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Choosing Characters

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

There are a lot of factors that go into managing the cast of a story. Some only have a few, and some have far too many! To be honest, I’ve realized in my own writing that one of my earliest bad habits was that whenever I’d need something to do, I’d just create new characters. Many of those characters got totally scrapped, in the end, or merged into other characters to give them stronger personalities. For me personally, I’ve always loved characters who are not particularly mainstream. I tend to flock to the ones with less told about them, or the ones with a lot told about them that just don’t have the same following. I’ll spare you the psychoanalysis on that—and believe me, it’s a long one—but to simplify it, let’s suffice to say I like the characters who are overlooked. I like it even more when those characters are not overlooked by their writers. When they have a story to tell and a life that is equally as compelling as the protagonist’s, but doesn’t have the camera on them. That, to me, is more interesting than following any singular protagonist. That’s not to say I give any protagonist permission to be boring—that’s a sin in its own right. The people your audience will be following need to have something interesting about them to latch onto.

For example, Kross is a very mild-mannered protagonist, and often keeps his emotions in check. However, he’s quite self-aware of this, and even acts too hard on himself about it; he accuses himself of having no personality. This level of internal conflict—which only graduates further into itself in interactions with very extroverted characters—is something he has to overcome to be at peace with himself.

Now then, how do you go about choosing characters for your writing? There are two polarized methods, as is the spectrum for all writing: plotting or pantsing.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of that, here's the gist: plotting is a technique of writing that involves planning out all of the details of what is to come, and following that guideline as you write. Pantsing, by contrast, is “flying by the seat of your pants,” and involves no planning. You write and whatever happens, happens.

I personally fall closer to the plotting end of the spectrum, but not so far that I don’t give my characters room to breathe. I prefer to learn about my characters as they’re written, by plotting certain interactions and times/places they have to be, but writing them to interact in those scenes how I intuitively believe they would—which is really all pantsing is. It’s just intuitively writing down what your character does based on what you feel they’d do. The core of this philosophy is one that I subscribe to heavily, because it revolves around the author themselves knowing that their character is its own person, and not a reflection of the writer.

John Doe kills puppies, because he is a serial maniac. I wrote that. Yes, I conceptualized that, too—but if you’re neither smart enough to acknowledge that some people do less morally-upstanding things than the rest of us, or creative enough to include moral diversity in your story… You’re going to have a hard time writing. The mathematics of it is simple, really. I am not my characters, I’m just the guy who writes down what they do.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t hate the person who was creative enough to put a serial killer on the screen in such gruesome detail that you wonder just how anyone could ever come up with that. You’re already doing yourself and the story a disservice. Hate the killer, hate the world they live in, hate the circumstance and the murder of your favorite character—but don’t hate the writer. I’m bold enough to admit that I admire people who can evoke such emotion in their fiction. I mean, we all love to hate the Joker, right? And we can all agree that some characters just won’t ever be redeemed. That they don’t seek it, and that even if they did, maybe the damage they did was beyond reparation enough for them to come back from. Point is, some people are a little more prone to actions we don’t like, and those people deserve representation on the screen. Would you root for the Avengers if Thanos wasn’t so dead-set on following through with his plan? No, there’d be no sense of a real threat.

As Oscar Wilde once said, there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

With that in mind, we know now that we have an effectively unlimited assortment of traits that we can bestow upon characters.

How do we do that?

When it comes to creating characters, the biggest flaw a writer can fall victim to is the age-old pitfall of making a character one-dimensional.

What’s that? It’s when your character is defined by one trait and one trait only. Brad exists solely to torment people, Richard can only speak if it warrants laughter, and Beth? She’s pretty. That’s all these people are. Oh, you wanted something more? Well, duh! Characters are people. One more time for the people in the back: CHARACTERS ARE PEOPLE!

Some of us, ourselves, reduce people to one or two traits. But the truth is, every last one of us has a life equally as complex as the next, riddled with personal struggles, things to love, strengths and weaknesses. If you want a character to feel real, they have to check all of those boxes.

And it’s perfectly okay if they don’t upfront, on your first time writing them or on their first time on the screen. When you meet someone, sure, they might be teeming with personality. We all love those people—save those who envy their charisma—but the truth is, many people do not have the personality or the opportunity to display that level of depth during your first time with them. I mean, yeah, that guy down the street might be screaming opera with a crack-pipe in his hand, and it won’t be very hard to assume we know a lot about him, but even he has sides we have never and will never get to see. Each person in our lives gets to see only so many angles of us. To our parents, we want to be the type of child who can impress them, to stop them from worrying about us. To our friends, we want to make them laugh, and improve their lives. To our partners, we want to inspire growth and change and share a level of intimacy that nobody else can see. These levels of intimacy would lose their value if everyone received the exact same treatment, and the person attached to it would seem one-note. You might have a deeply sarcastic character, who can’t take anything seriously. That happens in the real world, but most often, that sarcasm is some sort of coping mechanism from something in their childhood. It doesn’t have to be an intense trauma, it doesn’t have to be something so morbid that nobody wants to learn about it, but it’s real. Maybe mom and dad made things too real for them at home because one of them was having an affair, and the only way out was to laugh off intense situations. Who knows, go wild, but don’t be afraid to include that level of reality to people. Escapism is a good short-term solution, but it only evolves into running away in the end. You never develop the skills to conquer your troubles if you’re just constantly escaping, and although every fictional world is an escape, it can be the exact set of tools you need to help you return back to earth when it’s done.

None of my characters are perfect, and none of them have it all figured out. Even the best of them have their troubles. Kross thinks he lacks personality, Dawn is vengeful as they come when someone wrongs her, Apollo is lost in this world he’s been thrust into with so much status and sudden fame and has to find himself in it. Every one of these characters has a crisis of their own, and they all suffer the consequences of it, one way or the next. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kross’s beliefs blind him from seeing that it’s okay to be reserved, to simply enjoy the company of his friends, and that being so mild-mannered makes him reliable in the heat of battle. He lacks these emotions not because he’s incapable of feeling, but because he’s disciplined enough to put them aside for what actually matters. So when you’re choosing characters, build them based on the story you want to tell. Either write that story as a pantser and see who they become, or imbue traits into them that you know they need in order to display your goal, and let them shine in situations that can bring those out.

Build characters with skillsets that will come into play later in the narrative (plotter), or throw them into a situation they aren’t prepared for and make them figure it out (pantser)!

Whatever you do, don’t reduce people to one trait. There are so many funny, pretty, and mean people in the world. Don’t disservice your entire cast by making one of those traits the defining factor of your character. You want a funny character? Okay, they’re neurodivergent and use humor to mask. You want a mean character? Okay, they’re mean because they’re struggling at home with something they can’t get over, and every interaction is draining them of energy they never have. You want a pretty character? Fine! Pretty people are everywhere, but for the love of all that is holy, PLEASE give them a personality! Pretty is not a personality trait! Make them brilliant, and constantly struggling to prove to the world they they’re smart, or worth something other than just their ass!

Station plays a big role in how you’re perceived, too. I’ve seen a few parts of this world, met a few people I’d never have met otherwise. I’ve met people with 8-year degrees who have the emotional intelligence of a dog, and I’ve met strippers who have blown my mind. People exist outside of what they do for money. We’re all victims of circumstance in some way, so define what the circumstances of your world are, and make people get in there and deal with it. Nobody reads the story of the apocalypse 10 years before it happens, to the guy with the perfect life and so much money they don’t know what to do with. They read the story of the guy who lost everything to that nuke, that he only survived because he was on a business trip to Europe. Now his money doesn’t matter, because the country of his currency no longer exists. We don't want the standard. We want the struggle. And no matter how long it lasts, or how difficult it is for the character, we want to see them get back up. We want to see them get back up so badly that we will cry for them, scream for them, imagine ourselves being there just to help them. We want them to get back up that we’re willing to sit and watch them go through hell for as long as it takes to see the outcome. We need to see if they get back up or if they stay down for good. We need to see if they turn to Vader or if they turn Vader back. And sometimes, we need to see if they even survive. But that’s all I got for you today, beloved ones. I’ll be back with another blog soon, so stay posted! Feel free to comment your thoughts, share the blog, and head on over to our forums to say hello. Can’t wait to see you there!

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