Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Character Building

This post features a guest blogger, Wendy Koenig. Wendy is a writer, poet, editor and quilter extrordinaire. When not busy pursuing the aforementioned, she operates a used bookstore from her home in Drummond, New Brunswick, Canada. For more information on Wendy, checkout her website at http://wlkoenig.com/ where you will also find links to her books.
Character Building
Wendy L. Koenig
People are multi-faceted. They all have hopes and fears, hates, likes and failures. Yet, when we think of their personalities, we tend to key on one or two dominant traits. We describe someone we know to another person as, "He's the pushy one." Or "She's so sweet, but a bit ditsy." It's what, in our minds, makes these people individuals to us.

So, too, the characters we write are multi-faceted. When we write them as such, they all blend one into another, with no personality distinctions. Their physical attributes are different, but you could probably swap around and notice little difference. The most recent rejection letter says, "Your characters are cookie cutter." Of course, in your mind, you (as the writer) see all these "people" as distinct.

Remember the way we describe people? Define your characters the same way. Give your hero two or three traits. That's all. Give him two good and one bad (or two bad and one good, if your character is evil). Lesser characters get fewer traits.

I'm currently working on a piece where my protagonist is gentle (good) and long-suffering in patience (good), but when he's had enough, he's brutal (bad). My antagonist, by necessity is almost the opposite: arrogant (bad) and insecure (bad), which makes him a bully. However, he's eventually willing to admit that he needs the protagonist's help (good).

Most of my stories are character driven, so even though there's a "bad guy" in my story, he's not necessarily the antagonist. In this story, he's a supporting character (they get only two traits, both consistent with which side of the moral question they're on): angry and consuming. I have another supporting character who is friendly and focused.

Two more characters round out my cast. Since they're both minor characters, they only get one trait. One is trusting and the other is in-love.
It's important to remember that sometimes stories change as we write them. A minor character could suddenly become important and move into a supporting character role. If this happens, give that character one more trait. But only one; you don't want to interfere with the importance of the primary characters.
Likewise, a supporting character may fall back to supporting status. In that case, focus on just one of his chosen traits.
The most important thing to remember: the place your character plays in the hierarchy. If you lose that, then your characters will begin to show too many traits and once again, they'll become cookie cutter people with different haircuts.

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