There is plenty of advice about how to build good and believable characters in fiction, some of which are controversial. I’ve put together a list of those I came across that I find don’t always apply...
Likeability of characters
These days it’s one of the most controversial topics and many creative writing classes and teachers also promote that at the very least the protagonist has to be likeable. I disagree with this. There is a difference between liking a character and finding them interesting enough to keep reading about them. Consider how you can make your reader relate to your character.
The reader can deeply identify with protagonists who they have an emotional connection with, whose flaws and mistakes and even vices are understandable. A good example of this is Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. If we can't relate to the main characters on an emotional level, the entire story might ring untrue or simply won’t engage us that much, no matter how likeable the character is.
To be able to relate to them, we need to understand the character’s reasons for their actions. How they feel needs to ring true for us, and make sense but we don’t necessarily have to like them or agree with them. For example in my novel, Wolf Country, Alice, my protagonist may not be initially likeable but that was my point exactly - to create a character that is the victim of an extreme consumer society in a dystopian context.
Extensive physical description
I used to fret about my characters if I couldn’t entirely visualise them and I felt I couldn’t write a sentence without seeing them as clearly as if they stood right in front of me. Then I began observing in other books how a character’s looks were mentioned very briefly, with short but vivid expressions that immediately put the reader in their presence. Describing the essence of that person’s looks rather than everything. A few small details that are unique to that person can be enough as the rest of the work is done by the reader’s imagination. If that detail is evocative enough, there’s no need for more. Also, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the visuals, a well-described scent or sound will add just as much if not more.
Everything our characters do has to be logical
Especially these days melodrama and passion seem to be a no-go in literature and films, as if they carry a cheap and cheesy quality. This, in my opinion, is a great loss for readers and audiences. Today plots are kept clear, emotionally reserved and drama-free but where do we turn for drama if not to fiction?
On a certain level, of course, even the quirkiest character’s actions need to make sense for the reader but our emotions are not rational and cannot be kept at bay. Humans are contradictory beings, strongly driven by their emotions and their wants and needs. One broken cog in the machine can trigger unexpected emotions and hence reactions. Characters that are not afraid to show and follow their emotions, will come across as vulnerable and endearing or maybe passionate and impulsive, but never ever boring. Not to mention the exciting turns the plot can be taken to.
The writer belonging in the same gender as the character
For novice writers it’s preferable to have a protagonist who is the same gender as the writer. However, the writer sooner or later needs to get out of their comfort zone. I’d advise starting with secondary characters before we attempt to write our main characters and protagonist in the other gender. From here it should be more intuitive to expand into creating our main characters. With our already heightened empathy we can easily shift into someone else’s mind and identify with their situation.
Specific facts need to be remembered though, such as voice and way of speaking (men usually tend to speak less than women and in shorter sentences) and when we have a male narrator we need to know that men generally tend to focus less on details of other people’s lives.
Tunde Farrand's debut novel, Wolf Country - a chilling and politically astute dystopia, is out now.
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