What does it take to create a great character?
by Jason Black
First you need a fresh concept for the character, right? Sure. You don’t want to be giving us the same cliché, central-casting characters we’ve seen a million times. Then they have to be admirable in some way that helps readers root for them. That is, they don’t have to be likeable or nice, but there has to be something about them we can respect. And we can’t forget to give the character some flaws, too, so the character can experience personal growth through the story. Naturally not. Besides, readers can’t relate to characters who are too perfect. Oh, and a good, solid name helps too, doesn’t it? Goodness knows we writers spend a lot of time agonizing over finding the perfect name.
Those are all helpful things, but they’re not what it takes to create a great character.
Creating a great character takes you.
A great character is nothing more than a believable person, set down on paper. It’s the believability that’s hard, because people aren’t simple. Real people are complicated bundles of skills, fears, hopes, goals, beliefs, misapprehensions, desires, attitudes, knowledge, experiences, history, and personality. Creating a great character demands a writer who can deeply imagine what it’s like to be another person, different and distinct from themselves in all the elements of that bundle.
We have a word for this kind of deep imagination. For walking in someone else’s shoes, if only within your mind: Empathy.
Creating a great character is an act of sheer empathy, of developing within your imagination the ability to live a different set of skills, fears, hopes, and all the rest, than your own. Can you do that? And can you do it for every character in the book, all at the same time?
Fortunately, most people can. Or at least, they have that basic mental capability. We humans are social creatures, and our ability to empathize is literally hard-wired into our brains. (I won’t go into it here, but you can look up ‘mirror neurons’ if you’re curious.)
Your job as a writer is to develop, through conscious practice, your skill of empathy. As you do, your ability to invent believable people and set them down on paper will improve.
Practice in your writing, yes, but practice in real life, too. As you encounter other people in the world—the checker at the grocery store, the flagger directing traffic around road construction, your kid’s teacher at school—try to imagine what it’s really like to be them.
Observe the grocery clerk. How is she standing? How is she interacting with customers? What kind of expression does she have on her face? Then try to be her as you wait your turn in line. How do you imagine she feels when the person ahead of you in line takes out a handful of loose change to tediously count out the price of a six-pack in pennies? Does that irritate her, like it probably irritates you who are stuck in line behind that person? Or is the clerk perhaps secretly glad, because at least for those two minutes while the person is counting coins, she doesn’t have to do anything. She can just stand, relax, take a deep breath or two.
Get in the habit of doing this as you go about your daily life, and you’ll find that when you sit down to write you’re a lot quicker at figuring out how your characters would feel and act in the situations you create for them. Your characters will start to seem more like real people to you, because they are. The more you can manage their complex bundles, as distinct from your own, the more believable they will become.
This will be hard at first. Those bundles are so complex you won’t be able to handle them in their entirety. Not all at once. But not to worry: at least you’re starting somewhere, and any part of a character’s bundle you can’t handle yet will be filled in with elements from your bundle. This means the first characters you imagine will be more like you than not. But as you develop your ability to empathize, your characters will become more distinct.
As writers, we’ve all heard many tips and tricks for improving our characters. For example, to give your characters quirks and mannerisms that are based on real people you know. Not to make clones of those people, but to pick and choose interesting elements—a speech pattern here, an attitude there—from people you’re very familiar with. It’s good advice, but it’s also shallow. You can make it deep by recognizing the empathy that underlies it. Use all such advice, but as you do, pay attention to the way in which it helps you to empathize better. What it’s really doing is giving you hooks into additional elements of a character’s complex bundle.
Finally, too often I see writers forget that a character has—or should have—their own complex bundle of hopes and desires and so forth. They stop empathizing with the character, moment-to-moment, to figure out how the character would naturally behave. In place of these natural behaviors, they force the character to behave unnaturally for the writer’s own sake. They are asking the question, “What do I want the character to do?” instead of the question, “If I were this character, what would I do?”
If you are empathizing well, this should be an easy question to answer. After all, through your empathy you are the character. But in that moment, you are not yourself the writer. When you become your characters inside your imagination, your own wants should fall by the wayside.
If I can leave you with one mantra, let it be this: Characters don’t exist for your sake. Let them live and breathe and act for their own sakes, even if it is you who must imagine every breath for them.