to care deeply about your character.

To illustrate this more clearly, I have to go back once again to Michael Chapman, the weak and badly-drawn main character we discussed earlier, which I'd created years ago for The Limits Of Flesh.  One of the book's weaknesses that the agency's rejection notes pointed out was that the main character seemed unnecessary to the momentum of the plot.  They felt that rather than be involved in the plot twists and contribute to the story, he was basically just being pulled along by it.

I kept that in mind and re-read the book, and huh . . . what do you know?  Sure enough, they were right about that.  Each time there was a major discovery in the framework of the mystery that propelled the story, it was made by another character and then passed on to him.  And even though he came to the rescue when the chips were down at the end of the book, he was led there by someone else and just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  Again, it was a tough lesson, but one I'm so glad I learned.

Once your main character is firmly entrenched in your imagination, you must make him instrumental in the forward momentum of the plot.  If there's a vital clue to be found, he must be the one to find it; if there's a crucial riddle to be solved to find the killer, your main character must be the one to figure it out.  And, conversely (and maybe even more importantly), if there's a terrible mistake that needs to be made that will lend your project both realism and emotional impact, you main character has to take that bullet.  Remember, he's a real person, and real people make horrible mistakes.  Your character has to as well.

But look at it this way: people who make mistakes also have to learn to pick themselves up again, and nothing can generate more sympathy from a reader than someone trying to pick up the pieces after a tragedy.

So make your character responsible for the events in the book, and that includes the tragedies too.

 

But just be sure the good outweighs the bad.

Part Four: The Antagonist.

 

 

Every story needs a bad guy, whether it's an actual person that your hero must contend with, or a supernatural force, or even a coming storm.  (This all goes back to my posts on conflict, which hopefully will be making an appearance on the site very soon.) But, just like your main character, your villain must feel completely real.  This is easy when it comes to an element of nature, like a blizzard or a hurricane, because they actually exist in real life and readers will already be familiar with them from seeing years and years of media coverage.  You just have to do a little research so your descriptions of the effects of the storm and its aftermath will come off as real and believable. 

Human villains are harder to create realistically, as not only do you have to do your best to make them believable, you also have to make your readers believe that their reasons for being evil or for seeking vengeance feel natural.  Their goals can't be paper thin excuses to "rule the world" or to simply "cause havoc" for the fun of it, but deeply rooted in their psyche or back story.  And just as you should work hard to give your hero some flaws, you should work twice as hard to give your villain a bit of sympathy.  He should be evil, true, and your readers should cheer when he is caught or dispatched at the end, but if you can manage to milk a little bit of sympathy from your reader over your villain, you will leave behind a much more memorable reading experience.

Get to know your villain really well; become perfectly familiar with why he is the way he is.  Avoid the common clichés (abused as a child, abandoned by his parents, never got that date to the prom he wanted so badly) and don't be afraid to dig deeper.  And it's not a bad thing to drawn from traumatic or frightening experiences from your own childhood, so don't be afraid to get a bit autobiographical. (Just be sure to change the names of anyone else involved, or to alter enough details about the factual experience to avoid any personal misgivings you might have about sharing the story.)

Lastly, avoid the broader clichés of movie and cartoon villainy (yeah, I’m thinking about you again, Jason Voorhees).  Try to avoid the crucial scene that so many movies fall victim to, in which the villain captures the hero and gives an elaborate and flowery speech that details his entire evil plot (including its weaknesses) just so the hero can escape in time to foil his plan.  Leave some shred of decency in him, or some trait or habit that will (on some level at least) endear him to your readers.

 

A very good example of this strategy can be found in the Marvel movie The Avengers and its central villain, Loki. The guy doesn't do a single thing in the movie that even hints at goodness, and yet audiences fell in love with him because of his wit and his charm.  If he were to be killed off, people would be just as upset over his death as they would be about the death of one the Avengers.  

 

And if at all possible, give him something human to fight for.  If his victory over your hero will lead to some sort of emotional reward that will resonate with your reader, you'll have just created a perfect blend of fear and sympathy for your villain.

Part Five: The Antagonist (continued).

 

 

As I said in the previous post, if you can create a villain that a reader or viewer can feel sympathy towards, you've achieved a very special and powerful feat.  Think back on Frankenstein's Monster, a creature who didn't ask to be created but yet was persecuted and shunned, and ultimately abandoned by his creator.  And what about King Kong, dragged from his jungle island home (where he was worshiped as a god!), carried to the Big Apple, only to be hunted and (spoiler alert) killed when, confused and frightened, he tries to escape?

 

In both movies, those characters are seen primarily as the villains, and yet your heart breaks for them in their final moments.  That's an amazing accomplishment that most viewers or readers take for granted, but if you stop and think about it, both of those characters have endured and stood the test of time, and personally, I believe part (if not most) of the reason why is because they're drawn so sympathetically.  Frankenstein's Monster could have easily been portrayed as just a rampaging zombie, but he wasn't.  He was given a very specific personality, and an almost child-like innocence, and Boris Karloff's brilliant, wordless performance sealed the deal.  Kong could have come off as just another monster run amok, out to destroy the city and wreak havoc, but instead we see him first in his natural element, falling in love with a beautiful woman.  It's no wonder he seeks her out in the movie's final reel; she's the only memory of happiness he has left.

 

So, thinking along those lines, when you're creating your villain, keep in mind the power a feeling of sympathy can have over your readers.  If your bad guy starts out the project by robbing a bank, what does he want the money for?  Is he just a greedy bastard?  Could be; there are certainly plenty of those around, in and out of fiction.  But what if he needs the money to pay off a bad debt, or to feed a hungry child?  The reader or viewer doesn't even need to know that when they first meet your character, but if that's revealed later on, just about anything this guy might have done in the course of the book (with a few brutal exceptions) will be forgiven by the reader if they discover those things were done out of desperation. 

 

I'm not suggesting that every villain should be given the sympathy-treatment; honestly, it depends on the project.  No one wants to feel sympathy for Sauron in The Lord Of The Rings, believe me.  But in your special project, if the decision feels right . . . yeah, a little bit of sympathy will go a long way.

 

To wrap this up, if you do choose to go that route with a project you're working on, just remember to balance it out along the way.  Sympathy from a reader must also be rewarded.  If the bad guy is evil through and through, and pulls off heinous acts throughout the book, readers won't allow him a redemption, at least in their eyes.  But if you've given him some semblance of a moral code, or if he carries out some small act of kindness (even better if it's one that reflects his personal goal), a reader will be touched by that and will therefore be more willing to forgive.