Like a lot of writers, I get asked for writing advice. And like a lot of writers, I give it. Why not? In the end, we’re all in this together. And I’m a firm believer of giving back. Am I an expert? No. I’m still learning like the rest of us. Even so, I’d like to impart a few words of wisdom, or share some wisdom from other writing gurus. So what follows is the first of a serious of brief articles on writing how-to.
So my first article is about characterization. How many times have you eagerly picked up a book only to be disappointed by two dimensional characters, stereotypes, and clichés? I can recall several. Oh they had their good points, but the really memorable stories had characters you came to love, hate, and all the complex emotions in-between. Think Twilight or Lord of the Rings. Among other things, you grew to love Edward, sympathize with Bella, and felt pain when he left her. You couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to Frodo next. And you cried when Sam was callously betrayed by Gollum’s sly treachery. Not to mention really enjoying it when Gollum got his! But how did Stephanie Myers and J. R. R. Tolkien do it? How did they write characters the reader almost couldn’t live without?
Over the course of several years, like every aspiring author, I’ve taken literary courses and lessons in writing. And one thing I have learned is that no matter what kind of story you are writing, be it romance, fantasy, mystery, western, or even mainstream fiction, if you don’t create real characters that can be related to, your story will fall flat. No matter how great the plot is, or how wondrous the setting, if the characters come across as unrealistic, your story will fail to capture. And how to you make the hero relatable? How do you make the villain realistic? You give the hero flaws, and you show that the villain has qualities the average reader can sympathize with. (Even if every action he or she takes makes you want to kill them first!)
Let’s give this a try. Let’s say your character is an athlete named Joe. Joe is muscular and fit, outgoing and generally popular. Cliché`!!! Ahhh, but let’s give Joe a problem, a character flaw. Let’s give him OCD. It doesn’t have to be severe. He could just have a mild case. Now one way to introduce this character flaw is to say Joe has OCD. Okay. But remember the first rule of writing fiction. Show, don’t tell. Suppose when Joe leaves the house each morning, he must compulsively check all the burners on the stove, check all the lights, and touch the doorknob three times before opening the door and leaving for the day. Ah, now we’ve just demonstrated OCD. Even if your reader doesn’t immediately identify it by the medical term, he or she will recognize that Joe has an issue. Now, depending on the story you’re writing, you can make the OCD into a major obstacle. Or you can keep it simple, having it only arise when he is stressed or as something to endear a love interest. All that is entirely up to you as the author. Just make sure that you don’t take it overboard. Especially if you’re writing a story about the struggle many have with OCD. Make it relatable but don’t ram it down your reader’s throats.
Make sense? Now let’s try to make our villain more personable. Hmm. That might not be as easy as it sounds. One of the most common mistakes writers make is to create villains that are predictable, two dimensional, and oh so cliché. (I really like that word don’t I?) It happens because we, as human beings, don’t generally see ourselves as bad people. In fact, often the defense of murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and others is “I’m not a bad person. I had reasons for killing him,” etc. So how do you relate to a character that does bad things? Well, you must give him or her motive for their behavior. Anyone who has ever taken a college human behavioral class learns that no one ever does anything without some kind of motivation or reason. So make sure your villain has a reason for being so, well, villainous. The most obvious motives are money, power, jealously, or revenge, or some combination of these. But if you really want to make your villain believable, give them a more underlying cause for their desire for revenge, power, money, or jealously. Perhaps the villain is a jealous boyfriend who has mother issues. Maybe the ruthless business man takes down other companies without remorse because he is really seeking revenge on a father who abandoned him. (By the way, motives and reasons apply as much to your hero as your villain. Not to mention the supporting characters.)
Remember our hero Joe, with the OCD? Let’s give him a rival. How about an unpopular fellow named Jeff. Jeff is jealous of Joe. Joe has everything Jeff doesn’t, popularity, good looks, girls. But now let’s delve a little deeper. Suppose Jeff also has OCD! Perhaps his OCD is more serious than Joe’s and it has overtaken his life to the point that coping with day to day activities is difficult. Perhaps he is jealous of Joe because Joe seems to personify all that Jeff wants but cannot have. This could give you a tool to create reconciliation later in the story, when Jeff finds out Joe struggles with OCD. Another tack you could take is for Jeff to know Joe has OCD, and is jealous because Joe doesn’t seem to be affected by it. To make Jeff’s character even more interesting is to reveal some history about him. Perhaps his parents shunned him because of his OCD. Whatever direction you decide to take, revealing Jeff’s motivations and struggles helps readers identify with him. And this in turn makes Jeff more realistic.
I’m going to refer back to Lord of the Rings for a moment. Remember Frodo? Everybody likes Frodo. He’s kind, he’s respectful, and he’s willing to do what it takes to save Middle Earth. But he’s also afraid and as he succumbs more and more to the One Ring’s influence, he begins to display characteristics we don’t like so well. And the ring helps Frodo relate to Gollum, who shares his disturbing fascination for the ring. Gollum is relatable to the readers because we see how the One Ring twisted and devoured him. Remember, at one point we find out Gollum was really Smeagol, a weak willed creature that easily fell under the ring’s power. Being what he was, we feel sorry for him, even as we detest him for his treachery. (I thought Tolkien revealed the inner struggle of Gollum admirably in the scenes where Gollum displays a split personality. He actually has an argument with himself that is both disturbing and fascinating.) The bottom line is we relate to both these characters. We may not like them, but we still identify with them in some fashion.
And that’s it. Of course there is a lot more to character creation than simply creating motives and flaws. One piece of advice I was given once is to create back histories for all of your characters. Even if some or most of this information never makes it into the story, it helps you, as the author, come to regard your characters as real, living people. Create habits, likes, dislikes, histories, religious beliefs, nervous tics... whatever you like. Do it for your supporting cast as well as your main characters. You can write these histories down or simply create them in your head. Doing so will help you to find motivations and reasons for your characters’ behaviors. Which in turn makes them relatable and also helps drives your story. A little characterization goes a long way towards making your story memorable. Just try to avoid the clichés, will ya?
So if you’re serious about becoming a writer, then you seek out as much good advice as you can get. Take it from writers who’ve been in the trenches. Take some courses. But at the end of the day, you’ll only be a writer if you write. And that’s my last piece of advice for today. Write. Need some help? Here are some words of wisdom from my dear old momma:
Apply seat of pants to chair, fingers to keyboard, and just…write.
**My next article will be about settings. So tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel. (And wasn’t that a cliché to end all clichés!!!)