By The Hilt

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Emerson

Character Building: Or, Suck It Up Princess

In my previous post, The Voices In My Head, I talked about how to identify a good character, but how about creating one?  I believe the key is this: flaws.  Good characters must have flaws: bad guys and good guys both.  No one is perfect in real life, so when you try to create someone perfect in fiction, it turns out flat and unbelievable.  Flaws are what make us human, and they’re also what make  us interesting.  There is little less interesting than a flawless character.  I think that’s why I always found Superman really boring – he only has one flaw/weakness, and it’s not a very interesting one.  It’s all or nothing.  No, great characters need flaws that are interesting, flaws that cause them to crumble when you least expect it, and, conversely, can be overcome when you least expect it.

Good characters also need to be developed.  They need to grow over the course of the story.  They need to learn, and adapt, and overcome.  Otherwise they’re just flat, and flat is boring.  Flat is fine for minor characters, at times, especially ones that are more plot devices than characters.  On the other hand, having more rounded characters will make your story that much richer.  But your main characters must grow, or else the reader will just get bored or frustrated with them and abandon your story.  The thing is, you can’t start out with a character that’s fully developed – it’s a process.  So either your character grows, or remains flat.  There is no third option.

Another vital aspect to characters is realism.  Now of course we have to keep in mind that obnoxiously true quotation: “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  On the other hand, sometimes your characters and your plots does need just a tiny bit of something that just plain doesn’t make sense.  Characters, like people, can hold two contradicting beliefs.  They can do things that are totally irrational, even if they were otherwise the most rational entities in the world.  Things can happen for seemingly no reason.  Of course, all these things need to be carefully measured and balanced against the above quotation.  But adding just the right amount will make your characters more real and believable.  (This, of course, links in with flaws.)

Your characters also need to be motivated, and you the author need to know by what.  No one acts completely without reason.  Even if a person is unaware of their own reasoning before or during – or even after – a given action, that doesn’t that there is no motivation.  Knowing the rhyme and reason of your characters is vital for each of them to remain the character that they are.  A character acting irrationally is fine; a character acting outside of the bounds of their own character is not fine.  Characters need to act in character at all times to remain coherent entities.

And of course, your characters need a degree of complexity, an aspect which includes almost everything else I’ve mentioned. People are never simple; your characters shouldn’t be either.

So what do you think it takes to make good characters?  These are just a few random musings; what have I missed?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt


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