Leon Surmelian in his book (written forty years ago) Techniques of Fiction Writing, has this to say about creating characters in fiction: “Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out, and this is necessarily so because the human personality remains a mystery, subject to obscure forces; it is a universe it itself, and we are strangers even to ourselves. . . . Characterization requires self-knowledge, insight into human nature . . . it is more than impersonation.”
Getting Real Doesn’t Happen on Its Own
That quote contains some terrific stuff. Too many characters are just that—impersonations of real people. In order to create really real characters, you have to be somewhat of a psychologist and learn about human nature.
Suffice it to say, most of the novels I edit and critique fall way short on creating real characters. And I don’t think it’s only due to not spending enough time working on them. I sense that some of my clients spend a whole lot of time thinking about their characters, but their creations still come across flat and stereotyped. It may have something to do with laziness and not wanting to work too hard to create each character. It may be that the writer doesn’t think characters have to be all that developed—that as the plot unfolds, the character will just “come into his own” and become real. I’m thinking, though, the real reason is the writer hasn’t gone deep into herself and examined why she is who she is.
I’m not suggesting we all go into therapy for a while or spend years psychoanalyzing ourselves (although some of us—writers especially—might benefit from that). But if we do some digging inside, we’ll find there are certain truths about why we are the way we are. And the first idea I’d like to throw out at you is tied in with what I posted earlier in the year about persona and true essence. If you missed that post, you might want to read it. Basically, we all present a face to the world—a face we feel will help us survive—which is not wholly who we are. Some people may really live in that place of “true essence” and that’s great. But populating a novel with characters like that just give us “happy people in happy land” (as James Scott Bell likes to say). We’re more interested in flawed characters, and I bet, if you’re like me, there are some serious flaws lingering under the surface.
Getting to Know You
So, I’m going to share one technique I use when I sit down to create my characters (I’ll share more in future posts). I already at this point have my characters in mind. I know my plot and premise, and I either may already have a lot of the story worked out, or I might have only a germ of an idea. It doesn’t matter. But at some point I will sit down (for numerous days) and spend time creating the characters that are going to be the heart and blood of my novel. This time spent is crucial to me, and I never begin writing a novel until my characters are so well fleshed out that I know pretty much everything I need to know about them. And I’m not talking about what they like to eat or what movies they watch. That stuff is inconsequential—trust me.
Those little bits about character that come out in your novel are only coloring, not meat. Most of my novels have up to a dozen main POV characters, so every one of them must be totally real—to me. I don’t let them run off and start behaving without getting to that place first. I can’t stress enough how vital it is you do this in advance of writing your book. Some writers think it’s fine to just start writing and let the characters run amok to see what they’ll do. That’s all well and good if writing to you is a crap shoot. On the other hand, if you want to write a very specific story and convey very specific themes, this just isn’t going to work. You may be brilliant, but you’re not that brilliant, okay?
The Three Most Important Things!
I write down my list of main characters on a page. Or sometimes I’ll do this on the first page of my character sketches (not actual drawings but thoughts and ideas on them—more on that later). Then I spend some time thinking about these things:
- Their core need (and what they would do if they couldn’t get that need met)
- Their greatest fear
- The incident(s) that wounded them early in life that got them believing a lie
These three points are so helpful and powerful that it’s just possible they are all you need to create each character. If you learn only one thing from my year-long course on Writing the Heart of Your Story, then make it this tip. Tape these three points to your wall if you need to remember them! The last point is the most crucial and the one I spend the most time with.
Each of us has been hurt in the past. Because of that hurt, two things resulted:
- One: we created a false front to protect our heart. Like the girl who was abandoned by her father when she was young and now can’t get close to men or stay in a relationship long. If you look at yourself, you will find something in there like this (Okay, one reader told me I was quite presumptuous to state we all believe some lie. He apparently was perfect and never had a bad thing happen to him in his entire life.) Somewhere in your past you got hurt, and so you’ve formed a persona to survive in the world.
- Two: that hurt makes us believe a lie about ourselves and the world. In this example, the lie this girl believes is that all men walk out and always will. That she can’t trust men or give her heart to them. And that’s why her whole life she’s kept her distance. That’s the outward lie. The other side to that lie turns inward (and you need to look at both parts–they are two sides of the same coin). That part says something about yourself. With this example, the girl believes a lie about herself—that she’s not worthy of being loved.
Need = Fear = Lie (Repeat)
Ah, do you see that! That’s rich, deep, powerful. Okay, that character type is used a lot, especially in chick flicks, but I hope you can see here how we’re getting to the heart of motivation. Now, when you put this girl in various scenes, she is going to react certain ways based on the lies she’s been telling herself her whole life and the lies she believes about other people. This then ties in with her greatest fear (fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment) and her core need, which is . . . have you guessed it? See the connection? Her core need is to get the very thing she believes is impossible because of the lies she believes. She wants more than anything to be loved, but she can’t get there. She’s blocking her own way. Your character’s greatest need should be intrisically tied in with the lie she believes and her greatest fear (which is not getting that need met). If it sounds simple, it really is. It’s our human condition.
Since this is enough to chew on for now, I’ll stop here.
This week, take your protagonist and examine those three core points. Write a page or two exploring his or her needs, fears, and the lies believed. If you’re on a roll, go at it with all your main and even secondary characters. Share what you discover in the comments!