Creating Characters That Wow

You can find complementary character sheets to use  here (basic) and here (plot centric). You can also find a fillable plot and character development booklet (in proto-stages) here. These resources are free to use, but if you wish to enable me to make more you can buy me a Kofi.

 

Once you have found and developed an idea for your next best-seller it’s about time to think about your cast of characters. Anyone will tell you that characters must be “rounded”, “have personality”, and “seem to breathe”… but people don’t really tell you how to do that.

The character sheets linked above can help you to make a note of the most basic information about your characters; their name, age, role in the plot etc, and the development booklet can help you to get a grasp of what kind of person they are (would they give someone their last bit of chocolate, or not? You know, the big questions).

 

But how do you get to that stage if you have not first created a well-rounded character?

 

World-building

The process of creating your story world is long and very often tiresome; the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labour of love are very often staggering. So why should you put all of this work to wast by not allowing it to inform your character creation process?

For the record, I don’t mean that there are people out there who just make a fantasy world and then have their character grow up in Brooklyn.

 

I mean that if you create a horrible, dystopic world with twisted morals your character will have some horrible and twisted morals too. Their story, their journey, should be slowly coming to see what the reader knows already, or not depending upon what you have in mind for them.

Morals, politics, and personal character do not exist in a vacuum; parents, family, teachers, friends, and colleagues all have an effect on how we develop over time. So do the politics of our time, key events in the world, and our level of education.

 

In short, if your character was raised by very conservative, very religious, poorly educated people in a very poor, conservative, and poorly educated community it is unlikely that they will become very liberal, very rich, and very educated without undergoing a process of change. It is your job as a writer to explain how this happened.

 

Taking Stock of the Facts

Think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; she learns from her very educated, fairly liberal (for his day) father, but is still influenced by, and exerts influence on, her friends. For those who have read Go Set A Watchman, you will also remember that as an adult Scout realises that Atticus is not nearly as forward thinking as she had thought.

Scout was informed by her town, her school, and her father, but did have her own moral sensibilities. When she left her small town she changed yet again, and returned to a place that felt strange to her.

 

This is excellent character creation and development.

 

Harper Lee did this by ensuring that Scouts family and childhood created her, but the world, the events of her life, and of course Lee’s own feelings, shaped her into something more adult, more well-rounded, and more deserving of our understanding than she might have been had she never developed.

 

Flaws and Strengths

One trick to creating truly believable characters is not to give them a plethora of strengths and skills, only to sprinkle a bad temper a low mathematical ability onto it in the guise of “flaws”. The trick is to make their flaws a result of their strengths. For example, “loyalty” and “possessiveness” could be two sides of the same coin. As could “emotionally strong” and “callous”.

Think carefully about what the downsides of certain strengths are because everything has its downside.

 

A Distinct Tone of Voice

Especially important for protagonists is their voice; the way in which they narrate and speak should be recognisable almost instantly. There are those who say that the reader should be able to tell who is speaking before you name the character, but that truly is a feat of incredible skill. Not even the best can do this all the time.

The way the character speaks should be a reflection of everything that has gone into creating them. Consider;

  • Their sense of humour
  • Their level of education
  • If they are speaking their first language
  • Who they are speaking to
  • What their goal is

Characters, unlike real people, never speak without purpose. They don’t waffle, rabbit-on, or give pointless information unless they have a reason to do so. Those reasons could be;

  • Anxiety
  • A desire to distract
  • A need to mislead
  • An attempt to communicate something covertly

 

Don’t get too fancy when it comes to creating a speech pattern for your character; it should sound natural and be consistent throughout the narration. To that end it is often easiest to base the pattern of speech on someone, or on a dialect, that you know fairly well. You can make small tweaks to make it less obvious, but a forced or stilted voice is the surest way to put readers off of a character, especially when the story is narrated in first person.

 

Mistakes and Motives 

Whether your character is the hero or villain you need make sure that they intrigue and infuriate your readers in equal measures.

This is achieved by balancing their mistakes with their motives; make their reasoning for doing whatever they do understandable. Ensure that anyone could see themselves feeling the same way in that position so that, even if they disagree with your characters choices, they at least see where they are coming from. Then balance this empathy inducing method with mistakes and trip ups which are innately tied to their personal flaws.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Symmetry In Character Arcs; Jax Teller

Let’s get real; Sons of Anarchy is just Hamlet on motorbikes. Jax is Hamlet (both born leaders with deceased fathers, good intentions that spiral to violence etc), Clay is Claudius, Gemma is Gertrude (though, in all honesty she’s more of a Lady MacBeth), and any number of the elders, Piney, Unser, Bobby, could be Polonius.

Is that what makes Jax such a fine example of symmetry in character development? No.

 

You see, much like Hamlet, Jackson starts his life as a victim in many ways; his father is killed at a young age, he’s dragged into a life of crime, albeit willingly, and throughout the early seasons his attempts to change his life and the focus of SAMCRO are beaten down at every turn by Clay, and in some cases Gemma. Despite being an Anti-Hero in the truest sense, his morality coming from senses of duty, honour, and familial responsibility rather than morality or legality, he is a passive anti-hero for much of his own life. Jax goes through cycles of passivity, trauma, aggression, and redemption in every corner of his life, and it’s this that makes the writing something we should pay attention to.

 

Victim To Villain; Passive Heroics and the Illusion of Having No Choices

Jax lets himself be taken where the wind blows for a large majority of his life.

He leaves Wendy because of her drug addiction and is blown back to Tara when she arrives in Charming. He is then blown in to the arms of various women (ugh, Ima) when the going gets tough with Tara. He nearly fucks his own sister, for Christ’s sake, and when Tara ends up in legal trouble, understandably angry and distressed, because of something she did to protect him? He jumps dick first into a brothel madam-cum-high-class-pimp; Collette. In the end, however, he lets Tara go free.

On a side note she has to literally beg him in a public place not to kill her in front of their children before he realises that he has become the monster under the bed to his own wife…. but, hey. I’m not bitter. 

Jax’s love life(lives) provide a perfect microcosm for his overall story arc, and this symmetry is something so prophetic and well-written that we would all do well to take heed.

The pattern of Jax’s life goes as such;

  1. Victim
  2. Hero
  3. Villain
  4. Belated Redemption

Consider;

Jax marries Wendy because he feels he has no other choice; he confesses to Tara that it was a “sad time out” because he never got over her. He plays the victim while using Wendy, and when the going gets tough and she becomes addicted to heroine he bails. Enter Gemma; Gemma plays villain at first to allow Jax to maintain his wounded persona, but when Wendy gets out of rehab Jax tries to play hero by urging Tara to downplay their relationship for the sake of Wendy’s recovery.

He then chases her out of town, and when she returns, clean and ready to take care of her son, he forcibly injects her with heroine in order to keep what he see’s as “his”.

The arc doesn’t finalise until after Tara’s death when he leaves everything, including the children, to Wendy’s care. But he never actually tries to make personal amends.

 

Or there’s Tara;

She leaves him, and when she returns he sets about tugging her heart strings. He puts her in awkward positions by having her patch up injured club members time and time again, and then shoots her stalker in her home. When she begins to crumble under the stress and tries to escape again Jax does nothing to support or help her, but instead throws a tantrum and jumps dick first into another woman. Multiple times.

After the Ima fiasco Tara is kidnapped and pregnant so they end up back together again, after which he barrels down a course of action that lands him serious jail time. Tara cares for the children and waits, and he eventually promises her they will get out. He becomes an active hero for Tara when he attempts to extricate them, and when he reneges on this promise and she seeks her own escape he becomes the villain himself.

He redeems himself only just before her death, after which he slides back into violence and carnage.

 

 

This is what makes Jax such a fascinating character study; he lives, for the largest part of the show, under the belief that he has no choices. It’s only when he becomes President that he really takes control, and coincidentally this is when things really spiral out of control for the club.

 

When the Circle Ends

The shattering climax, that realisation that over time he has become the villain in his own story, is so effective because we see the slide and we, the viewer, know that Jax is becoming more and more morally corrupt as the show spins out.

I once joked with my, then, partner that I had thought I would love Jax and Opie, but ended up hating them in favour of Juice, Tig, and Chibs because each of their characters was at the very least an active participant and had a morality of a sort that they held to. Jax and Opie both suffer from a martyrdom mentality that kills everyone and everything around them.

 

As writers we can learn from this undeniably masterful deployment of characterisation because it shows us, firstly, that you don’t have to like a character to root for them. Secondly, that symmetry is key; characterisation extends to the milieu of a characters life as well as the defining story arc. Thirdly, anti-hero’s don’t have to be edge-lord, morally grey gun-slingers like Dirty Harry. Sometimes an anti-hero is the pretty boy down the road who pretends that none of his bad choices could have been avoided.

 

 

Image Source; https://www.theodysseyonline.com/13-times-jax-teller-swoon