Beyond the Sketch: Adding Color to Your Characters
I’m a character driven person. Whether I’m reading a book, watching a movie or a TV show, I can forgive a lot in a story if I latch onto at least one character. It’s how I write. It’s what I look for in my entertainment, and what I look forward to. I want to be so drawn in that I stop thinking about whether they’re good or bad, major or minor, or what impact they may have on the story as a whole. I want to be enthralled by their thoughts and decisions, and immersed in the consequences that befall them. I want to be affected. I want to be made to care.
In writing The Crown of Stones, I set out to create characters that I, as a reader, would care about. The story itself was born from the development of my protagonist, Ian Troy. He started out as no more than a sketch, an empty frame. The details filled in as his flaws emerged and evolved. As they did, the obstacles I could throw in his way became clear. He became real, colorful. Ian's response to these obstacles helped form the plot. His choices and decisions refined it. What drove it, though, was his mistakes.
I enjoy superheroes as much as the next person. I like white knights who ride into save the day. But perfection limits a character. If all they do is save the day, over and over, what’s the point? I’m more interested in what crucible the knight had to go through to earn his title. How did the hero become super in the first place? What makes them want to be valiant and brave—what scares the hell out of them. For me, the allure is not in their ability to do right. They’re heroes; they’re going to do right eventually. The allure is in what they do wrong (intentional or otherwise). People do wrong all the time. They make the wrong choices. It’s what makes us real. It can help make your character real, too.
That doesn’t mean a protagonist should go around making mistakes for no good reason. Neither do you want him/her, or anyone else in your story, constantly bumbling their way into success. To create a believable character with depth, you need to understand their motives. Simply put: you need to get to know them. Define their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, their wildest dreams and deepest fears, their biggest accomplishments and their most fatal flaws. What’s their favorite food? Do they walk with confidence or insecurity? Do they prefer rain or sun, silk or leather, whiskey or wine? How would they react to losing something precious? To what lengths would they go to get it back?
Knowing where your character will draw the line or what they like to eat for breakfast, though, isn’t enough. It’s the ‘whys’ that are the most important. Why are they reacting this way? What situation led them to this moment, this action or decision? Create a backstory for the answers. Create a side story if you have to. None of it has to ever show up on the pages. The point is to know them inside or out. They will still find a way to surprise you, but it will make the writing of them that much easier.
Unforgettable characters can help spruce up an average plot. They can add much needed color to an otherwise plain world. They can etch in a reader’s mind and make a good story great. Still, no matter how you real you make your characters, not everyone will feel a connection. If they don’t, and your story is character-driven, they might walk away feeling like something was missing. But when they do, when someone ‘gets’ your character(s) the way you intend, every second of work you put into creating them will be well worth it.