The Editors of Writer’s Digest’s Creating Characters is a book full of the advice of various authors that I picked up to help with my own writing process, which tends to be sporadic at best, and one that I have flipped through often in search of any sort of idea that could help me. Unfortunately, I have not succeeded in writing a book yet – which is not the fault of this guide – but my time spent hunting through Creating Characters has left some impressions on me. Here are some sections – and the authors that wrote them – that helped me, or were at least memorable for whatever reason.
I feel a bit odd adding my opinion to the work of actual authors, so I feel the need to add that my contribution should be taken as part of a discussion and not as being automatically correct. Feel free to disagree with them.
Characters – Chuck Wendig
The character is important! It makes sense that this would be a significant feature, given that this is a book about characters, and if characters were not important, then the book wouldn’t matter. Perhaps this is a bit of self-advertising?
Anyway, I’ve always been a person who reads books based on its characters, but a part of me wonders whether other people prefer books with incredible plots where the characters don’t matter as much. I think of video games when I say this, where some games aren’t necessarily character-driven, but still appeal to players. (I have spent many long hours researching character-driven games, which is why this is the example that came to me, even if it doesn’t equate perfectly with books.)
So, really, I think it’s an issue of preference, but if you’re trying to appeal to readers of character-driven books, then you better develop your characters well or you will have problems. (Though since plots need characters to experience them, you cannot entirely differentiate between the two.)
Character Likability – James Scott Bell
For some reason, the concept of character likability bothers me, even though I understand what it means. I would never want to read a book featuring an absolutely horrible protagonist; it would just be upsetting and painful. I think it bothers me because I dislike the idea of people telling me what type of characters I should write. Does likability mean that my characters can’t be queer, be people of color, be disabled, or anything that follow the white, cis, able-bodied male template. This isn’t what Creating Characters is saying at all, but I can’t help but worry about it. And is even possible for a character to be universally likable?
Character hierarchy – Orson Scott Card
Character hierarchy in the context of this book is basically a reflection of characters’ roles in their particular story. Background characters, such as the people walking down the street at the same time the protagonist is, act more as pieces of the setting than as actual characters, while minor characters have traits that make them more memorable, but still don’t necessarily have large parts to play. According to the section, stereotypes keep characters in the background because they make them unnoticeable, which feels like it could be part of a larger commentary but isn’t. Isn’t everyone significant, but their subtleties are lost when we don’t bother to get to know them? I suppose if I ever want to write anything I’ll have to get used to keeping my background characters from invading, but it is a process I have yet to master.
Change – Nancy Kress
Basically, this section takes the concept of static and dynamic characters and expands on them, which is really helpful for examining where you want your characters to end up. I, personally, have a difficult time keeping track of what direction my characters are going at any given moment while writing, but having a clear way to sort them helps me think more clearly about what I want from them, helps me start from a stable base. For example, if I have a character whose goal must remain the same for whatever reason, but whose motivations change over time (The section refers to this as “Oregon or Bust”), then it might be helpful for me to have an easy category to place this character in so I have a clearer end goal in mind for them. While putting characters into boxes is always an imperfect system, it might be a good place to start.
Romance – Victoria Lynn Schmidt
My understanding of romance is poor at best, so I think that’s probably why I paid close attention to this section, but I’ve always found it a bit unsatisfying. It isn’t until recently I’ve had any idea why. A significant section of the chapter sorts relationships by power dynamics, which include the man having power, the woman having power, and both having power. First off, the whole idea is incredibly heteronormative, but also I feel like looking at relationships that way is one of the most unromantic things I can think of. While maybe this is accurate in some instances, aren’t there better ways to categorize it?
On a similar note, the section lists parts of a romance, including one called ‘submission’. What even is submission? Why does this portrayal of love sound like being thrown in a dungeon?
External vs Internal Motivations and Conflicts – Joseph Bates
Like the section on change and the character hierarchies, the external vs. internal events section is another way to organize ideas. The book even has nice charts where you can fill in your characters’ experiences at different points in your book. I usually think of characters’ internal motivations as part of the character but adding in the external events that affect them helps me ground myself a bit and reminds me to connect what is happening in my characters heads to the events of the story and prevents my characters from spiraling off into existential doom.
I’ve tried some of these ideas and created thousands of lists of character information, but it has yet to be much help to me, but I write it here in the case that it is helpful to you. Maybe character charts are the key to writing your novel. It might be worth a shot.