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Creating Characters I Don’t Hate (and Hopefully You Won’t Either) Part 1

June 28, 2011

I’ve always considered character the single most important factor in an enjoyable story. It’s not just the old adage that a strong character drives the story, though that’s true enough. But if I can’t bring myself to care about a character, whether I like or dislike her, I’m going to put the book down and never pick it up again.

In working on the first pass of major revisions on my current novel-in-progress, The Threads that Bind, my biggest problem is character. All but one of my characters — and she’s not even the protagonist — need intensive work to turn into interesting, sympathetic individuals. I don’t want TTTB to be the story that someone else puts down because of flat, lifeless characters that nobody cares about, so I’m setting out to make the people who populate my story as engaging as I can.

Role

Every character in a story needs to fulfill a role. A character can’t just sit around looking pretty; she has to contribute to the story by either helping or hindering the protagonist’s progress. So when one of my characters started acting up, I took a serious look at whether or not she mattered to the story.

This character, Fusta, was *supposed* to fulfill a role in the story. I intended her to be my protagonist’s only support in the beginning of the book, someone who helped her at first but ultimately withdrew, unable to see Esa through to the end. Instead, she turned into a whiny nag who made all of Esa’s decisions for her.

Not exactly what I was going for.

I realized about two thirds through the first draft that Fusta was getting in the way of the story, so I just stopped writing her. I pretended she never existed and finished the draft without her. As soon as she disappeared, Esa started acting and making decisions on her own.

This still meant that I had to go back and root Fusta out of the first part of the story. And I needed someone to fill her intended role as support to my protagonist. My failure with Fusta showed me what this character really needed to be.

  1. A peer. While Fusta was an older character who had helped raise Esa, the new character needed to be on equal footing with her, someone of similar age and standing whom she wouldn’t expect to have any more answers than she did.
  2. A foil. My protagonist is serious, goal-oriented, and deliberate in her decision making. She needed someone who takes a different approach to life to keep her from getting stuck in her habits, but Fusta was too much like an older, more staid version of Esa.
  3. An antagonist. Fusta made things too easy for my character. While Esa needed to have some sort of emotional support, it had to come from someone who challenges her assumptions, someone she can butt heads with to help her grow and make her own decisions.

I ended up pulling a background character into the foreground to fill this role instead of creating someone entirely new. Hosela Barris started out as the neighborhood gossip, a constant source of annoyance to my protagonist and a threat to her most closely held secrets. In the second draft, Hosela is still a gossip, she still gets on Esa’s nerves with her upbeat and spontaneous personality, and she still draws out the secrets Esa doesn’t want brought to light. But she has also become Esa’s best friend and confidant, the person who gives Esa an outlet, keeps her from drawing too far into herself, and brings out more of her humanity.

I’m still in the early stages of my second draft, which has ended up turning into more of a total rewrite than a revision, but Hosela is doing her job so far. By being a stronger character than Fusta was, she’s propelling the protagonist forward instead of holding her back.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 4:01 pm

    I really like how you’ve analyzed the characters’ jobs! It’s something I don’t think about enough in my own writing, so it was a good reminder to read your post. Thanks!

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      June 30, 2011 11:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment! I don’t usually think about the roles the characters play when I’m getting started on a new story—I tend to toss in whatever characters appeal to me and figure out what they can do for the story later. But sometimes they need more prodding than that to make things happen.

  2. August 12, 2011 8:59 am

    Your comment about ignoring her after a period reminded me that when I re-read what I had written in my novel, there were some sections where some of the characters had died at one point, and other sections where I had evidently decided that they *hadn’t* died. It certainly weighs in favor of writing from beginning to end. 🙂

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      August 12, 2011 6:30 pm

      I think a lot of it depends on whether you’re more of an outliner or more of a seat-of-the-pantser. If you know really well exactly where everything’s going, it’s probably easier to write out of order.

      Then again, I’m definitely an outliner, but I still prefer writing in order…maybe because I don’t go for a very detailed outline, more of an overview of important events.

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