Monday, February 15, 2010

Characters - What's your recipe?

What is it we all want readers to take away from our work? Lots of writers have different ideas about this, and I'm always curious what makes other writers out there (published or not) tick. So I figured I'd start the conversation myself and see where, if anywhere, it goes.

I want my readers to come away with a solid understanding of who my characters are, and to identify with them as though they were real people.

I think they have to be memorable to do that.

So how do we go about creating memorable characters? Well, I always start with some particular emotion or motivation that I want to stand out. Sometimes I'll even use that to help me find a character's name, or maybe a specific trait or physical feature.

I also think they have to have multiple flaws. Few readers want the Johnny Good-guy who is always polished, perfect, and unflappable. How boring is that?

And they have to have humor. Ever met a cop who didn't have a good sense of humor? They see the worst that society has to offer, and in many cases they have to laugh to keep from crying. Or a PI who isn't a wiseass? (I think you have to pass a comedy test to get your license here in NC, to be honest).

Next I stir in a few friends that can help define personality by offering them situations and conversations in which they can reveal their character.

Bake it in the pressure-cooker of a really tough case, and hopefully you wind up with a character people will think they know. If it's done really well, they'll even miss that character and want to hear more about him/her/it(?), which is the ultimate compliment, right?

So what about you guys? What's your recipe?


Jack Getze said...

Two weeks after I finish a book, the characters are usually all I can remember. And for a writer, creating an Ebenezer Scrooge or a Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate -- a fiction that outlives you. I think bigger than life is key -- almost cartoonish, in that a trait or a specific human endeavor becomes personified.

And actually, Jake, I came by here to tell you two pieces of news. (1) I nominated your golf w/dad story for an online award, and (2) I just sold MY first short story in 30 years. I had to tell somebody!

Linda Pendleton said...

I would like my readers to take away from my work a feeling of being entertained for a few hours with credible characters, and with my nonfiction works, inspiration, and possibly new ideas to ponder and explore.

For me, it is all about a meeting of the minds: a meeting of my mind with that of the reader. And writing is also a beautiful way to expand our own world-view as we create a larger-than-life, yet credible and coherent world for our characters to live in and express their personalities, their hopes and dreams, their life challenges and accomplishments, their joy and grief.

Term Paper said...

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jnantz said...

Jack - Thank you very much, and congratulations on your own work getting sold! And yeah, I'd kill for a character to have that kind of lasting impact...I bet most of us would.

Linda - What a beautiful way to express such a great concept. Always good to remember that our characters need to truly LIVE in their world as we do ours.

Term Paper - Hey, as a teacher, I am always glad that something I have done may have helped a student in need.