Write Right: Character Craft

I’m a writer. Not by choice, but by nature. It’s one of maybe two things in this world I’m genuinely good at. Not international best seller good, but still good. Personally, I’d rank myself as a decent mid-list author, who can produce consistent work of quality.

I can remember being about ten or twelve when I first tried to write a story, to put the infinite worlds spinning in my head down on paper. It wasn’t easy, and things didn’t go the way I wanted, leading to frustration. There were things only I could see, and I didn’t know how to convey them.

Dungeons & Dragons was my real training ground as a writer. Learning from my fellow players as they built up their characters, making worlds and non-player characters that felt real, that made the players want to fall in love with them, and live there for but a moment. More than any book, or lecture, or class, Dungeons & Dragons taught me how to write.

Still, it wasn’t an easy journey. I have always, and still do, struggle to capture the places and people I see in my mind. Words alone sometimes aren’t enough to make them live and breath on the page the way they do inside my imagination. The scenery is never vivid enough for me, always lacking something, some element that makes it real to the reader. The world is never deep enough, complex enough, filled with as much as I want it to be.

Because what I want, when I get down to it, is to craft a world that is as real to a reader as our own is. To be that large, that wide, with as much in it, and as many people, customs, places, traditions, religions, societies, and everything. I want it to truly breath, live, and for the readers to feel like they are there.

No, I’m never content. I always want more out of the words I put to the page. I always hunger for it to be better. I need it, like I need air.

That said, there is one thing I will always be proud of as a writer, and that’s my character work. While I always feel the worlds I build are never detailed enough, the characters I craft are always exactly what I want them to be. Real, breathing, complex people. They have strengths and flaws, and go far beyond just being mere archetypes. They are complicated, and that is something I have worked at for years to get right.

Only to discover that I never needed to. The trick to well crafted characters is deceptively simple.

To be blunt, it goes like this. Don’t overthink it.

Many writers, when crafting characters, focus on getting them just right, so they have the perfect balance of skills, talents, idiosyncrasies, and personality traits that they are both marketable, and fit into the plot they way they need to. This is, generally, what writers are taught to do.

It’s also wrong. Terribly wrong.

The plot should be an outgrowth of the characters actions. In other words, the plot should serve the characters, not the characters serving the plot. This is something I learned from playing D&D, where the entire game revolves around the characters actions and choices. The characters must come first, and from them, the plot will flow naturally.

To be completely honest, the plot of a good story is almost irrelevant. It can be as simple, or as complex as you like, but if the characters aren’t well made, then it won’t matter. The story will still be boring. People don’t read books for plots. Well, some probably do, but most don’t.

People read books for characters. Not to say a well crafted plot isn’t a good thing. It is. Just that without equally well crafted characters, the plot alone can’t carry anything.

A simple and to the point plot can be exciting with well crafted characters, however. Because that’s what makes a story really live and breath. It’s the people we meet, become invested in, and their tale that holds us to the story. A plot can be anything, but characters have to be memorable.

Inserted for no reason at all.

This isn’t something can you do by putting them together like a Mr. Potato Head toy, either. Unless Mr. Potato Head is your protagonist, then I guess you can. That’s probably a whole different sort of story, though, so let’s leave that dog to sleep.

Good characters are, as I said, deceptively simple. The first thing you have to do is not overthink it. Start simple, with a basic idea of not how they fit into the plot, but who they are as a person. Are they sarcastic? Generous? Warm? Soft spoken? Ill tempered? Be broad with this, as when you first meet a person, you only get a broad sense of what they are like. It takes time to get to know a real person. It should take time to get to know your characters as well.

Once you have a general sense of personality, just spend time letting them sit in your head. In other words, visit with them. Talk to them. Imagine them talking to other people. It doesn’t even have to be related to the story. Write some off the cuff stuff with the character to get a sense of how they talk, move, act, and think. Just let it happen.

The trick to characters is to not try to make them marketable, but to make them people. Know them, like you would your oldest friend. Listen to them, because they will whisper to you. See them in your mind, picture how they stand, how they move, how and what they convey with their body language, facial expressions, and attitude. Be able to hear their voice when they speak, become comfortable with the tone, tenor, accent, speech patterns, and rhythm of it.

Know them, before you write a single word. No matter what happens, from that point on, as you write, the characters will always be consistent in how they are written, and their actions will flow naturally from that, to affect the story. It will live, and breath, and be real, because to you, as the writer, these aren’t characters, but people you know.

As I’ve been working on the second War Witch novel, and a couple other things, I’ve had a new idea tickling at the back of my brain, one featuring a primary cast of five characters. Fantasy, of course, because that will always be my first love. A thuggish, rude, and blunt warrior teams up out of necessity with a soft spoken cleric, a sarcastic sorcerer, a rogue who speaks in double entendre way more than is necessary, and a ranger with a penchant for looking at everyone like they are crazy, stupid, or both.

That’s the broad look at them. I’m letting them sit in my head, having conversations with each other, getting familiar with who they are, how they interact, and what keeps them together once the initial reason for them teaming up has passed. Why this incredibly disparate group of people would willingly decide to work together comes down to who they are as people.

Off and on , as I have time, I’ll write meaningless scenes of them doing common, every day things, like shopping, cooking, or just raveling from one city to another. I’ll let them speak to me, until I know them as well as I know myself. Only then, will I stop to wonder what the plot of the story is.

Because, as I said, the plot is, overall, meaningless. It can be anything, from simple, to complex. What matters is that these characters draw the reader in, and make them want to be a part of their journey.

Now, I’m sure other writers will be quick to point out that this is why I’ll never be anything but a mid-list author. I waste too much time on developing out characters in ways the plot will never call for. I don’t focus enough time on making sure the plot is mind blowing, or something. Whatever.

Honestly, I don’t care. I’m fine with never being crazy famous. If I can leave behind a body of work made up of rich, wonderful, annoying, compelling, characters, that’s enough for me.

Because to me, the characters are the real story.

The only story I’m really interested in telling.

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3 thoughts on “Write Right: Character Craft

  1. This is an excellent point you’ve made here, and something I think many creators don’t give enough importance to. An interesting and engaging character is essential for keeping the viewer invested in the story, more so than the plot that character is involved in.

    Where this gets dicey is in getting someone to jump into that story in the first place. There needs to be something to distinguish your work from any other where a rude blunt person and a soft spoken person come together to do something.

    I’m sure you could write an interesting story about two people like that cutting grass. But if all I know about your story is that they have to figure out a way to cut grass, I might not read it before I read something where maybe the grass is trying to swallow up cities to assimilate their contents into some kind of super grass (I tried to think of something on the spot. Also I’m not a writer)

    Would the latter story suck without good characters? Absolutely. More than likely, even. Will someone read about my two characters doing something boring? Maybe equally unlikely.

    Also is this other story for your D&D group?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are completely right. There does need to be more than just an Odd Couple type vibe to it.

      I admit, right now, I’m just trying to get a sense of these characters, and if they have a worthwhile story to tell. It’s entirely possible that this will come to nothing. That does happen. I’ve got more notes on possible story ideas than I’ll ever be able to finish in my life just because the more I dig into the characters, the less interesting they get.

      So, yes, engaging characters is just the first step. The next one is to figure out if they are more than just engaging. If they have a story to tell that can only be told with them. That’s usually where I find my actual plot, and the hard work starts.

      This other story isn’t for my D&D group, no, though do I have a few interesting characters lined up for them to meet, and the Goblin they had hanging around as a messenger has quickly turned into a character the whole party would rather like to keep around. So, sometimes, really good characters sort of just pop up on their own.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your point is well made. I definitely think there is something to be said for approaching character creation the same way that one gets to know a real person. It can seem counter-intuitive, since the person that exists today is shaped by experiences of the past, but unlike the real world, an author can build the present first, and discover the past later.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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