When we got the packet in Communication Arts, I was really excited. I flipped through the pages: Writing about Characters, Writing about Setting, Writing about Plot. This sounded great for a girl who wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t exactly in character for a junior CA class. “Is our final writing a novel?” I asked.
Nope. When I took a second look, I realized it wasn’t about writing original characters, plots, and settings. The packet was on writing essays about elements in other books. Much deflated, I began to read on the recommended questions to ask before writing an essay on a secondary character.
It turns out that, although the handouts were intended to teach us better classroom writing, they actually have helped me with creative writing. A lot was pretty useless – I’m not the kind of person who puts secret meaning in every little detail. But a few things really were useful, so I’ll repeat them here. They’re all about character, making a character believable.
Far too often we see flat characters – ones that seem to embody a single character trait. They aren’t interesting, surprising, or much of anything. They never surprise you or reveal hidden depths. If you need an example, turn on Disney Channel.
The best way to create a round (realistic) character is to give them contradictions. If a character is always brave, tough, and unflinching, give them a secret fear or memory of uncertainty. If they’re flinching and complaining, give them a scene where they take charge. Let your character surprise everyone. Real people often do.
Understand your character’s motivations. What are their goals? Some may wear their hearts on their sleeves, some may have hidden objectives. These shape their words and actions. You need to keep these motivations in mind when writing scenes, so the characters don’t act in ways against their goals. Of course, the more self serving the character, the more rigid they will be. If they’re more altruistic, they may sacrifice their objectives in order to help someone else.
I found it helped to write down my characters’ visible and hidden traits. What are they like alone, or in their thoughts? How do they act around other people? Do they pretend to be someone else, or are they always themselves? Do they ever slip up?
This was especially helpful for me because in my NaNo, my two main characters have several contradictory traits. One is pretty easy to write – he’s generally the same no matter what, except for a few situations. On the other hand, my female main character puts on a completely different face depending on who she’s dealing with. It helps to keep track of who she really is, and who she pretends to be.
Depending on how important it is to you to write round characters (sometimes there are legitimate reasons to write flat ones) keeping track of their traits and motivations can really be a good idea.