One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni. He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.
He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.” So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life. We must believe them and believe in them. If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.
While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.
A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc). As with all things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one? Who cares?) Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average. And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.
Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character. These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story. (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first. I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.) Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.
By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness. A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t. Inner conflicts are a part of who you are. For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’. Mental illness is an inner conflict. A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness. (I am weak.)
Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’. Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings. Plus, it makes their development more plausible. A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change. If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.
So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling? Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:
Physical Appearance A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world. When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan). Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.
How They Dress People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them. So think about how your character might express themselves through dress. I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body. Do they wear their uniform even on their days off? Do they favor Gothic Lolita? Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays? Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.
Physical Behavior Think also about the way your character carries themselves. How do they sit, stand, walk, or run? Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint. Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.
Dialog How does your character speak? What does their diction say about their past and experiences? Consider word choice, phrases, accent. Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).
Character Insight Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences. How does your character view the world? Who do they vote for? What do they believe in? What do they argue about? What’s worth fighting for?
Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.
So! Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story. How does the character change over the course of the events? Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at. I pictured it like this:
The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book. If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book. Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.
Of course, characters can change in both directions. Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction. But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell. Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.
Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move). Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing. Your story (and your readers) will thank you.