“What’s Wrong with Me?” Creating Organic Characters

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, all well-written stories are character driven — the progression of events is fueled almost entirely by the thoughts and actions of the characters therein. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times in which something might happen to your protagonist, just that the responsive actions of your protagonist should be the driving force behind how those events evolve. A simpler way to put this idea is by way of equation.

A poorly written story will look something like this:

Event 1 + Event 2 = Event 3

In this structure, the events dictate how the plot evolves. Typically, stories involving this sort of technique will seem dry to read, and will oppose most attempts of literary interpretation. Popular examples of this story structure can be found within commercial fiction like The Da Vinci Code. The best way to describe these stories is that the characters are secondary to the plot arc.

A simple example of a character-driven story, on the other hand, will look like this:

Event 1 + Character Reaction = Event 2

See how, although the external stimulus of Event 1 might catalyze the actions of the character, is is the character and his reactions that drive the plot into Event 2. Examples of this sort of writing style can be seen in popular novels like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Within the book, it is the vibrant and exploratory personalities of Harry, Ron, and Hermione that fuel the plot and drive events forward.

With this idea of a character-driven plot in mind, does it not make sense that creating multi-faceted, organic characters for your story is of the utmost importance? Well, yeah. Of course it does.

As a writer, your characters should live and breath within your head. You should be able to have silent conversations with them. They should surprise you sometimes, while you’re writing. That necessary level of depth and realism is why most writers tend to compile their characters from aspects of real people. In fact, it is a running joke within the creative writing world that a writer’s first story always features himself as the protagonist since introspection tends to deliver the most accessible character personality.

Don’t make the mistake of completely basing a character off of a real person. Take a personality trait here, steal a nervous tick there, but don’t entirely recreate a friend or colleague on the page. You’ll find yourself struggling to reconcile how you want to think of them with how they really are, and the extrapolation of what you know about a person into how they would react to fictitious events can feel personal — even invasive.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t attempt to imagine aspects of a character apart from the characteristics of real people. Your personal interactions should inspire creation, not limit it. As with everything, practice makes perfect, and eventually you’ll reach the point at which you can create characters without looking to people around you. That’s the goal.

So great! You’ve managed to piece together an organic character! Or have you? Don’t forget the most important, the most enlivening, the most empathetic aspect to any character: fault. Every character needs a dramatic flaw. Audiences are drawn to imperfect characters.

Once really considered, this concept is so obvious that I hardly even need to make an example. Take your favorite television character. Does he have a flaw? Of course he does. Look at popular favorites like Sherlock Holmes (social ineptitude and drug addiction), Bilbo Baggins (self-doubt, deception, and a lust for comfort), Dorian Grey (pride and narcissism), Ron Weasley (clumsiness, envy, and a lot of poor luck), or even the Turkish wrestler, Fezzik (imbecility) . Empathetic characters are made from imperfection.

Of course, there’s quite a bit more to a character than fault. He should stumble, then overcome his own imperfection. Readers connect with characters who struggle and fight against their own inadequacies. The cowardly who show bravery (Neville Longbottom); the ugly who become beautiful (The Ugly Duckling); the selfish who become selfless (Edmund Pevensie). Even if you plan on a character’s flaws eventually leading to his downfall, as is typically the case with most antagonists, the hope that the character will overcome those flaws can be a powerful hook in your audience.

But how do you create imperfection in a character? You can’t simply go throwing personality flaws around like candy. Too much fault makes an unlikable character, while ill-fitting fault can ruin a story. Where’s the middle ground? Well, that’s hard to say, as it varies from character to character and from narrative to narrative. The best method, I’ve found, is to start with your character’s backstory and try to imagine what imperfection might arise from their upbringing. Was your protagonist homeless as a child? Maybe he tends to be greedy with his things because he had to hold onto what what little he owned growing up. Did your foil character have a lot of brothers and sisters? Maybe he acts out and seeks attention because that was the only way to get noticed by his parents. Was your character struck blind in a tragic accident? I’ll bet she struggles with self-image. Bullied in grade-school? Raised by a nanny? Had lots of dogs? Even elements of a backstory that don’t seem negative can produce imperfection in roundabout ways. Take your time and don’t be afraid to get creative!

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