Thinking about characters

A week or two ago, I decided to focus on finishing the first complete draft of the book* instead of going back and strengthening the main character. I’m trying like hell to stick to that approach, however, I’m still trying to work out the main character as I do. As he’s present in these chapters, it’s pretty much unavoidable anyhow. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to put that character though different scenarios and see what works and what doesn’t. After all, I do have an idea about how I want to revise him, even if it isn’t the current focus of my energy.

With that in mind, I’m asking myself “How does one write a compelling character?” My book does have a few fairly well done characters, so I’m pretty sure my problem isn’t that I’m terrible at writing good characters. On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well on that score. It’s more a question of why one character is not done well, but another is.

One thing about the main character I’m struggling with is how he changes through the book. How should he grow? What is the change he undergoes? As a writer who is still really trying to master the craft, this is a pretty daunting pair of questions. Lacking the skill and experience to tackle these, I simply omitted certain personality details and worked to bring those out in later chapters. It’s not that I realized this is what was happening, if I had, I wouldn’t have done it that way. It’s only upon reflection that I’m able to see I was attempting to use omission of personality as a proxy for real change. Now, it’s not that my problem isn’t fixable, it’s just a matter of understanding what the change ought to be. The main character starts out the book avoiding his innate magical skill. By the end, he has managed to learn how to harness some of the most powerful aspects of this magic. There’s the change. I can make it big, and it’s pretty straight forward.

Another problem I had with the main character is that I started out the concept with two characters, friends and war-buddies. One of them I imagined as a free-wheeling, drinking and womanizing ruffian. The other, was more of a buttoned-up noble-born stiff. Early on in the project, I made a major change to the back-story. I gave the noble-born the ruffian’s back story and made it the beginning of the book. This was actually a break-through change for the story as a whole. It gave the thing a starting point and some conflict to ignite the larger fight. However, I made a mistake, which was that when I dropped that back-story on to the noble-born, the personality traits associated with the original character had to go with. Since I chose not to do that, I ended up with a mis-matched and incomplete personality coming through on the page.

To take this discussion further, I hit the books to see what might be learned there. I’m not talking about books on writing or writing characters, I’m talking about other fiction I’ve read and what struck me as being a particularly good example of characterization. There are a number of good examples, but my first thought was Dune. It was a book where I was blown away at how strong virtually every character was, from the very moment they walked into the scene. A good case example is Dr. Yueh. Over the course of six pages, Frank Herbert manages to introduce and draw Yueh as a tormented and unwilling participant in the Baron’s plans to utterly destroy the Atreides. What’s super interesting about this approach is that Herbert basically tells the reader what’s coming. Yueh is cursing himself for what’s coming, without directly or explicitly saying what that is. The Doctor acts and thinks in terms of the context he’s in without holding back. Nothing is muted to protect that bit of information from the reader until the writer is ready to spring it on them. Now, this is the important point. Because Herbert is not trying to hide what Yueh is up to from the reader, it allows him to more completely draw the character, highlight his anguish at being thrust into this situation.

The takeaway in this? When it comes to characters, don’t hold back.

For my situation, I think the solution is to make the main character’s evolution much more targeted, focused on the magic. He is not an uncertain person, and should not read that way. I know the context and history and so it shouldn’t be a horribly difficult task to write the character using that context as a framework. Just like the Dr. Yueh example, this will give a much more natural feel to those situations where the character reacts in a particular way, which is explained by his back story, but isn’t quite known by the reader.

* I have to call it a book now because it’s so close to being a full draft, I couldn’t rightly call it a story. Besides, I’m planning at least two more after, and in my mind, that’s the ‘story’.


7 thoughts on “Thinking about characters

  1. efrussel says:

    Oh, Dune. I loved Dune. Read it as a kid and reread it every couple of years to get something new out of it. Actually, glad you mentioned it, it’s about time to read it again.

    You bring up one of my favorite things about the writing in Dune here, actually. He handles a ‘Chosen One’ type character like people should–he doesn’t build a lot of suspense about whether or not Paul WILL become this Kwizatz Haderach. He saves that for questions we don’t already know the answer to (I mean, of course he will, otherwise, why are we reading the story?)–he saves his suspense for HOW it’s going to happen, and WHEN, and my favvy, WHY.

    You know Dr. Yueh is going to betray Duke Leto. You know it. The questions are how, and when, and that crunchy why.

    I find just asking WHY answers most of my character dilemmas. Why is this person doing what they’re doing? What’s going through his head? What is he remembering, reacting to?

    Had a similar problem with my character Jalith, who (surprise, surprise) grows up to unite a shattered country as a great king. He’s a calm, reserved, sweet-natured little person. It took me a long time to understand why he was able to do the things he did–or, more accurately, to understand that it wasn’t necessarily HIM doing them, but the people who believed in him, and worked to put him where he was. Until I figured it out (and edited. And edited. And edited.) the story rang false.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave S. Koster says:

      WHY? I ask myself this all the time as I work through, and yet I don’t think I am anywhere near actually answering the question. Excellent insight, it’ll torture me for days. Thanks!


  2. Character arcs are so hard! It seems to me that you have to truly know the motivations, the internal workings of the character in order to create that arc. The tricky part? I have to finish writing the story in order to know that character. Sounds like you are on the right track, though. And asking yourself all the right questions.
    Oh, and I love the Dune series. Thanks for the reminder- time to read them again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was having a similar problem.

      The whole “just throw it on the page” approach is seat of the pants, and it’s an approach, but I was having splendid conversation with a Published Author and they said offhandedly, “when I’m outlining etc”. And I thought, there’s a less painful way to do this? Fewer revisions? OUTLINING?

      I’m vaguely aware of outlining. They made me do it in the mists of time in HS/College. But for a novel?

      So I dug and researched and boom, found quite a bit of information on one method of outlining.

      The gist of it is take a pyramid approach, and you start with one sentence descriptions of each part of the book (beg., 3 acts, end), expand to a paragraph, then a page, and finally write a scene list. For your main characters, you write up their external/internal motivators, describe their role in the story, and go back to fix your story b/c after writing up the characters it’s going to change the story. Then back to your characters to write a one page description of each, then back to the story. Once you’ve hit equilibrium with your one page characters and your 5 page story synopsis, you can hit the scene list.

      Since you now know the exact roadmap of this beast, you can just write. What’s the next scene? And the characters, we know how each one wants to proceed. Introduce conflict cycles and you’re golden.

      Rather than write 85,000 words and then do major plot revisions, you have the plot already… um… plotted. [If you include a plant in your plot, does it become a plotted plant?]

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds great! Thanks for taking the time to outline this process (pun intended!). I still struggle with plotting- I can only flesh out the bones of a story- seems like I need the surprises that happen along the way. I spent more time plotting my last novel using the Snowflake Method. It was helpful, to a point. I’ll try your method next time. You never know what will click in this silly old brain of mine!
        And yes, if you include a plant on your plot it becomes a plotted plant!
        Thanks again for sharing-

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sue, that’s the gist of what I was describing, the snowflake method. The strongest part of it, for me, is getting your characters down. Those pesky character questions are also employed in milieu improv like ren fairs, where you have to have a goal for your character, a virtue, a defect, and then you need conflict to make it interesting to the audience. You can still have surprises, but you can get those during the character outlining process. First you had to write a paragraph about the character in the story, then you were to expand that to a page, and the page expansion is where you -should- be finding out the surprises and going back to fix your narrative. You still get the pleasure of the story changing, but it changes in a place where you aren’t doing thousands of words of rewrites.

        I think Randy’s method is an organized way to get to the objective. In the absence of an organized method, we take the Elephant approach: One bite at a time, and you know how that works. Maybe because this is a creative process, we tend to disregard that left brain approach because it feels stifling, but getting the two brain halves to talk means you’ll get a better product and your art will be that much better for it.

        PS: You can’t reply to a fourth level reply. Fah! (shakes fist at WordPress)


      • I’m not going to lie. This has been one of the most informative exchanges on this blog, thank you both for having it!!!


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