By Katarina Karmazinova & Viktor Karmazin
Think of a character you cannot forget. What makes them so bloody appealing?
I am sure you have one in mind.
Take a notebook or a piece of paper, and start writing bullet-points.
You will embellish it later. At the end of this article, you will have a raw draft.
1. What purpose does this character have in your story?
If it’s an extra, think long and hard if you really need him in this tale. Could another character fulfill this role?
Too many characters… is a thing.
If he’s indispensable, but not the focus, think about what is he bringing to the table?
What is his arc?
If he doesn’t have one, what does he want?
What does he want now? What does he want in the long run?
Write it down. Whenever you are thinking about what they’d do, come back to it.
If it’s the main hero (or one of them) you’re going to need to ask a whole lot of other questions, like what is this story that I’m making and what am I trying to say with it.
The rest above, but you need to think also about the bigger picture. Is this crucial?
What does separate Anna Karenina from Twilight?
Both are Love stories with a triangle. One is an epic tale of Russian society, affection, existential loneliness, and betrayal. The other has teenage vampires.
Both tell a certain tale and therefore the traits of its heroes need to be different. Could we put Anna into Twilight? Sure. As epic as that could be, it would make a very different tale.
2. Dress them well, and give them a meaning
Let’s say it’s a man.
Give him some looks. Be playful. Feel free to make bold statements about his body, the way he walks, talks or dresses. Make him limp; give him a scar or a bracelet with his star sign.
These are all external expressions of his personal history or his beliefs.
DO NOT put this in the 1st paragraph where he appears in and never come back to describe him again.
Just like a country, the most memorable characters must be discovered over time, because they are vast.
Show – don’t tell. Reward the perceptive reader with a hint to her motivations.
“I totally saw that coming” turns a name into a face and a face into a human (or an elf or Xenomorph) you will remember once the book is closed.
What are his prominent features, his mannerism?
Does he have an accent?
Are there words he uses a lot or ones he would not know?
Subvert expectations (when it makes sense).
That conversation you overheard on the train? Yes, you CAN make a character of that – half of Harry Potter was built this way.
Think about the setting they are in.
Is it Present Day Earth?
Is it Ancient China?
Where are they from within the setting?
Our culture defines us, either by embracing it or resisting it – remember the theme and structure you defined in step one and use it to help them find a place in this land (or are they still looking?).
Keep in mind the character‘s purpose in the story.
Be cruel, be raw, be emotional, be pathetic but don’t be gratuitous.
The readers can tell if you’re putting someone in just for the sake of it.
3. How flawed is your character?
Maybe you want him to have no flaws.
This is a bad idea and is what we call a Mary Sue.
Mary Sues are great for making the reader empathize, but are very visible and a hallmark of pulp fiction.
Mind you, it’s still possible to get rich if that’s your goal with this approach. But for the rest of us, snobs, remember this: “Nobody is perfect. In fact, everybody is deeply flawed.”
Our struggle to cope with, resist or learn to live with these flaws in our lives is what the majority of conflict (and therefore drama) stems from.
Just like you, your characters too wake up every morning and ask themselves if they can be just a little bit closer to what they want to be today.
A bad story is set apart from a good one by our view into this struggle.
Give us a backstory.
Which is nothing more than an extra dimension that makes him or her relatable, likeable or despicable.
Again: Exposition = bad. You want to show it, not tell it.
This is pretty much why crime/detective/mysteries are so prevalent in literature: they allow the author to write about someone discovering and piecing together a character's backstory without being in your face about it.
His backstory, his wants, wishes, and flaws are key to the story. The backstory justifies why he does what he does. And is directly related to step one – theme.
4. Nomen est omen
In Latin “the destiny is in the name”.
What’s in a name?
That How does YOUR name define you? Not much. This should be the LAST thing a character needs that you think about.
That being said…
Think of the most memorable characters from your favourite novels. Remember some original ideas that stuck with you? Think Peter Pan, Lolita or Huckleberry Finn… these names don’t necessarily have a meaning, but they evoke an element that evokes a feeling. Pan – a playful mystical being also flute. Something sweet you wanna lick. A nickname that sings per se when you say it.
You cannot help but get a certain...feeling...when you say these names. You might not notice, but your brain does.
Go back to your character’s theme. What does it evoke in your head? Xandar Malthus sounds a lot darker (and cliché) than an Aburey Pollen.
This hopefully explains the ludicrous amount of Lillies occurring in fiction.
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