Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Four Steps to Writing Believable Characters

Alright! Alright! You're interesting!
It’s a mistake to believe that genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, etc., rely more on cool gadgets and exotic locations than good characters.  Consider, for a moment, Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Plenty of fantastical, amazing, groovy settings, a fully-formed, fully-realized magic system, and grosses of groovy gadgets to serve all kinds of purposes.  But what really sold the show were the characters.  Enough so that most fans were willing to sit through the slightly less awesome Avatar: The Legend of Korra

Hey, I said “slightly”.

Good characters are necessary for writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re an angelpunk author with a crossover dark dystopian post-apocalyptic zombie world—it don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got that character.  That said there is a whole host of ways to write strong, compelling, believable characters. In fact, you already know how because YOU are a character in your own story. You have all the key components that make up a good, solid, believable character and you can draw from your own experiences.  Of course, there are some points you’ll want to keep in mind while relating that time you escaped from Ceti Alpha V:

She's programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.
1 - Background/history—unless the character is an infant, even amnesiacs have a background (though they're not aware of it) which causes them to act a certain way in certain situations.  It’s not necessary to have a fully formed, day-by-day diary of what your character went through.  In fact, that could be a barrier to storytelling.  But major life events should and will shape who each person is as a person.

2 - Current status—Your world is real and your characters have a place in that world, even if they're bucking against the system itself or trying to stand outside it. Where they came from in a social structure, where they're going and how they plan to get there will inform a lot of decisions that characters will make.  Precious few people are 100% satisfied with their own status quo, let alone that of the world.  They’d usually, and happily, make changes if they could, and might actively be working toward them.

3 - Development/growth—Unless they're dead, your characters are on a timeline of events that changes them from day to day and year to year even as they go about changing the world. Even if they're growing in the "wrong" ways, they're still growing—which is, of course, how we get “villains”.  Characters should learn things, pick up new tips and tricks, make advancements or suffer setbacks which help guide future decisions.

I never really liked you anyway, and you have
stupid hair!
4 - Relatable and flawedMary Sue and Marty Stu are idealized versions that make few to no mistakes, and are incredibly good at just about everything, including looking into a mirror. The rest of us struggle in our day-to-day lives with day-to-day things, and generally we can't MacGyver our way out. Flawed people are real.  Certainly, most characters should have an expertise or three that sets them apart from most other people, but in other respects they should be like you and me—unable to leap tall buildings, prone to momentary lapses in judgment, and otherwise flawed.  In a word: human—even if they’re aliens.  Audiences react most strongly when they can place themselves in a character’s combat boots.

There’s probably a dozen other more nuanced tips and tricks that will help you craft living, breathing characters who act and react to whatever sparkly vampire world you’re working with.  These major points for consideration should help keep you on the straight-and-narrow to witty, clever, even sarcastic one-liners and moments of awesomeness.

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