It’s actually pretty incredible, when you think about it. After all, they’ve managed to create a character, using only the 26 letters of the alphabet in various different arrangements. And you’ve totally bought into it. It’s a character that you relate to, and that ignites something within you.
How do they actually do it?
‘You Put Them a Journey’
I love this quote from Joss Whedon. When asked about creating good characters, he replied: “You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
It’s especially interesting, because it suggests that characters are in some way separate to their creators. When working on my Dr Ribero books, I often found that my characters did sort of follow their own path, which was most strange. It was as though, when I popped them ‘on paper’, they just got on with it, and told the story for me. (Now there’s an unsettling thought!).
Whedon’s comment is really astute though, because part of the reason we love good characters is their unique reactions to situations – particularly adversity. How much did we all feel for Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when she finds out her brother has betrayed them (not to mention doomed poor Mr Tumnus – eep!) And don’t we all love Frodo when he just keeps pushing through gruelling challenge after gruelling challenge to get rid of that sodding ring? What a legend.
Actions Speak Louder
To quote another great author, Chekov once said: “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
The great characters are the ones that we understand – that we relate to; and not through what they say, but how they act. A masterful creator of character doesn’t need to tell us what’s running through their protagonist’s mind – they show us with artful delicacy. We see it in a casual flick of a cigarette, a slug of beer, a glance at the door, a deep sigh. It’s as much about what’s not said, as what’s said. And that’s skilled character-creation.
The best characters are the ones that feel real. It doesn’t matter if they’re dragons. It’s irrelevant if they’re aliens from Planet X. What’s really important is that when you’re reading about them, you’re buying into their lives. You’re living their experiences with them. You’re understanding what motivates them, and you’re relishing the fact that they’re so utterly believable.
The Martian (Andy Weir), I book I read fairly recently, was a great example of an authentic character. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t poised to love the book. It didn’t sound at all my sort of thing. But I completely bought into the protagonist, because he was so authentically portrayed. His actions, his thought-processes, his desperate desire to survive – it all convinced me completely. And that’s important.
What Makes a Good Character?
Of course, as a first-time author, I don’t profess to be a master in this field. However, I’m certainly an experienced reader (an obsessive book-worm) and know a great character when I see one. It’s the person in the book who is:
- Convincing and authentic
- Interesting and engaging
- Not always as you’d expect them to be
- Instantly recognisable and unique
Of course, you don’t always have to like them. Some of my personal favourite characters have been complete and utter bastards, actually. But, even if you don’t like them, you still have to love them. And the very best characters should remain seared in your memory for a lifetime.