4 Strategies for Creating Compelling Characters

23 Jan

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” Buy the book here.

Last week, Austin experienced two days of real winter, which meant my 6 and 8-year-olds had no school. Because it was cold and icy, playing outside wasn’t any fun, so we did what anyone would do: watched movies and built medieval siege equipment out of pencils. They both really wanted to watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of the sex jokes, so instead I introduced them to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, and so I was surprised at how corny it is. It wasn’t just the special effects (skeletons that look like Halloween decorations); the plot is pretty silly as well. But that didn’t matter. The movie holds up, and my kids loved it, because Harrison Ford creates a captivating character. We would have watched him in any movie—and throughout the 80s and 90s, American audiences did.

The movie was a reminder that if you can create a great character, the rest of the story often falls into place. Or, at the very least, the story gets easier to tell.

You can find four exercises designed to create captivating characters in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They exercises are inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: the novels The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales and Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and the stories “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus and “Proving Up” by Karen Russell.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Create Characters with a Single, Definitive Trait, inspired by The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A DEFINING TRAIT. It can be something physical like size, hair color, or an odd body part; in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops, as everyone remembers, has one eye. You can make the trait behavioral: a tic or disorder (as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a pattern of behavior (laughing at the worst moments), or a temperament (rage, kindness). You can also use a piece of clothing or accessory; everyone knows that the Monopoly man has a cane and top hat.

 

Make Your Characters Into Something New, inspired by Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

  1. IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF CHARACTER. It’s no secret that characters fall into types: heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, detectives/ criminals, butt-kickers/butt-kickees, and lovers/love interests. Think about the role your character plays. Is she the one going on a trip? The stranger coming to town? For just a moment, think about your story in terms of those outlines we’re all familiar with. Which one are you writing?

 

Define Your Character’s Emotional Response to Conflict, inspired by “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus

  1. SKETCH THE OUTLINES OF THE CHARACTER’S CONFLICT. Marcus’s story uses the genre of apocalypse. People on earth are dying in seemingly large numbers. Not much else is revealed—and we don’t need much else. People are dying, and the living are searching for ways to survive. That’s the conflict. So, begin by stating your story’s own conflict in a sentence or two: _____ is happening, and this causes ____ to happen. This structure works for intimate conflicts as well as apocalyptic ones:

X had an affair, so Y ____.
X got sick, so Y ____.
X owed me money, so I ____.
X fell in love with Y, and Y _____.
X did ___, and so her best friend Y ____.

 

Generate Tension by Giving Characters Unequal Access to an Object of Desire, inspired by “Proving Up” by Karen Russell

  1. IDENTIFY THE OBJECT OF DESIRE. The object is often named in the title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lord of the Rings, The Goldfinch. Or the object is implied by the genre: love, vengeance, the solution of a mystery. In most cases, the object is set before a character as a prize, but it’s only over time that the object gains personal importance to the character. This is especially true in mysteries: someone gives the detective a job, and at some point, that job becomes personal. (Sometimes there’s even a line: “Now it’s personal!”). So, even if the object seems a bit dry at the start, you’re at least giving yourself something to work with, a direction to point your character in.

 

Put these strategies to use, and you may have the next Indiana Jones at your fingertips.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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