“Each strength is also your character’s weakness. Someone who’s determined is also tough-minded, depending on who’s looking.” – DL Havlin
Crafting characters isn’t something that came easily to me. In fact, when I first started writing, I would base my characters on someone I knew, just so I could picture them in my mind—what they would say to a snarky person, how they would react in a touch situation, etc. But now, I try to create real characters. And that can be a challenge. Creating someone from thin air that’s believable as a functioning (or semi functioning depending on how mean you are to your characters) human being is a major task. So, how do you do it effectively?
DL Havlin taught one of my favorite workshops during the Florida Heritage Book Festival about crafting your characters. The above quote was from that workshop. I found it fascinating to think that a character’s strength could also be their weakness, and ultimately their downfall.
Think about it. Any characteristic taken to the extreme can be made negative. Kindness can be turned into someone who’s easily taken advantage of. Determination can be turned into someone who’s close minded or even greedy, and ultimately chases their goal to their doom. A good sense of humor can be turned into someone who isolates themselves from others because they don’t know when to quit joking. Each of these characteristics can be used to springboard an entire storyline.
Take your good sense of humor guy. He thinks he’s funny, but he ends up being bullied, and an outcast because no one likes him. He’s viewed as overly sarcastic and mean. This makes him jaded, and causes him to extract revenge in some way.
Who are you, who who, who who?
So, you know what your character’s best and worst quality is. That can lead you straight into their motivations. Why are they doing what their doing?
Thinking about your character’s motivations makes them more real on paper. You don’t want a perfect person who never does anything wrong. You want someone real, the reader can totally relate to. Although the reader may not agree with what your character is doing, if they understand why they’ll be sympathetic. And gaining that sympathy is gold my friend.
Let’s use another example. Your character is on a quest. They are so determined to achieve the quest, they don’t see the side quests that must be accomplished in order to ensure the success of their current quest. They have tunnel vision. Your reader can see the importance of them, and may even get frustrated with your character. But he is so determined to get where he’s going, he doesn’t even know the small tasks are there. He forges on, making things much more difficult for himself than if he’d just stopped for a moment and looked at the big picture. This creates endless opportunities for conflict for your character, and your reader.
External factors can also shape your characters characteristics and motivations. Take your antagonist. He’s been shafted in some way, perhaps usurped for a leadership position. He feels wronged. This drives his mentality and determination to claim what is rightfully his at whatever cost. He no longer cares for those around him, and will sacrifice just about anything to get what he feels he deserves. In the end, you as the writer, have the opportunity to give him what you feel he deserves, whether you think it’s the leadership position, or an untimely death caused by his blind greed.
Using your characters motivations can help your reader make a connection with all of your characters, even the antagonists. So when he does meet his untimely death, they almost feel sorry. Almost. Again, this is reader pay dirt.
Sketch it out
One exercise I try to get to know my characters is just writing about them. I generally try for one page on each main character, and half a page on minor characters. I write background information, who their parents were, how they treated their kid, who they were/are married to, where they grew up, what they look like, what their favorite things are, what their job is, I mean the list could go on and on. Think about what makes you, you. No one thing does it. The same holds true for your characters.
Once you have all this background information you can get some insight into their motivations. If their parents were unloving to the point of emotional abuse, you can use that to shape their personality as an adult and their reasons for behaving the way they do.
Additionally, the more you know about your characters the better. Even if you don’t use your one page biography of your character in the book, all that background information has a way of eking into your writing one way or another. Then your reader better understands your character. It’s win-win.
In the end, try to craft characters you care about, because if you don’t care, why on Earth would your reader care?