Characters are the means by which you turn the potential energy of your plot and setting into the kinetic energy of story. If your work seems dull and lifeless, this is where you need to look for the problem. In the end, all we really care about is the emotion that we generate in the reader, and characters are the device that lets us do that.
By now, I’m sure you’ve seen about a zillion articles on creating characters. They tend to focus on the mechanical bits more than anything else, like naming and tags, and while I think those are important, they don’t focus on the most critical aspect of character creation: the character’s purpose.
Start with the reason for the character’s existence, everything else follows that function.
This is the primary, sympathetic character. Note the word sympathetic, because this is key. Not always likable, which is different, but having sympathy, which means that the character and reader share some emotional tie. This bond is what allows us to induce feelings in the reader. The deeper this bond is, the more successful you will be, and success in genre fiction is generally defined as building tension throughout the book, and then giving the reader a satisfying catharsis after the climax. This is the payoff, the pleasure that rewards the reader for sticking with you throughout the book.
The protagonist is unique in that her main function is to act as a surrogate for the reader, to allow us to increase the reader’s tension as a result of putting stress on her, and to release it by granting her a strong resolution to her problem. Like a Voodoo doll, whatever we do to the protagonist will have a similar resonance with the reader, provided that we can forge that sympathetic connection.
So, how do we do that? There are three key ingredients in genre fiction: affinity, vulnerability, competency.
I mentioned earlier that being likable wasn’t required to build sympathy, but unless you have a very good reason for creating an unlikable main character, don’t do it. One of the most effective ways to get a reader to identify with a character is simply to have them like her. Couple that with a character that the reader can relate to, either through age, gender, or social standing, and you have a solid amount of affinity going for you. This is the first, and most important, bond you will make with your reader.
Once you have that, a sense of vulnerability, either physical or emotional, will make it easier for the reader to care what happens to the character. This is generally what we mean when we say a good character has flaws. It’s not so much that we want them to be realistic by not being perfect, although we do, what we really want is for them to have a weakness that we are concerned about, that could easily be the downfall of this new person we care about.
Competency tends to be more important in stories with an adventurous element, but in any story it’s hard to remain sympathetic to a character that is just plain pitiful. If they frequently fall victim to their own stupidity, or struggle with things that the reader could easily deal with in real life, the reader will quickly stop wanting to share their story. Remember, part of the sympathetic bond is that the reader relates to, and is represented by, the protagonist. That said, competency should be restricted to one area. Too much competency in too many areas also makes your reader stop caring, because it kills any sense of tension in the story. The reason Superman stopped chasing bank thieves in the sixties is because it was boring. The best application of competency is to make the character admirable or impressive in the area in which they take their self identity. If your main character is a detective, she should be a good one. This also means that the primary obstacles for that character should not be investigative ones. This is why you see a lot of brilliant PI’s nursing black eyes and having relationship trouble.
The main difference between the antagonist and the protagonist is in the ratio of affinity, vulnerability, and competency you have. Go heavy on the competency, as the protagonist will be measured by the obstacles she must overcome. Shrewdness and intellect will always be more effective here than raw power, and in fact, too much power can make your antagonist seem cartoonish. Vulnerability will help make your antagonist less one-dimensional, and can also play into her downfall. For affinity, you’re looking less for likability, and more for understandable motivations. Nobody sees themselves as the bad guy. Any villain whose purpose is to be evil for the sake of evil, or what I like to call the Muhahaha Syndrome, is boring. The reasons they do the things they do should be understandable from their point of view, even if they result in some pretty awful things.
Every character beyond the protagonist and antagonist will diffuse the reader’s focus and can start to put a drag on the story, so make sure to use as few as possible. That said, here are few types that you’ll need:
Protagonist Companions – Without these guys, you’ll have very little dialogue in the book, and fewer ways to reveal information to the reader, especially with multiple point-of-view books. Also, when I say reveal information to the reader, I don’t mean exposition. The characters should never announce information that they already know in order to tell the reader something. Instead, their dialogue should reveal information about their world view and opinions, or provide information based on their own deductions.
Plot Movers – These are the ‘scene of the crime’ characters. People that end up being interviewed or are involved with events prior to the protagonist’s arrival. They are frequently used to advance the plot to the next stage, or to introduce sub-plots. Note that they don’t always have to be alive to fulfill these functions.
Henchmen – Ah, yes. The lovable henchman. This means anyone acting on behalf of the antagonist, knowingly or unknowingly. If your plot involves a lot of combat, these will be the opponents before the final climax. In a crime story, this may be officers who were bribed to hinder the investigation, or even people who are simply applying social pressure to get the antagonist to quit. Use these characters sparingly, and make their interactions count. One good henchman is far more effective than a bunch of quick, shallow ones.
Mentors – The way your protagonist relates to the person who trained them, guides them, or just advises them, can give insight into their character and allow you to show the reader what drives them. This doesn’t have to be some wise man on a hill, it can simply be a parent or anyone the protagonist respects. Resist the urge to kill off your mentors to create a revenge motive unless you have a very novel, interesting way to spin it. This is a particularly bad cliche’ to dig up in genre fiction.
A few other things to keep in mind as you build your characters:
Voice – One way to keep your characters from all sounding the same is to think of a celebrity, not necessarily one that looks or acts like the character, and imagine them speaking the lines. This will allow you to hear a rhythm and make word choices that will create a unique voice among your cast.
Naming – Try to give each character a name that starts with a unique letter. This helps the reader keep them separate in an unobtrusive way. But Mike, you say in your most accusing tone, what about Abe and Anne in Bad Radio? Well, in that instance, I’m breaking the rule in order to subtly point out that there are two protagonists in the book and to create an association in the reader’s mind. This kind of thing should be kept to an absolute minimum, however. You can always break a rule to get a specific effect, but you’re usually better off not doing so.
Dialogue Focus – Give each character a world view that shows in their dialogue. If they’re from a small town, maybe they’ll talk about a murder in terms of things they think only happen in big cities. Religious characters may discuss the spiritual implications of actions before the practical, or teenagers might focus on the social impact of events before thinking about anything else.
Education levels – Vary your character’s vocabulary based on their education levels and social background. People tend to speak in ways that are socially acceptable to their peer groups, so a high school student may very well be able to speak like an English professor, but wouldn’t do so. Also, job specific jargon can be effective in some circumstances to build credibility, but use it sparingly.
There’s a lot more to said about character creation, but if you only focus on their main purpose in connecting the reader to your story, you’ll do great.
Last year a small company called Six to Start put up a Kickstarter project called ZOMBIES, RUN! Naturally it got funded, because it was super damn clever and awesome.
You can get more info here, on the official site.
Supporters can now grab a copy of the game and start running for their lives, as I plan to do today. Everyone else can pick it up soon in the Itunes store. Hopefully the inevitable zombie apocalypse happens AFTER it becomes generally available, so that you can be properly trained.
If not, I’ll be sure to loot your body when I pass it.
As you may have noticed, I like to gather my “friends” for the occasional table top game. And while I mostly play the games the way they come right out of the box, I’m afraid that a combination of peer pressure and marketing has collapsed my usual aversion to buying extra bits and pieces.
I know, *gasp*.
First of all, my Super Dungeon Explore minis are nearly complete, thanks to Jason, my favorite painter of tiny things. He painted about a million of these:
So, I decided to protect all his hard work with this:
It’s basically a kit that contains several inserts to hold all of the game pieces and minis, and the whole thing fits into the original box. Super clever.
Then tragedy struck, and before I knew it, I had watched this video while my willpower was still at a low ebb:
Once the video ended, I noticed that there was nobody around to slap the mouse out of my hand, so I went here and ordered these for Arkham Horror:
Seriously, what was I supposed to do? THEY HAVE TENTACLES. Like anyone could resist that. Christ, they might as well be constructed entirely out of supermodels and salty caramel. I also bought a bag of tiny magnifying glass tokens that I can use for all my various AH themed games. Which are numerous and in desperate need of more tiny plastic bits.
So anyway, now I’m happy. I got everything that the internet told me to buy, and just in time, since now my wife is home and watching me suspiciously, ready to tackle me if it looks like I’m about to click on any online game stores.
All I can say is too late, baby. Too late.
This is actually the second day of top ten excitement. Walker is on three Amazon bestseller lists at the moment, one of which is pretty large, Fiction/Action&Adventure. So that’s pretty cool.
Not much has changed, of course. I did a little dance, and then went back to work in the word mines. Glamorous, I know!
Thanks to everyone who sent me notes of congratulations, and even more thanks to everyone who took a chance on a new author this week.
Much appreciated, folks.
Got in lots of Lovecraftian gaming this weekend:
Both were huge fun, with Elder Sign being the quicker, more lightweight game, and Mansions being the large, total tabletop experience. In both cases, a team of investigators are attempting to stop an Elder God from devouring everyone, but with Elder Sign, all the players are working together against the board.
In Mansions, one player (the most handsome and clever one) is the Keeper, and is actively trying to stop the other players (nosy busybodies), who are the investigators trying to save the world. For some reason.
Here’s a shot of the brave gibbering horrors trying to stand up to the homewrecking jerks:
All in all, it was fantastic day of trying to end the world.
My only regret is that my ‘friends’ Cory and Erik managed to stop me. THIS TIME.
You can tell I’m a huge nerd when I’m more exited to have my book listed next to The Forever War, than I am to be on the list in the first place.
Well, okay. That probably wasn’t your first clue that I was a huge nerd. Shut up.
When you first begin experiencing stories, either in books, movies, or other media, you become aware of pacing only when it’s done incorrectly. You might complain that a movie dragged in the middle, or that at the end of a book you had no idea who half the characters were. And most of the time, you would have blamed these things on the content. The middle of the movie was slow because the content was boring. The characters were poorly written and not memorable. And while some of that might be true, the real culprit is in the pacing.
You control pacing through both the information you deliver and how you deliver it. When the content and the delivery style are matched, you can achieve both breathless exhilaration or deeply engrossing immersion as you need them. These are the opposite ends of the pacing throttle, and you’ll need both regardless of what kind of story you’re writing.
Here’s how to control your pacing:
Book Level: Scene vs Sequel
Pacing at a book level is determined by the ratio of scenes to sequels in a book. If you’re not familiar with the terms, a scene is where the action takes place, and a sequel is where the characters react to that event and decide what to do next. For more detail, see Jim Butcher’s excellent explanations here and here.
Typically you’ll alternate scene-sequel for the length of the book. At a macro level, scenes increase the pace of the book and sequels slow it down. So for a thriller, you’ll have more and longer scenes, and fewer or shorter sequels. For an epic fantasy, you’ll have fewer scenes, and more elaborate sequels, and for romance you’ll have very few scenes and lots of sequels. The key here is how much of the book is either scene verbiage or sequel verbiage, not the actual number of each.
Scene/Sequel Level: Action vs Description
Within a scene or sequel, you’ll have both action and description. This is where most pacing errors appear. Action and description have opposite effects on pacing, so if you’re writing a fast moving scene and you load it up with description, you can easily introduce drag. Yes, your outfit is very pretty. No, I don’t care what kind of velvet it’s made of during a fist fight.
On the other hand, if you describe your busy market or haunted house with a couple of terse sentences, your audience will feel rushed through the place with no real feel for the atmosphere you’re trying to establish.
Be careful that you don’t try to apply book-level pacing here. One mistake new writers tend to make is to decide that since they’re writing a fast-paced thriller, the entire book should be made of short sentences with limited description. The book’s pacing and the scene’s pacing are very different things. Lots of scenes will increase the pace of the book, but within a scene you’ll still need to establish setting and engage the reader’s senses.
For books heavy on sequels, don’t be afraid to cut the atmosphere and introspection during your scenes. Don’t have the characters think about how that fiery confrontation is going to affect their relationship, just let them shout at each other in the heat of the moment, then think about it later.
Paragraph Level: Sentence Length
On an even smaller scale, you control the immediate, visceral sense of speed with sentence length and complexity. Short sentences with as few words as possible between the subject and the verb will increase the pace, while adjectives and clauses will slow things down. The rule about varying sentence length still stands, you will always need meter or rhythm to your sentences, so a fight scene should not consist of only three word sentences. But taken as a whole, paragraphs describing a fist fight should have noticeably shorter sentences on average than a paragraph describing a sunset.
As you vary your sentences, keep in mind a sense of dynamic tension. In a fight scene, longer sentences will help build a sense of anticipation, like the uphill sections of a roller coaster. For long descriptions, the occasional punchy section will keep the audience from feeling restless.
Regardless, there must always be a variation in pacing at this level. It’s the subtle changing of pace that makes an impression on a reader, not the absolute pace. How boring would a roller coaster be if it were one long slope? A few minutes at a constant speed, and it feels like nothing is happening. The same is true for prose.
Here are some specific tricks that you can use to bend the rules of pacing to get some interesting effects:
Slo-Mo: You know all that stuff I said about fight scenes having short, punchy sentences? Well, there’s one instance where you should do exactly the opposite. At the decisive moment of impact in the scene, such as the final, terrible blow of a fight, the detonation of the hidden explosives, or the death-throes of the monster, stretch out your sentence length and turn up the descriptive prose. You can take a paragraph or more to describe those precious few seconds and create a slow-motion effect, where the audience can savor the moment. Used sparingly, this can really heighten the impact of your action scenes.
Snapshot: During a fast-paced scene, especially a longer one, you may need to bring the reader in close and ramp up the immersion factor. This is frequently done just before the climax of the scene to point out some important part of the plot. For example, the final punch of a fist-fight might mention the glint of light off of a wedding ring, or while a character is fleeing a burning building she might notice a photograph curling in the flames. The goal is to make the descriptive elements as short and vivid as possible, without stretching out the sentence length.
Travelogue: When you have a lot of description to do, try breaking up the prose with dialogue that adds personal context to the things you’re describing. Lots of text describing buildings can get tedious fast, but a few sentences from a character about how when they were kids, they used to play right next to that slaughterhouse before they knew what it was, will pick things right up.
In the end, pacing is about contrast. The difference between a book that feels fast and a book that feels rushed is in the careful application of your slower, more immersive prose. In the same vein, the difference between rich and boring is in how skillfully you manage your action. Just keep things varied, and use the right technique for the right job. Once you understand the basics, it’ll be easy to spot when you’re going against the grain.