My bane as a writer is writing interesting characters. Characters don’t always work out like I intend them to. Sometimes they don’t work at all. When my writing group workshops my stories, it’s often characterization that comes up.
I’ve been looking at my own work recently to see if I can improve my characters. That’s easier said than done.
I thought I’d share this struggle, so that you might also benefit. Note that this post is about my work, which you probably haven’t read. Bear with me, though, I’ll try to stick to quantifiable things that don’t require intimate knowledge of my writing.
First stop: am I doing things right technically? There are several things you can mess up about characters without actually touching on the characters themselves. You can accidentally have your viewpoint drift or tell about them instead of showing them in action.
It’s a bit immodest, but in general, I have those things down. Writing is a tool to communicate a story in my head to somebody else’s. I can do that. Of course, writing technique is something to work on all the time and it can always be improved. It’s like a professional runner working day in and out on their basic footwork and leg movements to get that extra edge.
However, that’s just the basics. My problems with characterization run deeper.
Character and plot arcs
What you want to achieve in a story is that the character arc comes together with the plot arc at the climax in the story. By arc I mean the resolution of the central conflict.
For ‘plot’ the central conflict is external to the characters, for ‘character’ the central conflict is internal. The story starts out introducing the conflict, then the characters go through various cycles of failing to tackle the conflicts, until they finally resolve the conflicts at the climax. The trick is to make the resolution of the external conflict hinge on the resolution of the character’s internal conflict.
Sounds easy enough. Of course, it really isn’t. Half of the books and movies out there don’t do this properly. Take X-Men: Days of Future Past for example. The protagonist is – unfortunately – Wolverine. The central plot conflict is the creation of sentinels (killer robots) to subdue the mutant population which is considered a threat by the rest of the world, which lead to a horrible future. Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique all have related internal conflicts.
However, for Wolverine… no conflict. He’s not even there for the climax of the story. In this movie, Wolverine is a walking camera stand smoking cigars.
This is also where my first problems are, I think. I can identify screw-ups like in X-Men, but there are more insidious problems. I’m good at thinking up plots. Thinking up characters with conflicts to match that plot is harder. It means thinking up a flaw that can be overcome at the climax. A flaw that needs to be threaded through the character’s personality in the rest of the story and that complements the external conflict. A flaw that leads to a climax where the reader is cheering the hero on. Intellectually, I know how, but actually making this work is hard.
Let’s look even deeper.
To create a good character, we need a character that is interesting. A character we want to read about. Coming up with a flaw they need to overcome is only step one. You need to build a character around that flaw. They need things they’re good at, things they hate, and quirks.
Characters in a story – especially the protagonist – need to be real people to the reader. People they’d want to hang out with, people they’ll root for when the plot and character arcs come to a head.
Yet, how to do that? They need to excel in certain things (Bruce Willis is very good at fighting hostage-takers in Die hard, for example), but they need to be the guy next door in others (Bruce Willis is estranged from his wife and acts like he’s in way over his head). They need to be special, but not too much.
It all comes back to why we like certain people and not others. And honestly, I often don’t know why I like certain people and find others boring or annoying.
I have the same thing with characters I create. I’ve been writing for years, creating dozens of characters. Playing Dungeons & Dragons has made me create as many. I’ve found that I sometimes grow to love them, but sometimes I start hating their guts. Some I can hardly remember. So, yeah, I have a weakness there.
I have an inkling of why I run into problems here. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They interact with friends, enemies, and their environment. I’ve had markedly more problems with characters that I created with bad dungeon masters in Dungeons & Dragons, and with characters that didn’t interact with the plot optimally.
Characters exist through the things around them. Their personalities echo against their environment. Creating a good character is not enough. You need to make them come alive through interactions. This means showing things about them, and also contrasting them with others.
This is where my second weakness lies. Contrasting a character requires supporting characters or enemies with different personalities. Counter-intuitively, The antagonist is not always the best choice for this contrast. It’s often better to make the protagonist and the antagonist mirrors of each other, with only slight differences. They are alike except for that flaw that makes the antagonist bad and the protagonist good. In any case, you need characters that differ from the protagonist to make their personality shine. And I’m only good at writing a limited number of character traits.
I have trouble writing characters who are really dumb or very stubborn or just plain mean. That probably leads back to who I am in real life. I have trouble putting myself in the head of somebody who is very mean to people. I can’t picture myself believably voting for a man like Trump. Neither can I imagine beating my wife, or hurting my child. Not in a way that justifies those actions anyway. And that is what I do need to do.
Everybody is the hero of their own story. To make a character with a vastly different personality believable, you have to be able to be them – in your imagination at least. So you need to be able to pretend to be the hero of a story where you beat your wife, or your child. I find that hard, and probably other writers do too. But it’s a struggle I dive into often to make myself a better writer.
I went down the rabbit hole of my own writing to see what needs improvement. Writing it down like I did above is useful for me to find ways to improve my writing. I hope it can also be useful to you in your own struggles as a writer, or as a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon master, or whatever.