When I began my writing training, my characters weren’t much more than a name, hair color, and a series of tasks I wanted them to attempt. Sometimes I jotted down a list of dialogue points I wanted them to make in scenes. Without my list, I often got sidetracked and my scenes didn’t always come out the way I wanted.
Since then, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to characterization than that. What makes us love a certain character and remain indifferent to another? What makes one character live beyond the story he appears in, while others fade from memory the moment we shut the book? Why are some characters intriguing and others dull?
An intriguing character doesn’t have to be the good guy.
Count ’em on your fingers … Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Captain Bly, Bill Sikes, Sauron, Mrs. Danvers, Count Dracula, and Cruella de Vil … to name only a few memorable villains. (Yes, I left out Moriarty and Voldemort on purpose.) No doubt you can come up with many, many more, and there are lists of fictional villains on the Internet to jog your memory.
Let’s take Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as an example. He’s a ruthless, black-hearted pirate who signs on as ship’s cook. During the voyage, he deliberately befriends the young boy Jim, taking advantage of Jim’s naivete and trusting nature. He serves as a confidant and mentor to Jim, only to betray the boy later. Worst of all, when his true self is revealed, he expects Jim to stick with him and also turn on the others. Jim, of course, won’t do that. Silver reproaches the boy, saying plaintively, “I thought you and me was friends.”
Our fascination with Silver is less about his piracy and more about the psychological damage he’s wreaking.
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a nasty piece of work. She hates the new Mrs. de Winter from the start and does her best to sabotage the young bride’s self-confidence, marriage, and chances of social success. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper, supposed to serve and assist. Instead, she despises Mrs. de Winter and preys on every weakness, even compelling the girl to almost commit suicide. Finally, when she can’t break the girl, Mrs. Danvers burns down the house.
If we look only at Mrs. Danvers’s cruel actions, we have a one-dimensional villain. It’s not until we examine her motivation that we can see her complexity. She loved the first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful, vivid woman named Rebecca. She was Rebecca’s nurse and remained a servant to her–becoming housekeeper–even after Rebecca married. Mrs. Danvers can’t and won’t accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers lays out Rebecca’s clothes each day, has preserved her room exactly as it was, has forced the household to continue doing everything the way Rebecca preferred. Mrs. Danvers has been warped by her grief. If she accepts the second Mrs. de Winter (who’s never named in the book), then she’ll have to accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers is far too cruel and sick to evoke our compassion, but she’s anything but ordinary.
Not all intriguing characters are villains.
Consider Zorro, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Tarzan, Rhett Butler, and Sherlock Holmes–to name only a few.
What makes these fictional individuals so compelling?
I found the answer in Robert McKee’s book, Story, where he discusses a writing technique dealing with “true character.” McKee says that audiences are fascinated by characters whose true nature is in contrast to their outward appearance or behavior. At any moment, the mask may drop and we glimpse the real individual inside.
Zorro is literally masked. By day, he hides behind the mild persona of Don Diego. Batman is a wealthy businessman who dons the cowl to fight crime. Superman and Tarzan are also double-identity heroes. James Bond doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but we have a heroic super-spy capable of killing, jumping from airplanes, and blowing up facilities who conceals his violent abilities inside a tuxedo and suave demeanor. Each time we watch Bond sauntering through a glitzy casino with a beautiful woman on his arm, we’re anticipating the moment when the action hero will be revealed. Rhett Butler is not a crime fighter, but we never know when he will drop his mocking cynicism for kindness and generosity. Sherlock Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive abilities are jeopardized by his cocaine addiction. We fear he will break apart, never to be mended by Dr. Watson.
In designing your characters, strive for a contrast between the surface and the truth. Look at the why behind their actions and make those motivations work. If you can create a complex character, chances are you’ll have a compelling character.