When writers are unsure of their idea or their craft, they tend to play safe in devising characters. Playing safe often splits into one of two directions: either the timid writer duplicates real life, using the demeanor, behavior, and appearance of an actual person, OR the timid writer derives characters from those already appearing in film, television, or books.
The first option creates a character that’s a dull snore of a bore.
The second option perpetuates a stereotype at worst or is simply derivative at best.
Timidity in character design won’t sparkle.
What we want when we create stories are characters that seem to come alive on the page. They’re vivid and intriguing. They possess verve. They seize the plot in dynamic ways and move it forward. They’re bold. They’re intrepid. They’re anything but passive. They are not flat.
Therefore, whenever you’re feeling tentative, counteract your conservative instincts and go bigger and bolder instead. Exaggerate your character far beyond your comfort zone. Ignore the niggling little fearful whisper in the back of your brain: “But if you do what Chester says, readers will laugh at you.”
And I say, “Readers may laugh but they won’t forget what you’ve written.”
Consider this example:
John lives in an affluent suburban housing addition planned by a local developer with the pleasant amenities of brick houses, three-car garages, sidewalks, one tree in every front yard, cedar stockade fences, and a playground with swimming pool limited to residents only. John is middle-aged, portly, and stiff in one knee. He’s an engineer and makes a comfortable living. His wife is a nurse. John drives a silver-gray SUV. His wife drives a tan sedan and spends her leisure time gardening in immaculate flowerbeds. They have a daughter, now finished with college and employed although still living at home. They have no pets. They do not entertain. John’s hobby is his saltwater fish-tank, and if there’s a power outage he runs a noisy little gas-powered generator to keep the aquarium going.
There’s not a thing wrong with John and his family. They are middle-class America. They are people we live next to, people we know, people we work beside or go to church with or meet at the grocery store. John is a pleasant, productive individual and a good neighbor.
As a character, however, in a fiction story, John is stinko. He’s got nothing interesting going on that will drive a plot. His only trouble is a co-worker who annoys him and his irritation with the power company that allows spikes and outages to jeopardize his expensive pet fish.
This is real life. It is not–repeat not–the stuff of fiction.
So when you squinch down, or roll yourself into a ball to protect your underbelly–hedgehog style–and you draw only from real life, you’re creating nothing. You’re duplicating an individual that’s flat and one-dimensional in story terms. Even worse, this so-called character won’t fit what your story needs because in your mind, the reality you’re recreating will fight whatever your story actually requires.
Let’s try again:
Johannes is single. He lives in a flashy apartment in a big-city high-rise. He drives a steel-colored BMW and he wears custom-tailored suits that are cut well enough to hide the bulge of his Sig-Sauer handgun. He’s frequently away on business because he’s a super-spy and his work takes him all over the world. He employs a cleaning service to maintain his apartment. His aquarium is built into the wall, and it contains only piranha.
Well, Johannes is colorful, much more so than John. Phony sparkle has been glued all over him, and he’s sending off reflections … to a point.
Trouble is, Johannes might as well be called James Bond. Other than the fish-tank, he is a duplicate, a blurred copy made from every stereotypical secret agent invented in 20th century fiction. Such a character is serviceable, if the plot moves fast enough and readers are trapped on a plane without any other reading material. Generally, however, there’s very little about Johannes to intrigue us. He’s as flat–despite the surface flashiness–as John.
So what do we do? How do we design a character that avoids these errors of caution?
A character that lives and sparkles is one that’s exaggerated, intriguing, torn within, and hiding something.
I’ll continue with this in Part II.