These thoughts started out as notes to clarify my own thinking on the fundamentals of writing fiction. They developed a bit more of a structure when I taught a creative writing class at the local art gallery - it was a fun thing to do, but when the gallery closed the class did too and so I thought it was about time these notes found another outlet. This is the second of these blogs, the first was on Point of View and is here.
The protagonist is the central character that carries the story - the hero.
The idea, the protagonist and the line of action are all integral to the story, it's hard to work with one without the others, and none of them need come first.
The Foundations of Character
How do we begin to create interesting, believable characters?
Characters are defined by what they do and say, not what the writer tells us about them - this is why the line of action is so important. It gives the character something to do and allows the reader to get to know them.
Motive is not essential to either a character or a story, a genre thriller can just be a dazzling sequence of action set pieces. But motive does give the action moral value and makes the character more realistic, particularly if the motives are complex and not black and white.
The easiest starting point is a character 'type'. Is the character a detective, a single man looking for a girl, a spy, the head of a failing business, a husband having an affair... these are all instantly recognisable types. And your protagonist will probably be one of these types, or another like it.
If you start with a type, the reader will immediately stereotype that character - we just can't help stereotyping people! If you are writing farce or satire then you need stereotypes, exaggerated types - but otherwise avoid them at all costs. So the next job is to make the character unique in some aspect. What might this uniqueness consist of? A bad habit, an unusual life experience, an ability or disability? We'll come to these details next.
The character must also share something with all of us, he or she must have some universal characteristics, or it's very difficult for the reader to have any empathy with them, to enable the reader to understand them. Universal characteristics are doing things like laughing, crying, eating and sleeping at the right moments. If the character doesn't do these things they appear inhuman - but that's not a bad thing if they are a super-villain.
Archetypes - these are original, but recognisable characters. They are the final goal, giving the reader a sense of familiarity with the character that will make them seem real, but a sense of newness that will make them different and original.
The Details of Character
What sort of details make for strong characters?
Consistency - people are not consistent, but your characters need to display a certain type of consistency on the page, or your need to give us reasons why they don't. If the mild-mannered schoolboy goes crazy and shoots someone, then you have to tell us why. Don't leave the reader thinking... 'What...!? Yeah, right!'
The past - a character's past makes a huge difference to how we see them, it gives us an insight into motive. The trick is communicating a character's past neatly. One way is to let another character establish their reputation, or imply aspects of their past. Other ways include flashback scenes, memories recalled either internally, or spoken to another character.
People behave in different ways with different groups of people - at work, at home, with friends - the changes make them interesting. And real. But remember point one, consistency - you have to do this carefully.
Attitude - give your characters an attitude, make them react to what's going on around them.
Habits - try and give each character at least one habit that can reoccur every time we see them. It will allow the reader to remember them more easily.
Talents - any special talent will make the character more interesting, whether they are a famous painter, or can sink a pint in world record time.
Tastes - any preference for something - beer, cheese, dogs, music - will also help fix the character in the reader's mind, and help them identify with them.
Appearance - it is easy to start with this, but it's actually the least important - many great fictional characters are never described.
Sources of Character Ideas
Where might we find inspiration for our characters?
Look inside - use aspects of your own character to make fictional characters come alive.
Life - just look around you, sit in a shopping centre or cafe with a notebook.
People you know - risky, but valuable so long as you are selective and ensure that other aspects of their character make them hard to identify.
The Most Important Characters
Choosing a Protagonist and an Antagonist
Does the protagonist have to be likeable?
The protagonist must be compelling, fascinating or at the very least interesting, understandable and consistent, or believably inconsistent.
The journey - a story will be much more satisfying if the reader can see that the protagonist has a character arc, that they learn and change, and become better people as a result of the action in the story.
The protagonist needs an opposition force - sometimes this is another person, the bad guy.
The villain can often be more straight-forward than the hero, readers often prefer their bad guys simple to understand.
The bad guy must appear stronger than the protagonist, otherwise, there is little sense of jeopardy.
The Rest of the Cast List
The story will suggest the rest of the cast list to you - once you have your idea, and you have a line of action, a protagonist and antagonist, then start the story rolling. The other characters will just emerge as you write - but bear in mind:
There are major characters, minor characters, and walk-ons - spend the right proportion of time on their characterisation. Don't give us three pages of background on someone who gets killed a page later.
Keep notes on all your characters - otherwise you can spend hours trying to find the eye colour of a minor character, or worse, you can change it and not notice.
It's not the absolute amount of characterisation that's important, but the relative amounts. If you are writing a genre thriller the protagonist might only justify a couple of pages of character detail, with just a single line about a walk- on character. But if you are writing literary fiction, then you might need two pages for the walk-on character.