“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”
– Rudyard Kipling
Every writer does things a little bit differently, and that’s just as true of building/creating characters as it is of any other task in the writer’s list. That being said, there are still some common elements that we as writers can talk about when it comes to the creatures of our minds that inhabit our stories.
So how do characters come to light? To my mind, there are three basic paths you can take to create characters, none of which are mutually exclusive.
First, characters can grow out of world building. If you’re a writer who spends much time creating a self-consistent story universe before you begin writing the story, you may well create the universe first, then ask yourself what kind of people would inhabit it. I know of several authors for whom this would appear to be their favorite method, but probably the most well-known example of this would be J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Tolkien first invented the amazing languages in his stories, then tried to imagine what kind of people would speak them. Out of that grew the stories that served as bedrock for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Second, characters can grow out of situations. This tends to be very true of writers who tightly plot their stories, from what I can tell. If you’ve got this great idea for a end of civilization as we know it story, what kind of character would tell it?
And third, sometimes the characters steps onto center stage in your mind, full-blown, full-grown, out of seemingly nowhere. This tends to happen a lot with writers who are pantsers. (Raises hand. Happens to me a lot.) The problem then is trying to figure out what story needs to be told for that character.
There’s going to be more posts later this month about specifics of characters and characterizations. I’d like to spend the rest of this one dealing with one thing we as writers sometimes don’t think about very much.
I’ve often heard it said that one of the keys to successful story telling is having believable characters. That’s true, as far as it goes. But in today’s reading environment, it’s just as important-if not more so-that characters be ‘connectable’. In other words, do the readers connect with them-do they feel what the characters feel? If your readers don’t feel some kind of empathy for at least one of the characters in your story-preferably the hero-it’s not going to succeed. But for your readers to connect with your characters, you have to connect with them first.
Case in point: Marion Zimmer Bradley told an anecdote on herself in a story introduction she wrote for a story in The Best of Randall Garrett (edited by Robert Silverberg, Timescape Books, 1982). She was talking about the friendship she had with Randall, and how many times and ways he had helped her. At one point she tells of being five chapters into writing a new novel. It wasn’t going well, and she could tell that it wasn’t going well, but she couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It was driving her nuts. So she drove over to Randall’s house, handed him the manuscript, and asked him to tell her what was wrong. She waited while he read the five chapters. His response after doing so was as follows:
“Honey, you know what’s wrong with this book? It’s written very well and it’s a nice idea. But your hero is a klutz. Nobody wants to read about a klutz.” (The Best of Randall Garrett, page 44.)
Marion concluded the anecdote by saying that she immediately recognized that his critique was valid, that she rewrote all five chapters to make the hero into a different person, and the rest of the writing went smoothly.
I told you that story to make the point that no reader is going to connect with a character that we as writers don’t connect with, that we don’t understand, that we don’t have some form of empathy for. It doesn’t matter if they’re bad guys or good guys. It doesn’t matter if we built the characters like Legos in the world building process, if we discovered them dealing with disaster, or if they sprang full-grown from our foreheads in search of a story like Athena from the brow of Zeus. If we don’t feel them, if we don’t understand them, if we don’t connect with them, our readers won’t either, and the story will fail.
If you want your stories to work, you don’t necessarily have to like your characters, but you do need to understand them and feel something for them. This will come through in your writing.
I’ve definitely had those moments. I think that if at any point you stop feeling connected to your own character, the story will lose its emotion, regardless of what is happening with the plot. Even in the middle of a novel. Thanks for the post, David.
The writer needs to feel connected to tell a great tale while the reader needs to feel connected to not only stay with the novel, but to feel that the experience is somehow their own. The challenge for a writer is to lean and grow with the character so that ultimately, the reader experiences catharsis. Staying connected is key. Great post David!
Perfect timing, David! I was feeling a little ambivalent about my characters right now and that just won’t do. So, reassessing and finding some LOVE for them, so my readers will too.
I had this happen in a movie I was watching recently – I quit a little more than halfway through, which is unusual for me. I realized that even though the main character was in deep trouble, I didn’t feel empathy. I didn’t like the guy so it didn’t really bother me that he was in trouble. It wasn’t interesting enough to me so the story unraveled.