Characters, how to make them, and how not to

Posted by Shannon Haddock on October 26, 2014 in Jake's Last Mission, NaNoWriMo, Rants, Writing process |

This is one of those posts that’s probably not going to be very interesting to non-authors.  Sorry about that.

What’s your character’s favorite color?  His favorite song?  His favorite piece of clothing?  Describe his first kiss. Describe his first sexual experience.  Who is his hero?

These questions look familiar to any other authors reading this?  I’m sure they do.  The internet is full of all these allegedly handy character bios/sheets/questionnaires/interviews that are supposed to be THE key to crafting well-rounded, realistically deep  characters.  (Though, to be fair, I am suddenly seeing lots more that say they help but it isn’t necessary to answer every question.)

Oh, excuse me, the ones that specify deep ask things like “What is his long term goal?” and “What is his most horrible vice?” too.

I think my tone makes clear what I think of these sorts of things.

Let’s look at a character I’ve had a reviewer describe as well-developed:  Mithoska Jake Kavaliro. (By the way, if my readers could be so kind as to go click Yes on the actually helpful Amazon reviews of Jake’s Last Mission I’d appreciate it a lot.  Some jerk clicked No on all the four and five star ones, helpful or not, a while back, so what’s showing first by default are the lowest.  I’m pretty sure this has something to do with why it abruptly quit selling.)

I do know a lot about him, but I’m willing to bet I can’t answer most of the things on one of these whatever-you-want-to-call-its.  I’m going to choose one, fairly at random, and see.  (I collect these and other writing tools that I find useless.  I’m not sure why.)

Questions taken from https://www.bcasino.co.uk.

Let’s see, name, that’s easy.  Mithoska Jake Kavaliro.

Nickname, none that I know of, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have any.

Hair color?  Red that’s going gray.

Eye color . . . green, I think?  Or is it brown?  Never mattered, so not mentioned in JLM.  I probably should try to remember where I wrote it down though.

Distinguishing facial features . . . none.

Birthmark . . . see, this is where I part ways with these things.  It doesn’t matter to me at all if Jake has a birthmark.  It certainly doesn’t matter to my readers.  If I didn’t know him yet at all, would answering yes or no about it help me get a handle on him?  Probably not, because presence or absence of a birthmark does not tend to be a thing that shapes who a character is.

Let’s skip down some . . . “Where does your character go when he’s angry?”  Wow, look at the assumption built into that one!  When Jake is angry, he doesn’t go anywhere.  Generally, he deals with what made him angry in ways that are not always as diplomatic as they should be.

Skipping some more . . . oh, unconventional questions that’ll dig deeper!  What’s in his refrigerator?!  I have no fucking clue!  I can barely tell you what’s in my refrigerator, much less a character that lives on a spaceship currently patrolling several hundred light years from here!  I’m willing to bet I can’t identify much in it.  Making up stuff to be in it could be a neat bit of world-building, but it’s not exactly helpful for building a character.

Skipping some more . . . what smell does he associate with his childhood kitchen?!  Again with the assumptions.  I don’t associate any smell with my childhood kitchen, so I’m not going to think of this.  In fact, due to a lifetime of hayfever and sinus infections, I tend to not remember to describe smells at all because they play such a little part in my life.  Though I am now pondering whether or not the kitchen was even a separate room in the hovel Jake grew up in, so I suppose this questionnaire isn’t completely useless.  But again, that’s world-building, not character building.

That one wasn’t as bad as some, but it’s still pretty bad, and it’s associated with a writing course.  Think about that.

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret about how to make good characters here, characters people care about and can identify with and all that other good stuff:  Don’t build them.  Let them develop organically.  Oh, sure, you can start with some stuff, but don’t bog yourself down with minutiae and deep philosophical questions right off the bat.

Let’s look at Quinn, one of the narrators of my NaNoWriMo project.  Here’s what I knew about him until two years ago, despite him having existed in the rpg version of the setting since 2007ish:  Looks a lot like Antonio Banderas, upper class Ruvellian, walking Ruvellian stereotype — suave, good with a blaster and sword, ladies’ man, Dagger.

After he first made an appearance in something I was writing, I can add:  Ruvellian noble, plays up the stereotypical aspects of his personality, former professional gambler, in love with <spoiler> though he doesn’t want to admit it, non-smoker.

After writing some very short stuff just trying to get a feel for his voice to know if I could write a whole novel with him as a narrator, I now know:  the name of his first love, where he played his first professional card game, and that he’d wanted to be a pirate captain as a child (on Ruvellia this is seen as a perfectly laudable career).  The only thing about him I’ve actually sat down and worked out was how high ranking a noble he was, and a bit about his family, and that was only because I needed that to know how an idea would work out.

I have no idea what his favorite song is.  I don’t even know what his favorite sort of music is.  I know he likes to dance, though that’s never come up in a story, but when it comes to he and music, that’s all I know.  I have no clue about his favorite color, what his childhood kitchen smelled like . . . none of that is things that have ever mattered to me.  If I get to a point where any of that matters, I’ll make it up then.  Or if I ever care, I’ll make it up or figure it out then.

A challenge for the other authors reading this:  Find one famous professional author who does something like those character sheet thingies before they write.  I’m almost willing to bet you can’t.

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  • “If I get to a point where any of that matters, I’ll make it up then. Or if I ever care, I’ll make it up or figure it out then.”

    Exactly! I hate those questionnaires (I don’t CARE what my protagonist’s favorite food is — I don’t even have a “favorite food” myself), and I have never found them in any way helpful for character development. Perhaps some people who are new to this whole storytelling thing need some place to start, though, and the questionnaire, although not useful as what it actually is, does give them a comfortable beginning point. Part of the problem — for me, anyway — is that a lot of the questions on typical character creation questionnaires assume that the CHARACTER is typical, too: someone who lives in a setting pretty much the same as the one in which the author and readers live. There’s no allowance for characters who live on other planets, or in fantasy settings, or who may not even be the same species as the author…

  • “. There’s no allowance for characters who live on other planets, or in fantasy settings, or who may not even be the same species as the author…”

    Yeah, I had something about that in an earlier draft of this post, in fact, but I’m thinking of saving that for a whole post about useless writing advice that assumes your story is present day with a teen or young adult protagonist.

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