What’s inside your buddy Jimmy D’s head this Wednesday?
Well, it’s back to work. Today I want to talk about Characters. After all, it’s Writer’s Update Wednesday!
And by Characters of course I don’t mean those letter-thingamaobs that are on the keys you type with, but Characters as in, the people you create to populate the “universe” (or perhaps even UNIVERSES) of your fictional writing.
What are Characters? The simplest answer is they are the people and living things who LIVE in your stories. (though that last bit’s not exactly true, but we’ll get to that in a sec!
Notice how I didn’t put that live like “this” in quotations but said instead, LIVE, that is, because they really ARE ALIVE, or at least, you as their creator should always THINK OF THEM as being alive.(Even after you’ve killed them off…but nevermind on that right now… ) ::p
When it comes to Characters, my philosophy is that they aren’t really just the beings who live inside your stories, THEY ARE YOUR STORIES.
Some writers and critics believe a smashing plot is what makes or breaks a great book, movie, show, etc.
But…Like an Englishman doing “Drive-By Arguments”
Sure, having an interesting story is great, but if you don’t have interesting Characters to populate it, who’s going to give a damn how cleaver your plot is?
By that same token, how often do we see movies, books, shows, media, etc that are essentially about nothing, or the plot is rice paper thin, YET we go along for the ride anyway because the Characters are so well “fleshed out?” An epically well-done, compelling Character can even take an otherwise off-the-rack crap story and turn it into gold.
You can’t really do that in reverse…..And if you THINK you can, I’d like to see you try. (Okay, at times, the Star Wars films come close to being the exception because of their often STINKY dialogue, but even there it’s debatable I mean, hellooo?? HAN SOLO?? )
A proud devotee of the “Han Shot First” Club!
Take Forrest Gump for example. When you strip it all down to technical terms, what is the film REALLY about? A semi-retarded guy sitting on a bench waiting for a bus shooting his damn mouth off to EVERYBODY he sees.
Yeaaaaah…..Not usually the kind of thing that inspires anyone to want to stick around. In REAL life that sounds like an annoying bastard looking for an ass-whipping. lol
But somehow you WANT to listen to “Forrest-forrest gummmUMMP” tell his story, because both the author, and later, the filmmaker managed to skillfully take you INSIDE this guy’s head and see the world the interesting way HE sees it.
Oh and let’s be honest here friends and neighbors, did any of us REALLY watch House because of the weekly medical cases, or to see “Cat Face” (AKA Olivia Wilde ) look cute and pout all the time?? Not really.
What made that show was….big shocker…HOUSE BEING HOUSE
. You never knew what the guy was going to do or say next (at least in the first three WELL-WRITTEN seasons
Both products of masterful Character creation.
So, what are some principles for creating fantastic Characters?? Glad you asked!
One of the best skills a writer can develop (other than the skill of, you know, WRITING
) is to get in the habit of watching other people all the time. You learn so much from observation. Yes, you can start out sitting in a public place with strangers, looking for the interesting people in the crowd, but this can also be true for friends, family and co-workers too. Basic point here, KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN!
You never know where your next great Character will come from
Talk with anyone, or read things that they have written, and you’ll start to notice…patterns in the way they write and speak. We ALL do it, and aren’t conscious of it, we all have a tendency towards “favorite” words or phrases, repeating them to ad-nauseam at times. Start working on being aware of this in your writing, especially with Character dialogue. Whenever possible, work on giving your Characters not only their own unique “accents” if it applies, but also their own vocabulary. Ask yourself repeatedly as you revise, “Would my Character REALLY say that?” and work to eliminate any inconsistencies or too many similarities in the way your Characters speak. When done right…it should sound like a unique individual speaking, not you.
In my opinion, the “secret” of great Character writing is BEING SPECIFIC. In other words, knowing as much as you can about your own Characters as possible. Take me for example, with my “best” Characters, I can tell you just about everything about them, their natural hair color, where they were born, their height-weight, education, favorite foods, colors, whether they’re more of a “Coke” or ‘Pepsi” person, who’d they vote for if they could vote, when they’ll die, EVERYTHING.
Even if you never end up using all this info on a Character, knowing as much as you can about them will help you enormously in avoiding “road blocks” in your stories, and will help make the process of writing and reading your work more fun for you AND your readers. It makes your Characters authentic, and helps the plot for that Character progress more….organically.
Put REAL People “In Your Pocket” For Later
Another “secret” of great fictional Character work is that the Characters really aren’t fictional. that is to say, don’t be afraid to base your Characters off real people in your life….authenticity often comes from the REAL people you meet on your journey. Maybe you’ve got a friend or co-worker who has unique funny idiosyncrasies that would fit in well for a Character you’re developing…why not use them? Or maybe someone in your life is such a natural smartass, who’s always a prankster and has the BEST one-liners, or you have a boss who’s a jackass and does this weird thing with toothpicks he holds in his lips…both those people could be useful.
But what if you don’t know HOW to ”use” their inspiration yet? It’s no big deal. Follow the Duke Of Wellington’s example when he won the battle of Waterloo, he replied to a friend that for years he had this “piece of ground in his pocket.”
Don’t be afraid to do the same. Put interesting people in the “pocket” of your mind to be used for some future story, or if you need to, make notes, go ahead and start writing the good stuff down. It’s often the little details about people in the real world that make the difference in your fiction…pay attention!
Let The Character Take The Wheel….Sometimes
This is where thinking of your Characters as living people comes into its own. As the “Master Architect” of your own fictional world, you’ll see the Character’s world, their “time without time” have a plan, see the Character’s life from beginning to end. But if you’ve been specific enough with your Characters from the start, you’ll begin to see as you go along that they have their own “soul” their own way of doing things, almost, you could say, their own “free will.” Your Characters will start to speak to you, they’ll begin to work their magic in your gut and pull your master plan for the overall story in different directions that maybe you never considered…
LET THEM GO!!
If it feels natural, if it feels real, and if your “gut” is telling you this new direction for the Character is better, then just let them “pull you” that way…even if it doesn’t go quite to the initial plan. After all, it’s “their” life, let your Characters have some say in it! Just don’t allow your Characters to “dictate” everything to you or your story could get totally derailed and meander off into jibberish and confusion. Always remember YOU’RE IN CHARGE and keep your Characters on task, even if it’s not in their nature to be so.
And that’s it…. those are the basics of Character Development.
The short and simple truth is, great stories often flow forth from the source of great Characters. When you master knowing your creations, then the rest of the story takes care of itself!!
Writing great Characters IS WRITING in its purest form, being a sponge seeking out all interesting human quirkiness…don’t be afraid to “soak up” the vast crop of weird humanity around you!
He spots a dude sitting on the sidewalk with an interesting ” middle-finger-based booger picking” technique that he can save for later,
J. Devious, ESQ.