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how to make interesting characters

CTRandall

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Working through my umpteenth draft of my first novel, I find a funny thing happening to characters. I began my writing journey thinking I wanted multi-faceted characters full of depth and contrasts. With each new draft, however, individual characters focus more and more on one trait.

One of my main characters, for example, is angry. She used to also be funny, curious and like a laugh. But now she's mostly angry. And the thing is, she is far more interesting now than she ever was before. Not only that, she seems more human. She still has funny and curious moments but it seems that her default "angry" mode actually allows for more contrast when those other traits show up.

In other words, when I tried to make her complex, the result was a wishy-washy (my wife's favourite term of criticism) blend of moods and traits. But when I make her angry, the result is a clearly defined, clearly motivated, much more interesting character who still manages an occasional laugh (usually at someone else's expense).

Does this match up with your experience? Or do you have alternative means of making your characters interesting/human/unhuman (this is the Chrons, after all)?
 

L.L.Lotte

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I think the answer to this is in your own question:
when I tried to make her complex
Wouldn't trying to make a character into something that isn't natural for the sake of having more depth to the character ultimately have the opposite effect?

Perhaps the angry has come out because it is the natural personality of the character?

Based how you've explained this here, it doesn't really sound like a problem to me. It certainly doesn't sound as bad as a certain other author I'm reminded of: Robert Jordan. It's been noted how every single one of his female characters share the exact same personality trait. It's like they are all the same character with a different name plastered on top. I often wonder if the personality they have was that of his wife's...

For myself, I just let the characters do their own thing. I'm what's known as an organic writer. It's not me writing the story, but my characters telling me what to write and how they should act.
 

Jo Zebedee

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It’s partly to do with reader preferences. I had a review yesterday that said my characters had no depth, that Henry from Inish Carraig told the reader nothing about them, and they were plot points.

Since that’s the opposite of 99% of reviews, it can be safely ignored. But I also know what they mean (and why the review is valid):

I write deep inside the character thoughts. Henry does, indeed, tell none of his background - because we’re in his head and he already knows it.

Would he have been a more interesting character if I had drawn back and tried to insert writerly things into him? Maybe. But that’s not how I write.

So, I think - work out how you like to write. Don’t try to make anything just the way it should be. Cos there will always be someone, somewhere who’ll think what you did was rubbish.
 

Phyrebrat

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I write deep inside the character thoughts. Henry does, indeed, tell none of his background - because we’re in his head and he already knows it.

^ This, so much this! I cringe when I read close POVs and the author has them thinking things a normal human (sentient/sapient being) wouldn’t. They might as well write dialogue starting, ‘As you know, Polly...’ etc.

I find characters in (usually good) TV shows are also often drawn like this; in the first episodes they’re breezier, funnier etc, but as things deepen they become more distilled by their goal or conflicts.

pH
 

CTRandall

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Would he have been a more interesting character if I had drawn back and tried to insert writerly things into him? Maybe. But that’s not how I write.
That's pretty much what I've been learning as I go. I wanted complex characters, so I tried to show nuance. Maybe I just did it badly but the surprising thing was that, when I stopped trying to write nuance and instead focused on a single, main trait, nuance started to show up all by itself. Trying to be "writerly" had the opposite effect of what I wanted.
 

Steve Harrison

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I don't worry about creating complexity in characters, I just try to make them relatable to readers in some way, and then the reader will connect the dots themselves.. Everyone has experienced anger, fear, sadness and other emotions, so it's not too difficult to use one of those to connect a reader to any character. And once they are connected and have an understanding of at least one aspect of the character's personality, it's easier to carry them along on the journey.

The best thing a reader can tell you about a character is, "I would like to do that," or, "I could never do that." It means they have put themselves in the character's shoes.
 

-K2-

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I'm of the opinion that any reasonable character should be just like a person in real life... That sounds like an obvious statement, right up until I also say that most people on the surface are rather one dimensional, dull or flat. That's not saying that people are not complex, which they all are, yet in most cases we'll never know what the hidden parts of their past are, what quirks they keep suppressed, what motivates them and why their moment to moment personality is one way, and why they seemingly for no reason (though they have one), suddenly act out of character.

IMO, you're writing a story. Not a collection of biographies. An entire novel wouldn't cover the subtle events of a person's life that 'collectively' forms them. It's never one big thing (which makes a bogus character in my opinion). It's thousands of seemingly inconsequential events that gradually nudges a person to who they are.

That said, there is nothing wrong with adding this little tidbit or that, yet in the end, the person is SIMPLY who they are at the moment the story is happening... the end. It's when they DO act out of character that a reason could possibly be given... then again, perhaps not. Perhaps when that person encounters X-situation, for whatever their reasons are, they act Y-way. Why explain it? that's just how they are.

The pitfall I feel is when people try to make characters interesting, quirky, full of inner secrets and demons. Then they come off as more caricatures than characters because you can either write a biography or a story... not both in a reasonable sized novel, and even still the biography is just highpoints, not the day in day out grind that shapes a person and gives them character.

There is a FANTASTIC speech from a fantastic movie. Here is a short clip of that speech:
(By the way, if you want to learn how to write great dialogue, watch 'The Big Kahuna)


Okay, so with all of that out there, I recently dealt with a case in point during alpha reading of The Abolitionist.

My protagonist, the person who we never leave their side throughout, demonstrated numerous quirks, severe PTSD, social dysfunction then countered with social responsibility. Humor, dark brooding, rage, and numerous uncontrollable emotions and responses. Vague reasons were given... yet it was not until the next to the last chapter that I gave detailed reasons from her past granting it all justification.

Know this as well, the character (as in how she is), her past and those experiences are not fictional. They are all cut and dry and explain the whys of the character.

In that chapter, I laid it all out extremely well. In a way that each experience, which formed X-aspect of her personality, gave justification for her actions throughout, her ultimate conclusions building to the big climax, and tied in perfectly mirroring the events of the moment. In the end it made this intricate complex life now suddenly seem that it had reason on par with formative destiny.

The alpha readers hated it. In fact, it was the only part they disliked. I had whole chapters that read (to me, and intentionally) like dull lectures... those they liked. Yet when presented with real justification and facts outlining the eccentric 'whys' of the character... more so how it all applied to the moment and the problem at hand... my readers felt it was all unnecessary and detracted from the story.

My readers accepted her for who she was, at face value, and didn't need or want justification. The chapter was tight, interesting and exciting. But, it suddenly, though briefly, became a biography that they felt no need to hear. So, I cut it all out.

That's how we all live and deal with people everyday. We don't need detailed explanations as to why they do this or that or think this odd way. They simply do. We can either accept that, or, we keep our distance if we can't. Today, this moment, it doesn't matter 'why' someone is a particular way. All that matters is that they 'are' a particular way... because that is how we will judge them, and can never know the collective reasons as to their 'why.'

In the end, that vague understanding makes them like real people. An intricate/intimate understanding, makes them a character.

Just my inexperienced opinion.

K2
 

Ihe

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Having an "emotional cornerstone" for the character usually helps the writer direct themes in development and motivations, and is much easier to consistently write reactions and behaviours with the single guiding light that is anger, for example. Everything is clearer without conflicting character traits. But beware of making it too simple. When only one trait drives the character's narrative, they can become predictable. It's not a huge hurdle, just an observation.
 

HareBrain

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when I stopped trying to write nuance and instead focused on a single, main trait, nuance started to show up all by itself
I get this. Characters grow in complexity and nuance as they encounter and deal with varied obstacles and form relationships with other characters etc. If you create a character that's complex to start with, they're still going to grow in complexity, but then it'll be too much and they're likely to just get muddled.

I was going to say that it would work best if the single trait is one that leads to conflict of some kind, but I'm not even sure that's necessary. I think it just gives you an armature on which to flesh out the rest of the character, something to check back with in whatever they do. If you had lots of these characteristics to check back with, you might end up creating a character who is straitjacketed into reacting the same way to everything.
 

tinkerdan

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Most main characters within the story serve a specific function and they usually should be examined from the point of view of whether that character could be replaced by someone or something else and not alter the story. If that is true then that character is not essential to the story and you might want to examine that character and their role in the story.

In the same token you might add to this and say that if your character is not the original character you imagined--does that change the story?

This could be a good thing and I'm not saying it shouldn't happen. However you should be aware of what has happened and how it changes the story. even if you don't plot your stories; you need to be aware of how a rogue character has changed the landscape.

Keep in mind also that characters change and develop throughout the story--most of the time this is planned.

When this happens and is not planned you once again should look close at how this is impacting the main story and whether or not you might reach a point where the character does something that takes them backwards in development. Or in the case of a character that has altered itself out of the gate, the plan could have them doing something that is no longer logical and you may have to work in some specifics as to how they get to that point.

The bottom line is, yes this has happened in my writing and yes it can happen and sometimes it works out perfectly.

However the question's are: once you become aware of this do you try to examine the impact it will have on your story? And do you go back through your plot and plan to make sure everything still makes sense?
 

Hummus

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I'm thinking all fictional characters are, inherently, flat as cardboard. A good storyteller creates the illusion they're not. So, basically, you wanna trick the reader into feeling like the characters have lives outside the pages - that they are not, in fact, just collecting dust in the prop-room between scenes.

Also, imo real people are rarely very interesting... I'm not sure, but it might be a mistake to aim for "realistic" characters. Like, they should feel realistic - but give em enough to work with and the reader will fill in the rest, because that's how our human brains work or something.
 

Ashleyne

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Cardboard cut out characters can be tempting to write. Because your reader fills in the blanks, there's less chance of writing a character that people don't like.

Villains tend to be the most interesting characters. They move the plot forward, and it doesn't matter that people don't like them, so they can behave in whatever unusual manner they want.

I'd say, if you wanna write interesting characters, don't be afraid to make give them unpleasent traits, even if they're the protagonist. Show the good side, explore their dark sides and portray how these blend together to create a cohesive character with internal confilct shaping their motives. Mix it in with an interesting plot for them to react to, and there you go. Just my opinion, though.
 

CTRandall

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Drive, conflict, struggle.
:D That reminds me of a bad 80's film quote about how to ski: "Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."

...if your character is not the original character you imagined--does that change the story?
This has happened with two of my characters so far. The first one changed the story massively, as a minor character destined for a grisly end suddenly became a major character I needed (and wanted) to keep around. (That happened pretty early on and was easy to adjust for.)

In the second case, I wouldn't say the changes to the character altered the story but, rather, that the changes transformed the character into what the story had needed all along. In other words, the original form of the character held the story back from what I was imagining, while the new version is helping me express my ideas much more srtongly.
 

Toby Frost

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when I tried to make her complex, the result was a wishy-washy
I agree. I think that unless you are writing a detailed character study (and then only arguably), you aren't seeing the entirety of the person. Inevitably, you're writing a caricature, and in certain types of action-packed SFF, that's more likely than usual. A lot of characters can be summed up in a sentence: "Margot is brave and good but crass and foolish, and her adventures make her a wiser, better person" or something like that.

In fact, I think a lot of writing characters is about caricature and fleshing-out. I often start writing with a need for "that kind of guy", and then add details to make the stereotype/cartoon more solid. In comedy, sometimes it's necessary to have a character who will quickly be recognisable as, say, "ambitious parent", even when the character in question isn't even human.
 

The Big Peat

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I don't really think about whether my characters are interesting to readers until I hit the beta readers, and even that its relatively muted. I'm not entirely sure why either. I worry about a lot of things, I think about a lot of things, but not that. Character for me seems to be one of those things where I let my subconscious go (mostly) to town.

In any case, I believe whole-heartedly and fervently that the single best way to show anything about a character is in how they interact with other characters. To give a few examples from recent books I've read:

Adria in A Brightness Long Ago has a very confident, almost domineering nature, that shows in her interactions with both her father and servants. But when rebuked by a healer, she shows a more considerate side of her. And with one character, there's a far more tender and uncertain side of her.

Fred Colon in Jingo is a sergeant and never lets those under him forget it; however he's very quick to obey orders from those in command. He's very insistent on his dignity in most situations, but plays bumbling clown very well with his life on the line. Plus he's affable to foreigners some of the time, but roaringly prejudiced when pushed/talking about foreigners to non-foreigners.

Girton in King of Assassins is fairly snappy with most people. But when dealing with the poor/grieving, a lot of that harshness goes (unless pushed). And the snappiness tends to be short-lived with his friends, but also more open.

In each case - in 99% of characters - there's a dominant emotion to most of their interactions, but the change-up of dominant emotion in certain prescribed circumstances give a lot of depth to the characters. And I think that yes, most readers are probably happiest with the characters staying mostly in a limited palette of their emotions at any one time. Partly because its easier to read, partly because those big roiling emotions/traits feel larger than life and dramatic. Nuance and subtext are only appreciated if the picture captures the eye before we see them.

So - if I'm worrying about whether a character comes across as interesting - I'm worrying about their interactions. It is their interactions that make characters interesting. And I believe that in relation to CTRandall's OP, a larger than life tone works best for most interactions.


I also think - in relationship to that - that showing character is a lot like showing worldbuilding and that one is kind of looking for an iceberg effect, Know a ton, show a little. Know the character's complexities... but don't show them all at once. Hint at depths and leave your reader to wonder. It's a lot easier said than done but doing it is, imo, how to win. The reader's mind will fill in the blanks if you leave enough hints and an interesting enough top of the iceberg to look at; at least, that's how I'm convinced it works in worldbuilding, and ultimately worlds and characters are very similar things.


I am now trying very hard to think of a MC in fiction who is obviously complex and does multiple contradictory things right out of the gate. I am not succeeding. I can think of a lot of characters where the author sets up two competing personality facets quickly but not three or four; and generally the two competing facets have a dominant facet and a submerged facet (although they can switch throughout the book). Or to put it another way, I find the thesis in the OP mostly compelling, but not sufficiently wide-ranging on how much you can do with a relatively simple character.


In the course of writing this post, I've wondered why I don't worry about characters in the same way I worry about plot/pacing/worldbuilding/everything else. And I think the answer is that I stay the course with books where I'm really fascinated by and invested in the characters - to the point where I don't think to question them. And I take the subconscious point of view that if I get the scaffolding of the story right, the characters will come through. If I put in the performance the results will come.

I do, of course, obsessively polish and shine these characters. They will jump into my head very fully-formed in response to a question or a thought. But some parts will get pared down and some parts will get added. Sometimes I sit there and think about who are good analogues for who I want my character to be and then go start stealing parts of those analogues. But I'm still mostly making the characters interesting to me at this stage.
 

Dan Jones

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In any case, I believe whole-heartedly and fervently that the single best way to show anything about a character is in how they interact with other characters.
This is unimproveable advice. Can't think of anything more to add.
 

Cathbad

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Or, in First Person, showing the conflict between how the character interacts with others, and how he/she wants to interact with them.
 

The Big Peat

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Or, in First Person, showing the conflict between how the character interacts with others, and how he/she wants to interact with them.
You can do that in any PoV, and I think it's probably a necessary ingredient, but I would place my money on most readers remembering more of the direct interactions. Its more dramatic, it's more dynamic, it's less associated with exposition/infodumps. And I think people in general judge based on actions rather than thoughts. I may be wrong though!
 

The Big Peat

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Few other thoughts

- The hook and eyepatch theory as postulated by Blake Snyder (and many others) is a good one. Jim Butcher's character tags is a fun variation. It feels like it shouldn't, but those larger than life traits make characters memorable and helps us remember all the more subtle traits. Bonus points if you can have an "eyepatch" that both makes the character memorable and shapes the character, like Glotka being a cripple or Tyrion being a dwarf, or even just the Stark kids having direwolves.

- On further thought, not at all influenced by my own beta process, I feel like the main word we're looking at here is "Consistency". An interesting character is one that first and fundamentally, behaves in ways the reader understands by following the logic you've set down for the character. Their actions are Consistent. That alone doesn't make an interesting character though, particularly if they behave in one way and one way only. The key to making an interesting character is therefore (maybe) selling the reader on the character having a big palette of logical reactions, so that the character can act unpredictably but yet still in a way that is afterwards seen as Consistent. Obviously you then have to make their actions Interesting as well - but Consistent is where it starts.

And I think the best way to do this is to have contradicting sides of a personality, as already said. The longer the character exists, the more you can add facets to those sides, or maybe have one big personality facet and a group of smaller ones i.e.

In Jingo, you definitely get that Sam Vimes is all about justice and catching criminals. You can bet on him to chase the thief every time. But there's contradictions - he's prejudiced and doesn't want to be, so doesn't always see clearly. He's got a soft spot for those struggling to get by; the law and justice aren't always the same. He's somewhat afraid of losing his job and of disappointing his wife. All those little contradictions can refract the core personality trait differently. Now, this is Vimes in his Fourth book, but I think the basic idea is solid (I may be repeating myself)

- On making the actions Interesting - I'm a big fan of having characters facing similar problems to each other, because the comparison between what each do creates an immediate extra layer of character and interest. Ditto having character traits that partially mirror each other.
 
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