What is character? Is it what we do when we know no one is watching? Well, yes, it is, but it is also something entirely different. As for being a writer, we spend the majority of our time alone, where no one can watch us, or if they are and we notice we give them a look like, “Are you jealous? Get a hobby you lurker!” Unless they are another writer and are observing us because they are writing about writers. I guess that’s okay and spares us from calling them out on their lurking.
All that being said, character…what the hell…
I guess what I want to speak about in terms of character(s) is make them authentic. When creating characters, research them. Yes, a lot of what we do, specifically as fiction writers, is make shit up, make people up, but that doesn’t make them entirely fictional. The best characters are relatable in some way. Even characters that are serial killers can be relatable. One simply has to ask how the book series and subsequent TV show Dexter was so popular? It was because on some levels Dexter Morgan was a relatable character. I personally can’t relate to his innate need to kill, but I can relate to his need for acceptance, his love for his family, and his moral code of punishing those that deserve punishment. Do I believe he should have murdered them? On the whole? No. But the character and the plot lines did have me questioning that sometimes.
Another aspect of character relatability and research is a character’s backround. For example, the character’s vocabulary. I’m not sure how many friends you have that are from the U.K. or Australia but they sometimes use a particular word that can be defined as offensive but can also be a term of endearment. That word is “cunt.” Like all words it depends how it is used. When referring to someone in a derogatory way, “cunt” is extremely offensive. When my Irish friend called me a cunt, I felt as though we had established a new level of friendship. That is because it was used as a term of endearment meaning friendship as it is sometimes used within that culture. So what I’m basically saying is that if you are writing a character from a culture, research their slang, both “good” and “bad”, and use both because both establish character in the proper ways it should be established. Another example is my Australian friend and his use of the word “mate.” His usage is meant in the way that a “mate” is a friend. It’s authentic to him, his culture, and his character.
All in all, make your characters your characters. Delve deep into yourself and the people you know. One thing I like to do is the reverse of what happens when a story gets adapted from page to screen. Often when adapting a book, a screenwriter will, through want or need, meld different characters into one. I like to take a person I know and break them into their component parts and then create characters from that point. Just take one aspect, like they play guitar and go from there. On this note, the one question I love to ask when creating a character is “what do they have in their pockets and why?” It creates so many possibilities. And finally, it’s important to remember and continually ask three questions: 1) What does this character want? 2) How are they going to get/achieve it? and 3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it? All three are common to both the writing and the acting world, but they help keep you focused and on point with each specific character and they will also help you, the writer, form original, authentic characters that are yours.