Welcome to the Character Creation Screen
Time to examine one of my weaknesses and talk about character. Read the writing techniques I’ve used to force depth from shallow waters!
So here we are, a new year, a fresh start. I was originally going to write a “one year on” post, to see how my writing had developed, but that just got me depressed, considering how bad I’ve been at writing over the past year.
So I thought I’d look at something that is absolutely essential when you’re writing fiction. The characters.
In the Beginning…
I’ve been writing for a very long time. Of course, back when I was a kid I was rubbish at it. My stories were all one note with no depth. And while elements of my writing have developed significantly over the intervening (gulp) decades, there is one element I’m still rather weak at.
It pains me to admit this, considering how much I’ve written over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I can write a main protagonist and antagonist well, but the rest of the cast tend to be shallow, or archetypes, especially my female characters. And I am very often guilty of creating characters as plot devices, which should be avoided at all costs.
But why am I so bad with characters? I could blame my lack of social skills, my aversion to getting to know other people well. This is probably especially evident with my female characters. It makes me cringe when I think that most of them tend to be stock character types which are easily interchangeable. I could blame the culture we live in, where there are very few good female roles, but I think it goes deeper than that.
Allow me to focus on my current project – the perpetually redrafted Wasp Whisperer. My Protagonist is the most fleshed out character. I have his back story worked out and he has a strong character voice. All the other characters though are fairly flat.
This is especially difficult in first person – all you have to go on are the thoughts and opinions of the central character. Now, I have been working out the backstories for the other characters, but mainly it’s because they’re caught up in his orbit. Everything revolves around him – he’s like a black hole, sucking people in and wrecking their lives.
So how do you give the other characters depth, without making them clichés or archetypes?
Well, in a way, you can’t. I would recommend reading The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. It is a very fascinating and interesting book, about memetics. And I’m not talking about “internet memes” (which is a bastardization of the term anyway), but about the social and cultural influences that make us who we are. If you come to accept that we are all, each of us, nothing more than different combinations of social and cultural ideas, then it can help to shape characters a lot more easily.
Matt has talked about gender switching in a post before, which he recently naned one of his top ten of the year. I’ve been in two minds about this. Part of me thinks it’s lazy (depending on context) to just write a character (as male) and then switch the gender. Of course, for the majority of characters (again, depending on context) then, gender shouldn’t matter, unless it is central to the plot. But other times I’ve had major difficulties with a piece of writing, and switching the gender of a character has given the piece greater depth, and opened up new avenues.
I had a similar problem with one of my antagonists from Wasp Whisperer. He was clichéd to the point of being a pantomime villain. All he needed was a moustache to twirl. So, similar to the gender thing, I switched his personality round completely. Far from being “the bad guy”, I actually changed him into (in very broad, political terms) a “good guy”, which generated a whole new dynamic within the piece. Of course, it did leave a void on “the antagonist team”, but then that allowed me to sharpen focus on a few background events that previously lacked context, and gave further depth to the plot.
But What About…
The characters? Yes yes, I know, it sounds like this has all worked to further the world building, and it has. But in doing so, it has helped make the characters feel more like a part of the world, as opposed to being ciphers who existed in it. In fact that experiment worked so well, that I decided to apply the same technique to my other antagonists (who again, had very muddy motivations). In doing so, I had even more focus on those previously mentioned background events, and it helped me develop these two characters beyond the tired clichés that they were.
So readers, how do you develop your characters? Do you have difficulties (like I do) in writing the opposite gender? How do you overcome the hurdles in creating characters, giving them depth, and ensuring that they are interesting? As ever, comment below…