Monday, July 30, 2012

Playing God and Creating Wonderful Characters

(Image:  Detail from The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of role-playing games (RPGs), is creating, or as it's known in game-terms, "rolling-up," a character.  Some games provide detailed charts and narratives to develop a player-character (PC).  While other rules leave the inner details up to the player's imagination to conjure-up what his PC is like and what he's been doing, right until the initial adventure.

While I've rolled-up several characters for games, I'm still a newbee at rolling them up for fiction.  But thanks to Bob Dugoni's workshop, Playing God and Creating Wonderful Characters, I have a better understanding of character development, beyond how proficient they are at wielding a broadsword or blaster pistol.

First and foremost, it is the characters that entertain the reader.

But what about the plot/theme/story?

Bob countered that readers remember characters more than story lines.  Besides, there's very little difference between stories.  To illustrate his point, he compared the following three books/movies:

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed?  Captain Quint
Who's the protagonist?  Police Chief Brody

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed? Captain Ahab.
Who's the protagonist?  Ishmael.

What's the theme?  Obsession.
Setting:  The ocean.
Who's obsessed? Captain Richardson.
Who's the protagonist?  Lieutenant Bledsoe.

Rarely will there be a book with a unique theme.  It's the characters that will make the story. 

Make readers fall in love with the characters in your story.  However, in order for such love to blossom, the characters need to change over the course of the novel.

Why is this so important?

Because most of us ordinary mortals rarely change during the course of our lifetime.  People don't want to read about the ordinary goings-on of ordinary people.  So to be successful authors, we need to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. 

Both ordinary and extraordinary characters need to evolve.  There are Five Levels of Change:

Level 1--The protagonist only cares about herself.
Level 2--The protagonist becomes concerned about another person or thing.
Level 3--The protagonist grows to care about a group.
Level 4--The protagonist now cares about the community.  (Not every character will reach this level).
Level 5--The protagonist now acts out of love for mankind.  (Very difficult level to achieve, if at all).

If you make an empathetic character, then the level of change can go in the reverse direction, because readers will understand why the protagonist is "backsliding."

 Ask yourself the following questions when developing a character:

1.  What is their personality?  What does the character want at the beginning of the story?
2.  Is the character capable of change?
3.  What experiences/obstacles is the character going to go through in order to undergo change?
4.  What does the character want at the story's end?  (This may not be the same as at the beginning).

Minor characters often outshine the main ones, because writers may often be concerned readers will view the protagonist as an author's veiled self-portrait.  To help avoid this, incorporate characteristics of the people around you; ones that you know, or read about.  Bob even recommended reading the obituaries, because they contain succinct character sketches.

How do you introduce characters into a story?

Avoid the data-dump biography.  DO NOT stop the action in the story for a character sketch.  Instead, weave character details into a scene by getting him to speak and move, through dialogue and action.  (Regarding 1st Person narratives, one can get away with a little more personal exposition, than in 3rd Person).

Another way of introducing a character, is through the eyes of another, like the way Sherlock Holmes was introduced to the reader via Doctor Watson.

Characters must have strength.  Not only some physical strength, but a willingness to forgive and to be self-sacrificing.

On the otherhand, with the exception of Mary Poppins, no one wants to read about "practically perfect people."  Characters, like real people, should come with flaws.  Ask:  What is the character's inner conflict? 

The key point is:  Make the characters sympathetic, better yet, even empathetic; just don't make them pathetic.

To avoid looking pathetic, characters should have some self-regard.  Make them care about what's going on--and get them to take action.

Finally, take into account some practical considerations:

1. Character's physical appearance.
2. How does the character dress?
3. What is the character's physical behavior?
4. How does the character speak?
5. What is the character's insight/perspective/view of the world?

Most likely you won't, or at least shouldn't, use every scrap of data in your character sketch, to fill the pages of your story. 

But, remember--don't throw anything away.  You may use this material in subsequent stories--like a continuing series.


Tara Sheets said...

Ted, this was full of great information I can apply directly to my novel. I actually missed Dugoni this time around so I'm really glad you posted this! Thank you!

Ted Henkle said...

You're welcome Tara! I try to attend any workshop Bob hosts, because I like his "I-was-sitting-where-you-are-now" POV (Point of View).