What do I like in a character? That sounds a little like the questions: what (or who) do you want for a man? What type of guy? And I guess that’s kind of what I mean. You want to get involved or get to know someone, but it shouldn’t (can’t) be just anyone. It has to be the right person from the start for you to know him (or her) better, and then, if that goes well you go on getting to know them, until you know each other well enough to start a serious relationship.
Well, that’s a lot what it’s like when your figuring out your characters (especially the main character)! You have to decide what sort of character you want, especially depending on what story you’re writing. But if you have a character that is very hard to write, and you find him annoying, and he never does what you want him to, and he’s boring…
Well, that probably means you have the wrong type of character. And unfortunately it can be pretty difficult to fix that sort of problem- at least for me it is! Because once you have a character in your head, even if he’s boring, it’s hard to get him out. Often I find that, oddly enough, the character has effected the whole story and I am no longer interested in writing it at all. (That’s probably because I’ve gone in strange directions in the plot in order to create enough interest because the character is dull)
And clearly you want people to read and (more importantly) enjoy your writing! Fortunately, I think it’s possible for dull characters (to the author) to be written, and the readers will usually find something very interesting about them. I don’t know why this is, because it’s very important to write characters (and plots) that will hold the reader’s interest, but maybe it’s simply the fact that the person outside of a piece of work will see the process overall, when it’s finished and when there’s a lot to take in: meaning that the person that made the piece (whether it’s a painting or a novel) had to work on every single detail and now he’s used to seeing all the small, dull parts rather than the whole thing.
Interestingly enough, I’ve had to write characters that are shaped purely by what I need in a story. Often the case is that the characters and plot are developed simultaneously. I think of a dark plot and I decide it would better if I didn’t have a clown as the main character. But writing a single-mindedly gloom-cloud would be unpleasant so I give him a bit of humor (or, because I usually forget to include a joke, I imagine he has humor, which then effects his personality) and then I decide to put in a few plot twists because that’s fun and it would be a good way to show up some of my character’s curiosities. And so, for my writing style, the plot affects the players and vice versa- but I think there would be some similar process for a lot of people’s writing.
But a story I was writing recently, involving time travel and the Civil War, was one of the few occasions when the plot determined, almost purely, what sort of characters I would have.
I decided that, in order to make a few of the things I wanted to write about happen, my character had to be different. I wanted him to try to change history, get involved in the fighting, attempt risky, bizarre things and initiate much of what would happen in the story. So, what I had to come up with was a character that’s a bit of a loose cannon, independent, authoritative (but not necessarily someone that would take command in a situation with lots of people), intelligent, pretty ambitious, stubborn and reckless. And, considering what he was willing to go to in my story, I figured out he’d probably be a bit selfish (which he’s constantly contradicting), guided by his emotions and not always considerate of other people’s opinions or needs (which could fit in with being selfish, but he seems to specifically veer in this direction). What I had to add to work even more with the plot was that he had been trained to be a paramedic (and for some reason dropped that idea. I think he knows why he did that, but I haven’t figured it out yet) and that he has low self-esteem (this has to do with a later plot development and I still have to figure out if it works with his personality. Oddly enough, I think it does- but he doesn’t seem to have a normal kind of low self-esteem. What supports this idea is that he is quite unwilling and surprised to be put in the position of a kind of rebel leader. If he had high self-esteem he would probably accept the task without question).
So clearly the plot dictated what sort of character I would have. And fortunately it’s a very well developed character with a lot of traits that fit. What came out was: Mark Kingston.
Then I decided another character was needed to work with this one. I don’t know why I decided this, perhaps because of the plot again. I think it was partially because I thought that having too much of Mark Kingston might be a little overwhelming. So I decided to go, more or less, in the opposite direction. I decided I wanted a character that was quieter, wouldn’t take the lead but would quite possibly work extensively behind the scenes, effecting everything in small ways. I wanted (again, I’m not exactly sure why. I think it might have simply been because I wanted this type of character to write) someone that you automatically liked, more relaxed and you’re sad when he’s hurt (which does happen). Basically: I wanted a sidekick. But wait- sidekicks are clichéd! So I decided that I still basically wanted the same character, but not overly follow-the-leader, not dependent on anyone else, not too quiet. I wanted someone you could take seriously and wouldn’t immediately be put into the position of a sidekick, simply someone that came along for the ride. What came out was Jeremy Anders.
These are the two main characters in my Civil War story. I have several others- unfortunately many that simply fill in the necessary holes, such as the absent-minded, controlled scientist, Derek Shelby (Shelby, after Shelby Foote, who wrote a huge trilogy on the Civil War that helped me a lot with my research). Fortunately, Shelby decided to develop himself in the second part of my stories.
Characters do that a lot, where they suddenly take off on their own. But that’s a whole different blog post that would make this one record-long!