Chip MacGregor

September 14, 2008

Creating Characters


Since many people are about to board a plane for a huge fiction-writing conference, let me continue in that vein… Some people have written to ask about creating strong characters in their fiction. If you're going to establish strong characters, the best things you can do are to give them dialogue that demonstrates who they are and give them something to do. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of time describing your characters (unless there is some unique reason for doing so, like they are seven feet tall or they have a tattoo of Ohio on their forehead). Often writers will offer one descriptive fact, as sort of an advance organizer. But don't bother describing everything about their history, physical description, dental records, etc. And, of course, to create a great character I think you have to have somebody in mind — a real person, whom you've met and found interesting, and who you can talk about from your experience… not just some mystery individual you created in your head.

With that as an introduction, let me offer six tips for keeping readers talking to your characters…

1. History is made by big people. Big personalities, big dreams, big ideas. However, most stories need more conflict than "the big guy doesn't get what he wants." Interesting stories are often made by small, weak people. So give your characters (even your big characters) some weakness and you'll discover the readers can relate to them.

2. At the same time, page-turning novels are stories about special days, not ordinary days. So take that small, weak character, put him or her into an extraordinary circumstance. Kurt Vonnegut once said the best thing you can do in a novel is to create wonderful people and have the most awful things happen to them. He was right. So get the character to act big and strong after showing they are not always that way. Everybody wants to do something heroic in their lifetime.

3. As a reader, I need to like your protagonist. If I don't like your lead character, I'm far less apt to read your book. Make him or her sympathetic, so that I WANT to see what happens.

4. I don't think it gets said very often, but lead characters in a page-turner have to be emotional. That is, they have to experience emotions, be self-aware, and reflect on their situations. A protagonist who doesn't care about his circumstances makes for a dull story.

5. In addition to there being some outer conflict that sweeps your characters into events, there needs to be some sort of inner conflict. That way the characters aren't predictable — they have some depth to them, and I can find them interesting.

6. If you really want to make your lead character memorable, give him or her some attitude. What they say, what they do, and what they think all need to reflect somebody who has an edge. Whether it's urbane, sardonic, world-weary, angry, curious — whatever. A page-turning novel requires a protagonist with attitude.

And yes – I've been responding to people asking about "page-turners," not "literary quality." We'll get to the notion of creating great literature soon. But I first wanted to talk about creating commercial fiction — something that will sell.

See you at ACFW!


PS: And by the way, I got to watch my beloved Oregon Ducks beat Purdue in double-overtime yesterday. An exciting game, shared with my best friend Mike and a couple thousand of my closest fellow Duck fans. Before the game, we stopped into the local Pizza Hut to buy some lunch, and after pigging out on pizza, salad, and those cinnamon stick thingies they say is desert, the manager in charge refused to take out money. He said since we'd come such a long way just to get beat, he'd buy our lunch for us. A nice young man (though completely wrong, of course). I told him thanks, and promised him I'd blog about it and encourage people to frequent  his joint. If you're ever in West Lafayette, Indiana, it's a friendly place. Thanks, my friend!

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