Character Building

building characterNovels are often described as being either plot-driven or character-driven. This is something that may confuse the aspiring or new writer. Surely all plot-driven novels have characters, and character-driven novels have plots. Often I feel that this description is applied when the reviewer comes across a character that stands out (so the work is character-driven) or not (plot-driven). I think this is a somewhat short-sighted approach – I’ve yet to meet an author who doesn’t try to make their characters believable. So let’s take a look at why some succeed and others don’t.

First off, despite all the effort that I put into defining my characters, their backstory, etc., before broaching the white expanse of my computer screen with a single black smudge, I have to acknowledge that my characters will take on a life of their own as the tale evolves. Some will grow stronger and dominate the page (like an exceptional performance from a seasoned theatre actor) causing others to fade away; others, perhaps, will show themselves as distinct from how I envisaged them initially. It’s part of the Yin/Yang of writing fiction, I suppose. But there’s one Golden Rule about your characters that you should never break:


The subway car rocked its passengers violently, a portent of the near future as the skinheads marched down the narrow aisle towards the only two passengers. The first, a man in his mid-thirties with short, dark hair and biceps straining the cotton threads of his T-shirt, looked up from the book he was reading. The taller of the louts extracted a short blade from the pocket of his ripped jeans then unleashed a savage kick at the man’s crossed legs.

“What’s up, Pop? ‘and over yer wallet now!” Another kick punctuated the demand. The skin’s partner stationed himself to the passenger’s right, cutting off any escape. He also now brandished a knife.

Neither assailant saw the other passenger lay down her knitting, remove her half-glasses and stand. The woman pushed back an errant wisp of thin grey hair from her face and stepped closer to the trio.

“You should leave him alone before you regret it.” The phrase matched her frail form yet drew the attention of the two attackers.


Okay. What’s wrong with the above?

We have an elderly lady taking on two armed thugs on a deserted subway train while the beefed-up younger male passenger does nothing. Sound credible? What do we know about the characters that could justify their reactions to the mugging? Does this piece make you wonder just who the old lady is (as perhaps the author intended) or does it just not click as realistic? What are we missing here? Is the author trying too hard for suspense and surprise and, in doing so, forgotten that readers need to believe in the characters and their actions?

Taking a step back, I’ll let you into a secret for creating solid characters. I call it the ‘Who Am I?’ approach. Grab a piece of paper and try this as you read now. Ready? Now look at yourself in a mirror. What do you see? Not the reflection of your physical image, but the persona behind it. Note down the YOU that you see in that mirror. Confused? Okay, let’s take an example:

I look in the mirror and see: a guy of medium height; youthful complexion for his age (why?); signs of his having been extremely fit yet the years are removing that edge (why?); piercing light grey/blue eyes that seem to catalogue and analyse you as a potential threat/friend (why?); faint laugh lines around the corners of the eyes; broad shoulders, thick wrists and strong forearms (why?); looks to be confident in his ability to handle any curve balls Life throws at him (why?);…

The most important in the above are the answers to the why questions. If I were a character in one of my novels, what has made me like that? The answers are not to be found in the mirror, but in my life history or backstory as we scribblers call it. Some of the answers: I have trained in combat martial arts (not competitions) for over forty years; have successfully dispatched three armed muggers over the course of time; have fought as many as ten people at the same time and emerged victorious; have worked with police, military and intelligence agents; have also handled many confidential projects for multinational companies in a variety of countries around the world. No, I’m not James Bond.

You can now see that, had you been aware of that up-front, you would have not asked why? I certainly don’t appear to be someone who can handle himself, as the muggers quickly discovered (the old lady in the extract) yet appearances can be deceptive, and as a writer I could use this for my fictional me, as long as I have laid the groundwork first.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his ‘8 Rules for writing fiction’ remarked that writers “should give the reader as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense.” I don’t entirely subscribe to this, yet there is a grain of truth there, and, when it comes to creating characters, that grain is called credibility and is often to be found in the company of a near relative called motivation.

Back to the tale: is the old lady going to bravado it out with the punks or is she going to whup their asses? Which would be the more credible to you? We’ve all come across feisty old ladies, either in fiction or in real life, who seem to throw caution, and personal safety, to the wind when faced with society’s dregs. Yet if the old dear suddenly did a Rambo on the two louts, would it automatically switch off your believable meter? I remember a similar scene in a movie of a few years back – ‘The Fourth Protocol’ (based on the excellent Frederick Forsyth book of the same name) where Sir Michael Caine was the ‘old lady’ and he suddenly beat up the punks on the subway. The scene worked extremely well; there was suspense, tension, expectancy, just as intended. Why did it work? Because Caine’s character’s actions were foreshadowed by the film’s opening scenes where we see him as a top MI5 agent breaking into a house at New Year. The key: the Foreshadowing of his skills: if he can do that then maybe he can beat up the punks too and not lose any credibility.

Back to the old lady; what do we have foreshadowed about her? Her knitting and little else. Had she gone after the skinheads with her knitting needles, perhaps it would have been more believable.

Show just what is Character Foreshadowing?

When you know the outline of your story, list out the characters you think you will need. Then separate them into 3 groups – I call these Primary, Secondary and Tertiary (original, isn’t it?). The Primary group is comprised of your protagonists and antagonists and is usually few in number. These are the people who will inhabit the majority of the pages of your novel and whose actions will propel the story forward to its conclusion. The Secondary group are the strong supporting actors, such as the protagonist’s boss/mission giver, for example, and the people your heroes and villains interact with most (the supporting actors). Their role is to maintain the movement of the story. Finally we are left with the extras – not just crowd-fillers, but characters that don’t have major roles to play, and if they interact with the Primary Group’s members, it is on a very limited basis. Their sole purpose in the tale is to create a background against which the story moves (if it’s a murder mystery, one of these would be the victim perhaps). An example?

My thriller ‘Full Disclosure’ is structured into three distinct parts. These are called The Past, The Present (where most of the events take place over a period of five days) and The Future (where I jump forward a little to tie up the tale). In The Past, I introduce the US President, his National Security Advisor, an Army General, an assassin called Anson Moore, and two Secret Service agents. There are also a few Tertiary characters such as the President’s daughter, a hotel manager, another Secret Service agent, a murder victim and another nameless body. Anson Moore and the President are Primary character, each moving in two interacting story lines throughout the tale; the rest are Secondary characters. How did I foreshadow the two protagonists? I wanted to show the President as a no-nonsense guy with very clear ideas as to who is running the show. I also wanted to show Moore as a damaged man, a closet-Psychopath perhaps, but driven by the demands his profession places on him. How did I do this stage setting, for that was exactly what it all was? I gave the President a very uncomfortable meeting in the Oval Office with his advisor, which gets physical at one point; I had Moore cold-bloodily kill a man he knew to be innocent. What follows, what happens to both of these characters, now has a solid foundation which can be played with for the entertainment of my readers. [SPOILER ALERT. The President undergoes two assassination attempts and Moore does not kill anyone else in the tale although you expect him to at any moment; his colleague does though, and how!].

Now if I showed Granny chatting with a companion from her karate class just before boarding the subway? It changes the believable meter, doesn’t it? It also allows for more suspense to be employed (will she or won’t she?).

Then we have motivation. Why does a character do/react the way they do? In ‘Full Disclosure’ Moore has a private agenda: he has taken out around thirty drug-related individuals not related to the missions he is assigned. Why? As we get a glimpse of his backstory, we see and understand how he is using his only skills as a response to a personal tragedy that has marked him deeply. His ability to kill without emotion is the thing that’s keeping him sane, to some extent. So when he come across a major drug dealer in the course of the tale, you will expect him to react in a certain way, and I have a lot of fun teasing the reader with this as suspense is built and the story unfolds. Also, seeing how the other protagonists, and even some of the Secondary characters, react to him as they catch glimpses of his troubled persona, creates plenty of opportunity for more tension. ‘Full Disclosure’, despite the action rattling along like an express train, has often been described as a character-driven story because of all the preparation I did. Curiously though, most of the backstories are not reflected in the book as information dumps but held as biographies that allow me to ask myself the question ‘how would this character react to this?’ based upon their personal history and experiences. I put just enough of the Primary and Secondary characters backstories in the pages of the novel to create believable justification and motivation for their actions in the readers’ minds.

So how do you create a solid backstory? Here are a few tips:

–          Everyone is flawed, yes, even me. Perfect people don’t exist. Characters are more interesting because of the cracks. But make this subtle.

–          Avoid stereotypes at all cost. A stereotype, because of its very nature, is boring.

–          Villains don’t get up in the morning thinking how they can do bad things that day. They are motivated too, often by what they believe to be the right thing to do.

–          Characters that appear good can become bad, and vice versa – just don’t overdo it.

–          Define your characters skill sets, and stick to them.

–          Establish their educational level and where they’ve lived and grown up (Moore is an Army brat brought up in Japan).

–          Use their actions and dialogue to show who they are; don’t tell your reader.

–          Not everyone is a protagonist.

–          Let bad things happen to your heroes (Batman is a far more interesting character than Superman for just this reason).

–          Not everyone is either good or bad. People react to the circumstances – if you have extreme events, then your characters might do things they normally wouldn’t (a Preacher robbing a bank, for example, but only if it build on some foreshadowed traits).

–          People, and your characters, make mistakes. Even the top-notch, highly-trained Special Forces supermen have bad days. Have them screw something up; it will be interesting.

–          You don’t have to make your protagonist likeable (recall Hannibal Lector) but you do have to make them interesting.

–          Don’t take your characters too seriously.

–          Let your characters breathe; allow them to evolve. If a Tertiary character moves up a grade, that’s fine. If they move up two, look at why. Do they offer something to make your tale more interesting, or do you need to rewrite?

Above all, have fun with them; that’s why you are writing isn’t it?

Categories: Audience Awareness, Ebooks, Fiction Tips, and Writing Tips.

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