by Bill Jones
I confess. When it comes to books, I am a people person. No matter how unique and interesting the story, if the characters don’t hold my interest, I will likely never finish the book. For one thing, I am not a particularly fast reader. If I invest 400 pages of my life in a novel, I want it to be about characters I care about, if not love.
And there it is. The “L” word.
We want to love our characters, don’t we? When you think of Moby Dick, do you think of a story about a bunch of sailors, or do you remember the obsessed Captain Ahab, in pursuit of his personal demon, the white whale? We remember the book, because we love how insane the good Captain is. Unlike real life, we don’t even have to like our characters in order to fall in love with them. Few would admit to feeling warm fuzzies about Hannibal Lector, yet we devoured books and movies about his exploits as if they were served with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
So how do we do it? How can we create characters that are memorable? How do we make readers fall in love?
In my series, The Stream, I feature two main Characters, Charlie Patterson, a shy 12-year-old struggling with internal conflicts, and Robin LeBeaux, his quirky best friend, who is outgoing if a bit odd. Now it is my belief that characters that carry the lead in a book need to be larger than life. If they are ordinary, frankly, why should anyone read it? We see ordinary people every day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read 250 pages about my accountant.
However, we have to be careful that while making them “interesting,” they remain believable. This is the thin line we writers must walk, or risk our leads become comic book characters, or worse, stereotypes. Even comic book characters, when well-written, have traits that seem real to us. This is the balance we need to create.
Let’s take Charlie, for instance. His initial goal in life is to fit in, preferably to disappear. Sadly for Charlie, and happily for us, in order to fit in, one has to be “ordinary.” He is not. In order to make my lead memorable, I used Myers-Briggs Type Indicators to build a character profile that was consistent and believable. Then I twisted it. I gave him two distinct personality types that are in conflict with one another. He has a constant inner dialogue going between his preferred logical side, and his equally strong, but unwanted, emotional side. Finally, just for fun, I let the readers listen on this dialogue, even giving each side their own name – Chuck vs. Charlene.
For Robin, I took a different tact. She is trying to overcome personal tragedy – the loss of her sister and father in a car accident. This is the source of her inner conflict and dialogue. Again, I used Myers Briggs to choose a personality type, ENFP in her case. Now ENFP’s have, according the experts, “what some call a silly switch.” So in order to make her memorable, I turned Robin’s silly switch way up. And voila, you have a girl with a dark past, and personal demons, in balance with a bubbly, outgoing, playful personality.
Being a visual person, I find it easier to write “my peeps” when I know what they look like. So after deciding whom they are, I search the internet for photos of them. By now they are real enough that I’ll know them when I see them. At home, I use a 27-inch Mac, and the only things on my desktop are a full-screen photo of my WIP’s current scene, and thumbnails of my main characters.
It’s love, I tell you, love!
Once the characters are defined, all that’s left is placing them in interesting situations. I recommend battles with warm-blooded dragons in a vivid world of dreams, for a start, as in The Stream: Discovery (*cough* Shameless plug *cough*)
Obviously there are different ways to do this. My suggestion for writers is simply to remember that people don’t come in carefully chosen categories. In real life, “strong silent types” have friends they’ll talk their heads off to. That distinguished-looking Indian gentleman in the next office loves to play soccer on the weekends with the grandkids – and cheats, because he hates to lose. Real people, like good characters, break molds. They are fun, and flawed, and a bit inconsistent. Use that, and don’t forget to give them small details. Those are the ones people will remember.
For readers, my advice is simpler. If the book develops a tad slower than you expect, but the characters are rich, and full, even quirky, hold on and see where the author is going. You may just meet one of the loves of your life.