Limyaael's Rants

Creating Breathing Characters

Written on 2003-05-28; Read the original post on LiveJournal

Do I have to say any more that these are "personal?" I would hope not. If they're in a personal Livejournal and have my name on them, I hope they would be obvious.

A Brief Definition of Terms: "Breathing" to me combines the terms "real" and "complex." I prefer to use it simply because I believe it's possible to create seemingly living stereotypes of people, and people with complicated pasts and personalities that are no more alive than the writer's original character sketch. I prefer to avoid that, both in reading and writing, so I've coined "breathing" to combine the terms.

I also prefer to avoid the term "sympathetic." If your character breathes, he or she might be a brat or a very well-written villain. This isn't only about creating heroes. As I mentioned in the entry on female protagonists, one of the greatest mistakes amateur writers make (and even some professional writers) is lavishing all their character creation skills only on the main character of the story, thus risking the creation of a vacuum character who sucks all the personality out of the other people and makes the story's world only about her. Not what you want to do.

1. Choose a POV. This might seem obvious, but many amateur writers, unless writing in first-person, shift from head to head randomly, or even just float outside the characters and tell the story in a dramatic or omniscient style. I beg you to reconsider this. Omniscient styles are good if you know how to handle them, but even then they can be annoying; there are parts of Lord of the Rings where I wish Tolkien would choose a character to speak through instead of describing details that no one character could know. Remember who's speaking, and remember what he or she knows and doesn't. If you're writing an HP fanfic in Hermione's POV, then don't suddenly make the next sentences "Harry gave her a watery smile. She couldn't possibly understand what had happened to him over the summer." The first sentence is describing something Hermione could see, but she wouldn't know the cause; she might even get it completely wrong. And if she couldn't possibly understand what happened to Harry over the summer and he hasn't told her, then whose POV is that second sentence from?

2. Remember what characters will and will not care about. If you've gone to a great deal of trouble to establish one character as the heroine's enemy, then it might make sense that her thoughts would revolve constantly around the heroine. But if there's another who's only on the sidelines and more concerned about, say, his own magical training than the heroine's catfight, why would he constantly gossip and think about her? It's the mark of Miss Sucky at work if even your minor characters, or ones with far more pressing concerns, spend all their time thinking about your heroine's plight.

3. Give your character many emotions. This might seem simple, but it's amazing how many characters turn into angst-machines, or cheer-machines, or whatever the author needs them to be at the moment. Say you have a character who's a linguist. She's just begun the difficult and delicate translation of a document from Elvish to Lathiel, the human tongue of her Kingdom. She's been portrayed as a down-to-earth, serious character who's very concerned about this document. But does that mean that if she spills her tea all over her notes, she will only nod soberly and go on? It's all right to have her get angry and curse (or whatever you think will be an appropriate reaction), try frantically to clean the tea up, seek help, or perhaps start crying. Make the characters react as though they are people, not machines.

4. Don't make your characters the slaves of plot contrivance. If it's very important that they find out what the bad guys are doing, make them clever enough to find out, or perhaps create a traitor and give him a personality. Don't give someone a sudden flash of insight or intuition, or a prophetic dream, unless you've already established this as a character trait in less dire circumstances. A priestess who's been having prophetic dreams all her life could reasonably be expected to have a revelation like this. A character who has no magical talent whatsoever would be an unlikely candidate. I have personally had the experience of writing a character who improvises and tries to be clever in difficult situations- quite literally; I would start writing the scene not knowing what he would do next- and having a very, very enthusiastic response from my readers, who were happy that he didn't just blow the attackers apart with a firestorm. Give your characters things that they would do, not just things the plot needs them to do.

5. Give your characters depth and richness, if you can mention little things that may not sprout plotlines without cluttering the story. Perhaps a character tries hard to paint, and he's just absolutely awful at it. And perhaps this will not turn out to be a keystone of the plot sixty pages later. Unless you're writing a mystery, I would caution you against plotting so tightly that every single tiny revelation about a character will wind up meaning something. This kind of crossword-puzzle fun is great in the right circumstances, but if your readers aren't warned, they may grow irritated at being required to remember that, because Harald likes cats, that must mean he's the master chess player. Conversely, if you aren't subtle with this kind of thing, the readers will see your "clever plot twists" coming a mile away. "Oh, so she can paint pictures that are supposed to come to life but don't? Of course they'll come to life just in time to save the day!"

6. Don't write character profiles. That's right. I said don't. They are very mechanical things, and as I noted already, these are breathing people who will walk your pages, not machines. You may want to start out with a few basic facts about your character- "Jaeni is stubborn, has blue eyes, and really doesn't want to take the sword out of the stone"- but don't try to know each and every detail about your character before you start writing. Some of these might be details that will never, ever show up. If you have an entry in every character profile for "What he likes to drink" and you write down tea for Rieni, and then we never see her drinking it, what's the point? Alas, some authors feel compelled to mention that Rieni likes tea if they have written this down in the character's profile, even though it may have no place in the story. This kind of thing will also make the story feel mechanical, and your character a made thing.

7. Spend at least a little time trying to emphasize with every character. This doesn't mean that you have to write chapters from every POV, but try to understand what makes them tick. Perhaps the heroine's enemy who constantly rips her clothes and taunts her doesn't do it for no good reason, but because the heroine once tripped her and laughed at her in front of the entire school, and that's something her enemy cannot forgive. Every character will have motives, reasons, ideas, and beliefs that seem right to them. I recommend neutrality from the author's point of view. Don't create characters just to torment them, unless you're writing a parody or a piece that you won't ever show to anyone else. Taking your hero's part too strongly and laughing at the bully obvously as yourself, not just from the hero's mind, is another way to plant Miss Sucky in a world full of robots, and too often a leftover of high school days, where the author couldn't imagine that fellow students who tormented her had lives and minds just as complex as hers.

8. On a similar note, don't create characters just for your main character to torment and triumph over. You may think that your story requires it. Trust me, it doesn't. Miss Sucky and stories that tend to follow Miss Sucky around (for example, most generic romance plots) require it. There, the Other Woman should be a simple and shallow woman, or a bitch, or whatever other stereotype the author has in mind. But that is not a breathing character. And neither is Miss Sucky. Every character should have their lives outside the heroine, even though the heroine's mindset may dominate the story. If you are writing from the viewpoint of a character who would probably be incapable of having this kind of insight, work to make sure the reader knows that you, the author, are not that blind. Embedding small contradictions in the story between what your blind heroine thinks should happen and what actually happens is one way of doing this. Your heroine can shrug them off and go on. Your readers will know the truth: that there is a wider world out there that your heroine just doesn't happen to grasp.

9. Do not make your characters overdramatic. This is part of avoiding making them Miss Sucky, but it also means not making them the best at everything they do- the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most powerful, the most talented. Give them flaws, of course, but also give them sheer weaknesses. Think about the consequences of having one great ability. If a character has devoted her life to learning how to play the harp well, would she really also be the most beautiful creature in creation? She probably wouldn't take care of her appearance that obsessively, to begin with. And sometimes an ability itself can hamper a character. Say you've got a great sword-fighter, famous for it. Then the lord that captured him takes away his sword. Would he also happen to be good at bare-handed fighting? Or would he freeze in doubt and panic?

10. Give your characters time. One of the terms I am steadily coming to hate, the more I read amateur writing on the Internet, is "plot bunny." This seems, as far as I can tell, to be a sudden inspiration or idea for a story that the author starts writing almost immediately. Sometimes these work out. More often, the plot bunnies resemble other overused story ideas (Mary Sues tend to be like this) or don't have enough driving force to give the author much, and the story collapses halfway through. Remember that some of your work is always going to be work. You shouldn't rely on inspiration for the whole thing. And you shouldn't rush into writing a character the moment she comes into being. Think about her, Give her time. I'm currently writing a novel whose characters first came to me ten years ago. I thought about writing the story many times before then, but I'm glad now that I waited. One of the main characters, Somal, was always going to be half-mad, but I didn't realize until a few weeks before I began that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister, which is now so integral to his character that I wonder how I could not have known that.

11. Listen to your characters. If you suddenly realize in the writing that the woman you're writing about has gray eyes, don't stay enslaved to your conception of her as having green eyes. At its best, writing is like a continuing conversation with the character, or even becoming the character. Never fear to alter in mid-stride. You can always go back and revise if it doesn't work. Most of the time, though, I think it does work, and the characters that stay most lifeless to me are those the authors claim to have all planned out before the work and never change.

12. Don't take the easy way out. If you know that the best ending for your story is to have the hero die, don't balk just because you're in love with the character. In fact, falling in love with your characters in general is something I would not recommend. Loving them is one thing; being infatuated and emotionally tied up with them is quite another. It's likely to lead not only to cliched endings but to the other problems I mentioned above: creating characters whose perceptions are supposed to be identical with reality, creating characters who are only there for the main character to show up, and so on.

13. Most of all, stay true to the character. If you have a character who's a poet, perhaps it's permissible that he suddenly starts talking about eyes like the sunset sky. If you have a sailor, he can start talking in dialect. Don't insert dialogue that your character wouldn't say. But, actually, I think dialogue is one of the easier things to manage here. Description, exposition, and action- the things supposedly in the narrative's voice- can too easily become couched in a style that doesn't fit the character. Let the bard become rhapsodic about the mountains, if you're in his point of view. Don't expect someone who's lived in them all her life to suddenly start talking about how beautiful they are, just because you want the reader to appreciate your descriptive skills. If you have a plot-driven story that absolutely needs certain things to happen at certain points, choose the appropriate character for the job. If you have a character-driven story (always the best kind, I think), then accept that the reader isn't going to hear about how absolutely beautiful the mountains are, and inform them later. Or not at all.

Certainly not all my characters breathe, but I like to think most of them do- and that if I recognize a lurching robot or one fit for the dissection table, I strap them down and give them a jolt of lightning.

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