Character month is over. If any of you are starting NaNoWriMo, character month got over just in time for you to take any knowledge and apply it to your frenzied November in the trenches. Hopefully we’ve all learned a little something. We had other writers talk about their process of creating characters, dissected characters from movies, and even had a few literary professionals over to share what we should avoid. All-in-all, I’d say it was a good month.
What we learned.
Movies taught us the value of quickly establishing who our main character is. Our audience needs to connect with them as quickly as possible in order to cheer them on. Movies also taught us how inner conflict can add a new dimension to our characters. Great characters have many layers.
Other writers showed us many of their favorite characters are flawed, like most people. They may not have all the answers, but their journey to overcome the odds changes them. Through their struggles we connect with, and relate, to them.
Literary professionals helped us see what they’re looking for from a strong character. Strong characters don’t have to be physically strong, or even perfect, but are flawed like many of us. They should have many different layers, again like many of us. We also learned that our characters should have clear motivation for doing what they do. If we can get readers to care, or connect, with our characters, they will keep turning the page.
And lastly, we learned “flat” characters are deal breakers. Period. If our characters don’t appear multi-layered and aren’t relatable, the quality of our plot–or anything else for that matter–won’t matter. Our characters need to pop off the page and be as lifelike as possible.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ll approach writing characters in the future. I decided to try to find a photo of what I believe my main character looks like to help me visualize who they are. It helps me think of them as a real person. I’m also going to be more aware of letting my characters be too passive. When I started Eden I wanted to take a normal woman and show how events change her. I realize now that was a mistake. I gave too much importance to the story, almost making it a character. The characters should drive the story, not the other way around. I can still achieve my character goals by showing how certain events change my characters. How can we show this? Through actions, reactions, dialogue, or any other way possible. Every scene involving characters is another opportunity to show who they are. Characters are like onions and the best have many layers with clear motivation. Our characters should be the same.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
I’d like to encourage all of you to try to find a picture which best represents your main character. It could be a family photo, actor, actress, even a painting, or piece of art. It doesn’t matter. You may be surprised by what you find. I know the photo I found wasn’t exactly how I envisioned Mitsuko in my mind. But when I saw the photo, I stopped and said, “That’s the one.” I don’t know how I knew. It just seemed right. Whenever I write about her I have that picture in my head and it helps. I’m not suggesting you make your main character look like George Clooney, but maybe seeing a picture of someone, or something, which represents your character will help. Our characters should be unique and three-dimensional, like us. They should be their own person. If a picture can help you flesh out all those layers, then find one. There are hundreds of photos of Japanese actress, Masami Nagasawa–different hairstyles, different expressions, different poses–but this one in particular stopped me. I think it’s the expression on her face. There’s something about her eyes that captivate me. I see strength and sorrow. That’s what I want for Mitsuko.
Only the beginning.
Character month has helped me share some of the things I’ve learned about characters with all of you. My goal all along was to help and inspire other writers, all the while learning how to create the best possible characters. I hope we can all take something from this series of posts and apply it to our writing moving forward. If any one of us is better today than we were before character month, we’ve accomplished something. We’ve learned some great lessons already, but we should be savvy enough to know there’s more knowledge out there waiting to be discovered. Keep learning, keep sharing, and keep writing. Challenge yourself to become a better writer. Don’t ever give up.
“I don’t believe you have to be better than everyone else. I believe you have to be better than you ever thought you could be.”—Ken Venturi
What have you learned from character month? Know any good tips for creating characters we missed? Please, share your thoughts in the comments below. You know you want to.