Working in the Word Mines – Characters
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.