How to Create Authentic Characters

Motivation in Character Design
Motivation in Character Design

 

Last week, we talked about using the right details to convey meaning. I mentioned starting your novel with characters and weaving the plot between them. But how do you build those characters?

Character design can be one of the most creative, exciting parts of writing. It can also be the most challenging, or the most frustrating—especially if you would rather jump right into the story. It helps to structure your character definition process. Worksheets can be useful, but only the right worksheets. If you’ve spent any time looking for writing resources on the internet, you’ve probably come across a lot of free documents that promise to help you structure character. They ask you to define how the character looks, what their favorite foods are, stuff like that. Superficial stuff. Those kinds of details can be fun, and it doesn’t hurt to include them, but what you really need to keep track of is motivation.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Think about yourself. Why are you reading this? Maybe you’re here because you want to learn something more about writing. Maybe you’re motivated by a long-term goal you want to achieve. Or maybe not. Either way, there’s a reason you’re reading this, as there is for every action you take. It’s true in stories as in real life. Characters do everything for a reason. That’s what makes them real.

So where do you start?

One | History lesson: It’s good to have a general idea of the character’s entire past. This is information that probably won’t be put into the actual story, but it help to have as a reference along the way. Where was the character born? What language do they speak? What was their family like life? Knowing everything you can about your characters and their pasts can help you understand their motivations. That enables you to define their actions. If you figure all this out beforehand, it’ll be easier to keep continuity later on in the writing process. That means less changes you’ll have to make during the revision process.

Two | Desires: Now that you’ve defined each character’s past, you can figure out what they want. Think about how their life experiences have affected them. What motivates them more than anything else in the world? Sometimes what it first appears to be on the surface can be different than how the character actually feels. And sometimes one goal is a gateway to a greater one. For example, your protagonist might be an ambitious businessperson who seems only to be obsessed with the next promotion. That might be the face he or she wears externally. But their secret, internal motivation might be to make enough money to retire early and become a full-time artist. Those are the kinds of secrets that you, the writer, need to know. That’s the real motivation.

Once you have a character’s history and defining motivations figured out, you have a basic outline for their personality. This it what informs their actions. Multiple characters will act and react based off each other, in ways specific to and determined by their personalities. This interaction is what creates the plot.

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Detail and Narrative Focus

Detail and Narrative Focus — The Novel Plan
Detail and Narrative Focus — The Novel Plan
The Experience of Time in Narrative

 

The author’s responsibility

When we write stories, we ask readers to invest their time into our world. This is a significant gift and must be respected. We must write only what is important, interesting, and meaningful to the narrative. The rest can be cut out. So—since you can’t show every single event and action that happens through a character’s life—how can you invoke the feeling of time passing meaningfully?

We’ll start with how you build your story. Don’t start with plot. The plot is simply a series of events that happen because of characters interacting with each other, driven by their motivations. Start with character, and you’ll have a reason to create these events. Discover what each character’s desires and motivations are. Sometimes these desires work in harmony with the goals of others, sometimes against. It is these actions and interactions between characters that create the plot; the struggle between characters and achieving what they want.

This struggle takes time within your narrative. A writer shapes how the reader perceives time by selecting and showing the right details. Some writers may choose not use the same number of pages to cover six months as they would use to cover six minutes. But it is possible to cover vastly different amounts of time in the same page count, because time is not always limited by words and sentences. Sometimes, using the right words in a passage—meaning, details relative to the characters—shapes an experience of time that is different from passages of identical length that focus on irrelevant details.

Say you are writing a story about the six minutes the passengers of a jetliner collectively experienced right before crashing, and then the six months one passenger spent after. You might have a lot of important details to get through during those six minutes leading up to the crash. You could probably write a whole novel within the span of those six minutes. Depending on what you are trying to show, you might spend the same amount of page-time for the next six months. Sure, you might use more, but maybe you’d even use less. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve and say. The point is, you have to consciously construct your sentences and paragraphs in such a way as to accurately match the time being passed—as well as the significance of the events within.

When you write, you are filming a movie with words. Ask yourself this: “What’s my focus on? Where should it be?” By writing a detail, a sound, a line of dialogue, you are saying that it is important. It deserves the reader’s time. You are focusing on it.

Focus on what matters.

If you were a movie director, you wouldn’t put in a detail shot of a character zipping up his fly in the restroom, of how many tiny, little, brass teeth their are, of how they are all connected together… when all the character is really thinking about is the big board meeting in ten minutes or maybe the next football game. You can justify that shot if that’s the kind of thing the character would think about, if he’s like the protagonist in Stranger than Fiction who counts the strokes of his toothbrush, but otherwise you’d be pointing your lens at something irrelevant to the story. Unless you’re making some sort of statement about the ignored details in life, you wouldn’t include that scene for a character who doesn’t think about these sorts of things. If you did, you’d be focusing on something that doesn’t matter. It’s like lying to the reader—your audience. By including that detail, you’re saying, “Look at this, this is important!” When really, it’s not.

By only showing what is significant to your story and crucial to its flow, you respect the reader’s time. Remember: by including a detail—even just a word—in your story, you are saying that it is important. Without it, your story would be somehow less whole. Otherwise it should be cut out. In this way, only significant events are focused on, and events with greater significance can be given more page-time. But only if there’s actually something interesting to write about it. Remember to focus on the right things. The fact that a character got a ‘D’ on her exam might be significant to the narrative, but don’t try to show this with a five-page expository on what that piece of paper looks like and how smooth it feels and the comments her teacher wrote, word-for-word. Showing a scene in greater detail makes it physically longer. A scene with many details will take a reader longer to get through. Not only does it take up more page-time, it takes up more of the reader’s time. Be aware of that. Only tell the reader what they need to know.

[It’s up to you to define what details are important. See the exercise at the end for more on this.]

The lesson here is that scenes and events should only take up as much page-time as necessary to showcase all the important details, actions, and interactions within. No more, no less. But since the physical space given to a scene does not necessarily correlate with the length of time over which it took place, then how can we show the sequence of time in narrative?

Easy. Again, we’re talking about details. The right details. If your narrative spans the months of April to November, what changes during that time? The seasons, for one. Your characters are aging (probably, if they are human). Although changes due to age might not be as perceptible in such a short time period, they are certainly noticeable in narratives that span years and decades. I recently read A Little in Love by Susan E. Fletcher and her main character ages from a toddler into a young woman. This is apparent in her physicality, but perhaps even more so in her personality. Even over shorter periods of time, a character’s personality can—and probably should—develop. Again, it’s all in the details you show. Choosing the right details allows you to demonstrate the passing of time.

Let’s recap

– Include the right details to convey the passing of time within your narrative
– Important, interesting events and details get more page-time
– Focus your lens on what matters
– Respect the reader’s time

Exercise: How to choose the right details

Go through a page of your writing and highlight details you’ve included. Ask yourself why they are important. Do they tell something about the way a character thinks or the way they perceive the world? Maybe a certain detail provides the means for a later action or tells something about the setting that helps indicate a reason behind the character’s personality. There are many ways a certain detail can be important to your story. It’s up to you to decide what to put in and why.

 

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Subscribe to The Novel Plan’s future blog posts on writing, creativity, design, and marketing. You’ll hear from us with original, educational content and updates. Thank you, and be sure to join in the conversation on Twitter @TheNovelPlan for writing news, tips, motivation, and more.