Ask Correia 9: Character Development

Hi Larry,

This is a new writing question related to character development. Do you get in depth in figuring out your characters personalities, background, strengths, weaknesses, and histories? 

How much background do you think is enough to start with ‘parts’ and get a solid character off of your metaphorical Frankensteinian table and walking around in your story as a living, breathing ‘person’? What key things do you look for in a good character that you create?

-Scott

A very good question, Scott. Thanks. I like doing these Ask Correia posts.  I find that it really helps me to think this stuff through enough to put my answers into words for you guys. That way when I’m a panelist at a Con and somebody asks me a similar question, I don’t just sit there like an idiot.   

I like to think that I put a lot of effort into my characters, but I guess it really depends on how important that character is to that story.  The more important, the more fleshing out they get. Not that anybody should every be just a boring old cut-out, but you’re really better off spending your time on the important stuff that is actually going to end up in the book.  So for my main characters, I’ve usually got a lot of background information written down. For second-tier characters, I’ve got the pertinent stuff, and for the background cast, little to nothing canonical.  Sometimes a second-tier or even a background character will turn out to be more important. When that happens, you grow them.

As I’ve said before, I’m a note-taker and outliner.  I like to have a detailed character sketch for all the majors.  For example, I’ve got about a page on Owen, including tons of things that never enter into the books at all. These are the types of things to know about the character’s history to keep him consistent.  On my main characters, I know what TV shows they watch, where they went to school, and what teams they’re fans of. None of that will probably end up in the story, but it helps me imagine them better.

Sometimes a little factoid of a main character will end up on the page. Julie Shackleford went to Auburn.  Why? Because I said so. That ended up in the book, and apparently Auburn fans were pleased.  Alabama fans were unreachable for comment because they were busy rolling my car over and setting it on fire.   

Second-tier characters are important, but not as vital as your mains. I’ll have about a paragraph on these characters, physical descriptions, some defining traits, etc.  Sometimes a second-tier character will become more important than you expected. For example, Agent Myers was a second-tier character in MHI, but became much more important in MHV.  By the end of MHV he’s become a pivotal character, and the reader gets to know a lot about his back-story.

This evolution wasn’t really planned, but instead I found myself wondering more about Myers’ motivations. I had the story of why he hated MHI so much, but it had never been fleshed out.  It turned out to be an interesting side plot, so it ended up in the book, and I think it turned out rather well.

Background characters are the minor people that don’t really do much. They might get some dialog, but they’re not exactly earth-shaking. My notes for these people is usually a line with their name and what they’re in the book to do.   I don’t normally care what they ate for breakfast unless it is pertinent to the story.

To give you an idea of my process, for the Dead Six novels, co-author Mike and I put together a character list of every single character and did something like the above outline process. It is 19 pages long in order to cover 3 books.  These books cover a lot of ground though, and considering the huge amount of story, it is actually a pretty terse 19 pages.

This keeps you from making some stupid continuity errors. Like when your left-handers suddenly become righties, your brown eyes are blue, that kind of thing.  As somebody who writes riot-nerd weapon-speak, I also put notes on training, skill-levels, and equipment in there too.

I’m not suggesting this is the right way to do it. Everybody is different. If you’ve got an encyclopedia of information about the guy who walks the main character’s dog, or all your character notes for 50 people fit on a napkin, whatever. As long as the book is awesome, who cares?

You don’t need much to start with. Often, the character will develop themselves as you write them. The only things that get put into my official notes at the front are the things that are vitally important for the story. And even then, the beauty of word-processing is that going back and changing anything is a snap.  Usually I’ll have a very basic outline of what the character is, what they need to do, and what I aim to accomplish with them.

For example, I’ve talked about Trip and Holly before. Two of the most popular characters in MHI. Both came about because MHI was intended to take the tropes from monster movies and subvert them.  So both started as pretty standard stock characters, common in horror flicks, the hot-morally-ambivalent-snarky-kinda-bitchy-hot blonde chick and the black-guy-jock-sidekick.  Start counting how many movies you’ve seen with those character stereotypes… Yeah. You’re already out of fingers and you just got started. Because they’re in all of them.

Remember, the idea of MHI was that the new Hunters you’re meeting are the survivors of all those other horror movies.  So I started with the lame stereotypes and then I decided to try and twist them into interesting people that could plausibly exist.  Holly appears to be the typical blonde-slutty-chick (usually the foil for the Final Girl) only she turned out to be the single toughest individual in the whole story, with the harshest origin story, and she ended up as one of the most popular characters. Trip looks like the typical intimidating dreadlocked jock/thug character, only he turns out to be a devoutly religious, uber-geeky fantasy nerd.     

Everybody has unique traits, whether they are visual or personality based.  Milo shaved his head and braided his beard. (which is based on a friend of mine, who looks just as strange as you can imagine, until he eventually had to get a real job). Odd traits make us interesting, but don’t be too artificial and go too far the other way with a nonsensical trait that feels slapped on. My hero is tragically flawed because he is Lactose Intolerant! OH NOES!  

Nobody, and I mean nobody, is just as simple as a character stereotype. In real life, everyone thinks they’re the main character of their own story.  Everyone has a motivation. These motivations don’t have to be complicated, but they need to be there.  Everybody has a past. Once again, it doesn’t have to be spectacular either, but they come from somewhere.  The more important the character, the more the author needs to understand what makes them tick.

I’d say that being relatable to the reader is important, but I may be wrong here, and I just can’t think of any examples.  Personally, when I’m a reader, and I can relate to the character somehow, that helps me appreciate them more. I hesitate to use the word likability, because I love writing some unlikable villains. Maybe the word I’m looking for is fondness. The reader needs to enjoy that character, even if the reader is fond of that character because they’re evil, or because they love to hate them, whatever it is, a good character is somebody the readers enjoying have show up.

I’ll often have a real person or an actor in mind when I write a character. This helps me keep them (and especially their dialog) consistent. I’ve heard of other writers that will actually cut interesting looking people out of magazines, and use those photos as the basis for a character. I’ve never done that, and I’d hate to have to explain to my wife why I needed the craft scissors to make a collage, but hey, whatever works.

One thing to avoid, and I absolutely hate this, is when your character’s back-story doesn’t pass the smell test. How many thrillers have you read where the main character was a 24-year-old scientist-doctor-Navy SEAL-astronaut?  The government doesn’t spend millions of dollars training you to be an F-15 pilot and then suddenly send you to be a Force Recon commando.  Now, if you’ve got a karate master-rocket scientist, that’s plausible, because you can be a rocket scientist and still practice karate (or you could just be Travis Taylor in real life).  Fictional characters can be bigger and more interesting than real life, but their resume and skill sets should match what they could actually accomplish according to the laws of time and space.  Unless you’re Dirk Pitt, because then you can do whatever the hell you want,(out sword fight a samurai while defusing a nuclear bomb in space, no problem) because you’re Dirk Friggin’ Pitt.

On that note, some non-gun people may have thought that I overdid the skills of a certain accountant that could outshoot most SWAT teams, but the IPSC competitors and 3-gunners were all like “Aw yeah… I’m with you buddy. About time we get somebody realistic in fiction! Fire up the Dillon 550!” But I’ll leave that for when I talk about doing research.

One of my favorite fictional characters of all time is Repairman Jack, written by F. Paul Wilson. Jack is an amazing character, and if you’ve not read any of his books, you’re missing out.  Jack’s got a phenomenal back-story that makes his current resume (for lack of a better term) make perfect sense. He’s an interesting person, with likes, dislikes, and relationships.  When you first meet Jack in The Tomb, within a few chapters you feel like you really understand who he is and where he’s coming from.  The reader gets him.

The character can have flaws or traits that makes them much more interesting. One of the flawed protagonists that I’ve enjoyed recently is John Wayne Cleaver from Dan Wells’ excellent I Am Not a Serial Killer & Mr. Monster.  John is a teenage sociopath. He’d make an excellent serial killer and he’s very self-aware and analytical about that fact. He has rules that he obeys, like he can’t refer to other people as “it”.  Yet, Dan does such a stupendous job making this seemingly unrelatable person relatable that the reader is soon rooting for the character to succeed.  And when he occasionally screws up, it makes his slip so much more poignant.

Don’t try to be all edgy and dark and make your main character’s unlikable. If your main character is a completely irredeemable douche, then who cares how his story turns out? Maybe you can pull it off, and craft such an awesome story that the reader will overlook the fact your main character is a complete moron, but you’re rowing up hill on that one.  I’m excited for you guys to read Lorenzo in D6, because he is a narcissistic jerk, but an entertaining one. 

Just like real life, people have flaws, traits, loves, hates, passions. They make mistakes. Sometimes they’re smart, sometimes they’re stupid. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are dumber than a bag of rocks.  Our job is simple. We just need to make all those characters interesting enough for the readers to give us money.

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