“I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.”—Jane Carlyle
I love complicated characters. Those ones that you’re intrigued by and who surprise you. The ones who grip you by the hand and drag you along. So how do we as writers create those kinds of characters, the ones our readers fall in love with?
As an example I’m going to use one of my own characters. Mostly because I know him better than anyone else and because I’m too lazy to do a major character analysis at the moment. Anyway, when I was writing Sorrow’s Fall I worked hard to make my main character, Sorrow, different. In fact if I’d chosen another character’s point of view he could easily have become the antagonist.
He’s violent, anti-social, insecure and withdrawn. He is responsible for the death of thousands and the oppression of millions. He kills on command without hesitation. He doesn’t speak. And only responds when given an order or spoken to directly. From an observer’s viewpoint he would seem more machine than human, with little to find appealing.
Yet he is the hero of the story and a fan favorite.
So how do you write characters that aren’t a near perfect hero with only a single flaw, or an over the top cartoonish evil villain? How do you write characters that seem so real your readers almost expect to meet them on the street?
Tapping the Well
Two great writing resources that have just become available are The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They are wonderful tools for fleshing out those difficult characters and I really wish I’d had them about ten years ago. But how do you know what traits to choose for your character? And once you’ve chosen them how do you work them into the narrative?
First, choosing traits. This should not be done arbitrarily. You need to think about where your character has come from and how that has influenced them. The books are quite helpful in this aspect. Under the subheading Possible Causes they list how the traits might have come about in a person.
In my main character’s case he’d been trained from a very young age to be an assassin. It left him with few coping mechanisms other than violence or submissiveness. So I looked for negative traits that covered that spectrum and made a list. This is what I came up with:
Whew, just reading that list makes me wonder how anyone could like him. But you have to remember no one displays every trait fully at any given time. Each situation is different and different qualities will come to the fore when your character is dealing with them.
So, let’s take one trait and expand on it and see how it could be shown in the narrative. Let’s take subservient since it’s his fatal flaw. By fatal flaw I mean the one trait that is most likely to dictate the majority of his actions and the one he must overcome by the end of his story arc or fail. (For a more in depth discussion on fatal flaws see: The Fatal Flaw – The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life by Dara Marks.)
Looking at The Negative Trait Thesaurus subservient is on page 208. The definition is ‘extremely compliant and obedient.’ Looking under associated behaviors and attitudes I see a list of ways I can show this trait. Just because I could I made another list. This was quite helpful in brainstorming scenes. A few of the things I picked out were:
- Following orders without question
- He doesn’t think for himself
- He lives in fear of doing something wrong or upsetting his commander.
- He has difficulty making independent decisions
- He’s always striving to meet unrealistic expectations
- He is incapable of having fun
- He’s very secretive
- He has a difficult time setting boundaries in relationships
- He feels very guilty is he thinks he’s failed in some way.
- He is highly observant.
- He becomes very agitated if he’s left alone by his commanders
- He neglects his health
Your list will be different, but it’s a great place to start. Making my list I thought of several scenes where I could use one of more of these associated behaviors. The trick is to show the behavior happening or have another character comment on it. Don’t come out and say something like “Sorrow felt guilty for failing.” It might work better like this. “Sorrow dropped his chin to his chest and swallowed hard against the pain in his throat. The mission was a failure.”
Well, that was kind of depressing, so let’s look at the flip side and see what positive things come out of being subservient. I know what you are thinking, that there couldn’t possibly be anything positive from such a trait. At first glance it does look that way. But if you look at the third bullet from the bottom you’ll see something positive.
In The Positive Trait Thesaurus it gives observant the definition of paying careful attention. Going down through the list of associated behaviors I find several that work for him. Such as:
- Noticing when someone’s mood has changed
- People watching
- Picking up on other’s nervous habits
- Noticing details others might miss
- Seeing potential dangers before they occur
- Instantly sizing up a room upon entering
- Excellent recall
- Being cautious
- Taking safety and precaution seriously
- Watching for certain details, such as if someone is armed
- Being mindful of body language and expressions
- Noticing pattern breaks
- Sitting with his back to a wall
So now instead of just having negative aspects to his actions, I can show positive things as well. This helps make him multi-dimensional. Now I can move on to some of his other qualities and take it even further.
So when creating our characters we need to be aware of their background and how it’s influenced them and what traits might be most prominent. When working these traits into the narrative be sure to find ways to show them instead of just telling the reader what they are. We want our readers to gradually get to know our characters over the course of the book. This keeps them engaged and we do this by doling out tidbits as our character grows and progresses. Without strong characterization we won’t have much of a plot and without a plot—no reader.
Davonne is the author of Sorrow’s Fall a YA sci-fi novel about a young assassin who must overcome his disability to stay alive. You can find her blog at sorrows-fall.com. The novel is currently available on amazon.com in either print or digital form.