On Characters


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Only rare people, and even these individuals on the scarce occasional happenstance, lay themselves bare. Ignorance encourages speaking one’s mind, but even then only when the voiced opinion is guaranteed either vigorous support or ruffled feathers. Gross opinions, populars thoughts, politically correct topics are simple to voice one’s opinion on, but what lingers deep, under the coffee grounds and forgotten in the corner, reveals itself in conversation. The average person must keep it secret, safe, hidden but before sleep when the recesses stretch into consciousness and whine for attention and resolution. These are the thoughts that cannot be brought up to anyone: not your mother, your boyfriend, your wife, or your best friend. Not when drunk, not when high, not spoken in your sleep. They are ponderings of the seedier angle of the world. Musings on your true opinion of events and glances and missed connections. What ifs. Why nots.

Masks abound, but as everything in life, some are more equal than others. Everyone has secrets. No one knows another perfectly. Friendly neighbors are found to keep dead children in freezers, women push men in front of subway trains, your shining angel is a hellion to little Suzy.

If you are reading this for a solution or a conclusion or even a recommendation, I must apologize. It is not man versus nature but human nature against itself. The world is both utterly gorgeous and hideous beyond imagination. Life’s secret may get in the way, but do not allow them to distract your view of the good. If you focus on the abyss that humans are capable, it will look into you and blind you to the stunning vistas surrounding.

All this to say, if real people are so complex, so deep, so unwilling to lay themselves out to even their closest compatriots, any fictional chracter that doesn’t at least attempt to dig deep into their guts, to pull out intestines and hold them to the sunlight rather than scracthing the surface that the general populace can observe in a single glance, then the character is unrealistic, unbelieveable, and–more than likely–unable to elicit empathy from the reader.

One key to writing good characters is to focus on the causes of their personality, rather than the effects. What made them the way they were. How does their most significant experiences affect their day-to-day decisions? What do they dread while waiting for the sandman? What visions keep them awake a few extra minutes, relishing in the vivid creations on what they hope to come? What can they never tell anyone, and only rarely hint at? What would their opinion be on the election, on the ancient Sumerian culture, on the latest pop song, on coffee shops, on the best place to bury a body? What would you think of the person if you saw them in your favorite seat at a cafe? Could you two ever be friends? How would they act at a party? At a funeral? What would they be thinking of while staring out the window on a rainy day? Who would walk beside them in fairer weather?

Never forget that everyone is the hero in their own minds. This must include characters. You cannot have any NPC (non-playing characters), such as the background characters in games who act only a sign boards pointing in a direction so that the hero doesn’t get lost. They are wooden, without backstory, wishes, or dreams. Everyone has struggles. Everyone has hopes. All of your characters should as well. They should have their own arcs, even if they are mostly obscured from view, there should still exist tiny hints at where they have come from (their thesis), where they are now (their antithesis), and a conclusion to their tale that accurately mirrors where they began plus what they have learned along the way (their synthesis).

For a good example of this, see Ty Lee’s character in the Avatar: The Last Airbender. She is not one of the main characters, but a secondary one, friends with a main character’s sister. Really, she’s on the outskirts of the story a lot of the time, used as a device to drive the action forward. But in snippets we learn that she joined a circus when she was young to escape her family where she was just another forgotten face in a sea of identical daughters. She wanted to stand out, which moved her from her thesis to her antithesis. Ty Lee also struggles with decisions, changing sides towards the end of the series, refusing to defend her friend’s crazy decisions. In the end, the joins a group of girls called the Kyoshi Warriors who happen to all wear the same clothes and same make-up. She is blending into the background again, just like what she was running away from at the beginning of her story, only this time she has changed. She has confidence where before she thought of herself as a secondary character. She isn’t afraid of being overlooked anymore. She has completed her character arc. And don’t forget, she isn’t anything close to a main character!

Know your characters better than you know your friends, better than others know you. Lay them bare on the page and your readers will either fall in love with them or despise their very name. Both are successes, for neither is what you give to people with whom you have no connection: apathy.