Creating Characters: The Little Things

When reading a novel, it’s always easier to slip into the story if there are what most people call “complex characters.” But when writing a novel, creating such characters isn’t as easy as it sounds. This fact is made evident by the seemingly hundreds of How-to’s that you can find on the internet.

Like any serious writer probably does, I’ve done my fair share of research on how to create the true complex character. The items you usually find on a Character Profile Questionnaire are important things, such as name, age, physical description, family members, temperment, and so on.And then you have the less important item, such as favorite food, favorite sport, favorite color, favorite pet, and so on. These character profiles are important starting places, because when you’re attempting to create something from nothing, you need a foundation to build off of. But where some people might go wrong is assuming that creating complex characters is as simple as a math equation — Trait X + Trait Y = Character A. Why is this a bad thing? Because there are always exceptions, and it’s important to know them. For example: I like cats, but I find sphynx cats a little creepy. I like dogs, but only big dogs; little dogs are too yappy. And these are only examples of the little things. Bigger items, such as a character’s temperament, are even more likely to have exceptions. But more on that later.

Smaller items such as favorite color or favorite animal are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Character X’s success probably won’t depend on his love for dogs, or for pizza, or for the color green.  X’s tendency towards impulsiveness might, though, since impulsive actions tend to have nasty consequences. So why are these smaller points even included in the character profile?

My original belief was that favorite questions, as well as other unimportant items, were pointless and didn’t really need to be answered. To a point, I still believe that. But complex character should be synonymous with fictional human being, (and this statement should generally still apply whether or not your character is actually human) and human beings are about as complex as they come. Even in fantasy novels, perhaps especially so, realistic characters are just as important as a realistic plot, and nothing screams realistic more than the author’s attention to detail. Allow me to explain.

Character X’s favorite color is green. Which means perhaps he has a tendency to wear clothing that is either green or just has green on it. Perhaps Character X is romantically inclined towards girls with green eyes. Perhaps Character X likes green because it reminds him of nature, where he is most comfortable, and his love of nature means that he’s not too terrified when he finds himself lost in the middle of a forest.

Or how about another example, one that you may be familiar with. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Peeta likes orange, like the sunset. This is a fact that he shares with Katniss on the train in the beginning of Catching Fire. After Peeta is hijacked, Katniss tries to show him how much she cared for him by listing several facts about him that she remembered. One of these facts is that he likes the color orange, like sunset. Knowing Peeta’s favorite color doesn’t make it any easier to defeat President Snow, yet it does allow her to connect with her love interest, to help undo the damage that had been done.

It’s important to remember that these favorite questions are almost certainly insignificant when it comes to the plot, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have an impact. What the Character Profile Questionnaires fail to remind new authors is that it’s not just about knowing their favorite color or favorite pet or favorite food. An author shouldn’t write in their story, “Character X’s favorite color is green.” I would probably even discourage saying something like “Character X loved this shirt because it was his favorite shade of green.”

Think the whole idea of show, don’t tell. Rather, perhaps you can say “Character X used to hate green. Mold was green, moss was green, grass stains were green… And then he met Character Y, who had these beautiful green eyes, like pine trees or freshly cut grass. It was her shade of green that became his favorite color.” This sort of description would be much better than my first two statements, because it actually connects his favorite color with the story, and characterizes him as a bit of a romantic. Basically, don’t feel the need to make this information obvious. Keep this knowledge in your head, and with any luck, the small things will just shine through on their own, and will help characterize your character in the process.

And while we’re on the topic of complex characters, I do think it’s important to note that many Character Profile Questionnaires ask what your character’s personality or temperament is. This is important information, extremely important, because you need to know exactly how your character acts when s/he’s in his/her element. But it’s also important to know what happens when they find themselves out of their element, and what sorts of scenarios they might go completely crazy and act completely different than their normal selves. For example, in my work-in-progress, Dire Fate, one of my main characters is fairly calm and laid-back even in high-stress situations. But if you talk negatively about his family, or if you threaten the people he cares about, he completely loses his cool.

Knowing when your characters act a certain way, and when they don’t act that way, and why there’s a difference in their personality in these different scenarios, is just as essential as knowing their general personality.

Basically, when crafting a character, especially a main character or an antagonist, remember that it’s not just about answering these individual questions. You have to look at your character and picture him/her as a whole person, rather than  the sum of these questions. People aren’t math equations, and your characters shouldn’t be either.

So, loyal readers, what do you think is the most important aspect of creating complex characters? What books have you read recently that included complex characters, and what about them stood out to you?


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