When it comes to a great story (be it on the page or the screen) one of the main reasons we consider it “great” is because of the characters. A strong underlying premise, well-rendered scenes, and fascinating plot events are all huge pluses, and should never be overlooked; however, when all is said and done, great stories are built upon a firm bedrock of great characters.
As a novelist, developing characters lies at the heart of my work. This task also happens to be my favorite part of the job, and every time a new figure is about to appear, a giddy sense of excitement overtakes me. To some extent, this is because new characters open narrative paths, while also acting as vehicles to reveal dimensions of my world. Additionally (and not an insubstantial incentive) I’ve usually been living with the little buggers for so long inside my mind, it’s a relief to finally let them out!
However, the main reason I get so excited about character development is the fact that the deep digging required to unearth complex, fictional personalities, presents a profound opportunity for me to dig around inside my nonfictional self. And this is where I’d like to go with this topic—the source material for all good characters: ourselves.
If you are an artist who routinely creates characters, or a person who simply likes telling stories, or even someone who has a habit of spinning an amusing anecdote at the start of a presentation, I’m going to give you a little tip that has been integral to my own character creation process. To generate a great character, build this individual from pieces of yourself.
Not all of yourself (blatant replicas are rarely desirable), but from select, relevant bits, and this can be done irrespective of gender, age or race. Adjustments have to be made for all of the above, obviously, but in the end, human is human, and we can always cull out our common denominators. Even if you’re creating a character that isn’t exactly human, it will be the recognizable emotional and psychological qualities in that creation that will make them come to life.
Sometimes a character is based on someone we know, or a figure we have witnessed in some other context, and that’s fine. We can start there, but eventually, to feel and think and experience like they do (all critical components when building multi-dimensional beings), we’ll want to find those intangibles inside ourselves.
And here comes another tip: while plucking forth your little medley, chose a few pieces that don’t fit together perfectly. In fact, with a truly pivotal character, I suggest you go so far as to grab a couple of traits that actually grind against each other, causing friction. This is how you’ll produce the most dynamism, plus you’ll achieve the greatest realism and relatability that way.
Let’s face it, who among us doesn’t have a degree of friction and incompatibility hiding somewhere inside? If a storyteller can manage to connect to that part of us, then they have definitely outperformed at their job!
Copyright 2024 Peter Eliott and Further Press. All rights reserved.