How to Write an Interesting Character

The trick to writing an interesting fictional character is to not give them everything they want. There are rare exceptions to this. Very rare. So rare I can’t actually think of any off the top of my head. But you need to understand this rule to break it: the crux of most conflict (other than poor communication) is an inability to get what you want.

Figure out what your character would answer if you asked them what they desire out of life. Then figure out what the truth is. Then figure out what the undercurrent of that desire is… what don’t they consciously realize they want?

For example, this is what I’d say I want:
* love and a family
* a robot
* for people to love my writing and art
* to be less scared of everything

And here’s what the truth of what I want:
* love and a family
* a robot
* for people to love my writing and art
* to be less scared of everything

Because I’m honest. What you see with me is what you get. I can’t answer the third question for the obvious reason that I don’t know what I don’t know.

Adeline, from my first novel, would answer:
* to be a superhero
* to go to space
* candy
* stop asking me questions
* I’ll punch you in the nose

The truth of what Adeline wants:
* to be a superhero/spaceman/adventurer
* to be accepted
* to not alienate everyone around her

What Adeline doesn’t know she wants:
* to be understood, and not pushed too hard to fit in

Imogene, from my second novel, would answer:
* dead bodies to cut open
* money to live
* booze, cigarettes, men

The truth of what Imogene wants:
* dead bodies to cut open
* money to live
* booze, cigarettes, men
* for people to not act like she’s a freak

What Imogene doesn’t know she wants:
* unconditional blind acceptance– to be a part of society while still getting to do whatever she wants

 

Now that you know what they want, the trick is to not give them everything. You aren’t your characters’ magic genie. They need something to strive for.

For Imogene: if I give her someone to love, she has to repress her darker impulses so that she won’t lose that love. If she somehow falls for someone as twisted as she is, she has to make sure she doesn’t accidentally toboggan down that slippery slope and end up hurting innocent people. If she has money, she has to work so much that her social life slips… she loses the chance at love. If she has a flourishing social life, she’s not taking enough clients; she’s going hungry.

Imagine your characters’ wants and needs as a set of plates spinning on poles, one of those old circus acts. Except you’re not very good at plate spinning and you can’t keep them all going at once. One of them has to fall, and shatter. If you take the time to get a similar plate spinning again, you have to let another fall. As a writer, see yourself as an inexperienced juggler who’s taken on a couple too many flaming torches and chainsaws. A character’s desires are part of a delicate ecosystem: what one character wants naturally butts up against what another character wants, and there’s conflict. Conflict leads to plot. Plot leads to the dark side.

A character can be a happy, positive person and still not have their every wish, even if it looks that way on the surface. Dig a little deeper. Take your character out for coffee and let them talk for a while. You’ll find something under the surface. You know the saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’? It’s your job to find the cloud.

Once a character has everything they want, what’s left to write? A series of pleasant breakfasts with their loved ones, as they slowly grow old in a cocoon of warm contentedness? No, that won’t do. No one hungrily awaits the paragraphs of Bilbo sitting flush with wealth in the Shire after the adventure, they look forward to his reminiscing. No one’s like, “Gee, my very favorite part of the Harry Potter series is that very last chapter when all the issues are fixed.” Or, “Do you know what really gets my heart racing? The end of the movie where Nemo is reunited with his dad and they’re a happy fishy family again.” The movie’s called Finding Nemo; the search is the whole point. Don’t get me wrong, giving your characters what they want is a good framing device and it leaves readers/watchers satisfied at the end, but don’t linger there for longer than you have to. It’s like coasting in your car… fine for a while, but you eventually have to step on the gas.

So step on it.

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