By Joseph Garraty
There are a million writers out there, each with his or her own particular skill. Some authors are plot authors. They can weave dozens of threads seamlessly together into a tight, slick story, propelled by events to a perfectly-executed climax. Most thriller authors fall into this category. Other authors are great at theme and symbolism, weaving hidden layers of meaning into every sentence. Still others excel at description, action, dialogue, or symbolism—everybody’s got their strong points, and readers gravitate to different authors for different reasons.
Me, I’m a character guy. If the characters are believable and interesting, I don’t even care whether they’re sympathetic or not—I want to know about them. I want to know what happens to them, how they react, what choices they make, and why.
The trick for me as a writer, then, has been figuring out how to make my characters believable and interesting, and while there’s always more to learn, I like to think I’ve got a few pieces in place.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. Characters have to want something.
There is no escaping this. Reading about a character who wants nothing is like reading about a lump of mashed potatoes. It’s kind of bland, sits there and does nothing, and tends to get pushed around by whomever wants to push it around. A character has to have goals. Those goals can be as simple as “I would very much like to survive until tomorrow,” or as bizarre as “I really need a plasmicophic ferangulator for my time machine so I can go back and prevent my great-grandfather from flirting with Ms. Enderlein back in 1927 and thereby save civilization,” but they absolutely must have them.
Why? Because. . .
2. Characters have to do something.
This is associated with #1, but it doesn’t follow by necessity. Big Pete might want Skeezy Al to stop hitting on his sister, but he could just sit back and watch, waiting for the problem to resolve itself. However, if that’s all he ever does, he’s not going to be very believable or interesting. Eventually he’s gotta do something about it. Maybe he blows up Skeezy Al’s car, hires a few thugs to beat him up, or even goes over and nicely asks him to please knock it off—but his motivation has to translate into action. In other words, things don’t just happen to him—he makes some things happen.
3. Characters have to have personalities.
This does not mean you have to draw up a seven-page dossier on your character’s likes and dislikes, make up a dating site profile for them, or make them extreme caricatures. It just means you should have some idea of what they like, how their moral framework is structured, and what aggravates them. These things will color their actions, maybe even drive them. (And look—we’re back at actions again, not sitting around rummaging through somebody’s internal monologue.) I don’t have a clue what Stacy’s favorite color is, but I know she can’t abide the smell of sauerkraut, which will cause her to flee the sinister German grandmother in Chapter Twelve. That’s overly simplistic, but you get the idea.
4. Characters have to be true to their personalities.
I don’t care if you need Loretta to push Cletus off the building to his death in Chapter Six in order for the plot to work—if you’ve painted Loretta as a real sweetheart, harmless as a teddy bear, for the first five chapters, nobody’s going to buy her sudden change of character. The same is true of the half-sloshed dockworker hanging with his buddies late one night—he’s going to drop a few f-bombs, or a few dozen, regardless of whether you think your mom will disapprove when she reads your book. You and your mom are going to have to get over it, unless you’re content to populate your book with washed-out characters that have been robbed of all verisimilitude.
Your characters must act like themselves, not automatons in service to the plot, nor censored versions of themselves in service to the local bluenoses. That’s not their job.
And that’s about it. There’s a lot of room to play within those guidelines, but if you give your characters goals and personalities and have them act consistently with those goals and personalities, you’re already well on your way.
Joseph Garraty is an author of dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction. He has worked as a construction worker, rocket test engineer, environmental consultant, technical writer, and deadbeat musician. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
His latest book is the horror novel, Voice.
You can visit his website at www.josephgarraty.com.
Connect with Joseph at Twitter at www.twitter.com/JosephGarraty.