Part 1 - 8 min 12 sec - Sympathetic characters part 1
Part 6 - 12 min 52 sec - Character creation examples part 2
Link to Part 1 -
Lecture Four Notes
Making realistic characters – the concept of a sympathetic character. You want all of your characters, even your villains to be sympathetic for some odd reason.
What makes you like a character when you’re reading a book – what makes a character sympathetic to you?
1) Can identify with him in some way (big three)
2) He has problems – the underdog syndrome
3) Consistency – they can evolve, but not doing random things – should act like themselves
a. Characters in books actually act a lot more consistent than people in RL
4) They have depth
5) They have something you aspire to be (big three)
6) He is proactive - can be a problem – the villains are usually more proactive than the heroes
7) Nice – if in a movie, you want to show who the hero or the villain is, have one person pat a puppy and someone else kick a puppy – it takes 30 sec
8) If people like them – they have friends who like them
a. You can have a character who is down on himself, but has friends who talk about how wonderful he is. Watson does this for Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is borderline sociopathic, and very off-putting, but because Watson likes him and is his friend, we see him as our quirky friend, instead. Watson also provides a foil and a good means of explanation. One is quirky and the other likes him anyway.
b. You can characterize villains the same way, by giving them friends, love interests, people who care about them. George R.R. Martin is a genius at this. Characters are evil, awful people but sometimes we like them simply because of the interaction they go through with people who do like them. And we could say, “Oh well, if this were my brother, I could see why you’d be affectionate toward this person, even though he’s awful.” Suddenly they are a character, rather than a cackling villain.
10) Things that are not expected
Instead of saying they are a stamp collector as a quirk, in the opening seen, show the main character jumping through all kinds of hoops to get this stamp they really love. It will make the readers like him, to see him actively pursuing something, even if the stamp has nothing to do with the main plot.
It shows a character who is willing to sacrifice time and energy to achieve his goals.
Even if a character is evil, people will like them anyway if they are proactive. That’s ok.
There’s a bit of a continuum between the “every man” or the “superman” – either we see what we are in them, or we see what we want to be in them. Often a character will progress from the “common man” archetype to the “superman.”
Examples: Star Wars, Rand al’Thor, Spiderman (perfect archetype of the every man who becomes superman) anyone on the hero’s journey; Frodo doesn’t count – he stays an everyman and Aragorn stays as a superman the whole book, though in the movies, he goes from middle to super
It is one way to view your characters. Almost every good character is going to start out with a little smidge of “every man” and a little smidge of “superman.” They are an expert at something – they have a super power, it may not be something you would think of usually as a superpower.
A good example is Sam from LoTR. He is super-humanly loyal. He may even be the hero of the whole story.
You do not have to do ALL of these in this list up here, though if you can, great. They are all tools in your toolbox that you can use to increase the level of the sympatheticness of the character. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have one that leaves out one or two.
Keep an eye on proactivity – it is the one people slip up on the most. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to forget. You want to make all your characters proactive and their problems personal to them. It will make the story more interesting.
Example: Someone we don’t like, but who is interesting; Rothfuss’s Quoth – he’s not likeable, he’s kind of a jerk, but because of all the other stuff, he’s fascinating to read about. The dude in the Rapunzel movie is not very likeable at the beginning, but he gets really likeable by the end.
It’s a mistake to make an unlikeable person and then take away all the other things away from him that would make him interesting, by say, making him not proactive and grumble about everything. People sometimes make this mistake and the end result is a boring book.
Depth and Quirks
The depth is giving the character a unique view on life. You want to make them see the world in a very different way than other characters, but not boring us with long paragraphs about how they see the world.
1) You want to show don’t tell. This is a simple adage that is really hard to do, because you have to do it ALL the time, and even good authors will slide on it.
You will find a line like “Bruce hated puppies.” Every draft should be pushing toward more showing. It’s ok in a first draft, but try to build good habits. How can I show that Bruce hates puppies? Kicking a dog, or have a neighbor’s dog bark and say, “ugh, I hate that dog.”
2) Move it toward dialogue. Dialogue is inherently more show than tell. But you can still do lots of telling. When you do, it’s called Maid and Butler: “As you know, the master has been away for three weeks!” And the butler says, “I do know that! As you know, his wife has been getting really frisky with the gardener.” You don’t want to have characters discussing things they both already know, even when they say “We’ve had this argument a hundred times,” though that can side-step the issue. Instead, have the maid cleaning the master’s room and it’s not changed in three weeks because he’s been away. She’s doing something, and you see he’s been away at the same time. Show the maid notice the gardener come out of the tool shed humming to himself, and the wife come out a few minutes later. That’s 100x better.
Learn how to show who they are rather than telling who they are. This gets hooks into the reader. The reader is more onboard.
3) Make them care about things other than the plot/main love interest
This is one of the big things that make a round character. If everything that they are and think about is focused toward their goal in the story, they will feel fake to us.
Sanderson said he used to do this by accident by writing characters into roles. It’s very common in new writers. It’s especially common when you are writing the opposite gender, especially for “love interest role.”
Watch for this sometime – there are a few quirks authors tend to do when they put a character opposite of themselves into a story – the straight girl (stoic foil), you’ll see a lot in comics. They shouldn’t always be so neat that they tie up into exactly what’s going on in the plot.
Where is the character when the story starts? Most characters’ lives don’t start when the book starts. They should be going about their normal lives when the plot hits them like a freight train and derails it from them.
You should be considering what it is they want in life – what they want most, particularly if the plot had never happened (Oooo good idea). Do before, during and after plot. Your characters need to have multiple passions and desires that conflict and don’t go away when the plot starts. But, you don’t want to over-emphasize it either. (Example: character in Lost who lost is son, focuses on son too much).
· One of people’s favorite scenes in Wheel of Time is in book 4 is when Perrin spends a whole chapter just making door latches, because he loves being a blacksmith.
· In Star Trek, many people’s favorite episode is the one in which Picard is trapped inside a probe and spends an entire life learning how to play the flute and having a family.
Books are full of coincidences. Your job is to be a stage magician to make it seem less so. You have to have proper foreshadowing and world building – the backstory is there to make it believable. Not just “Ugh you’re a wizard. I don’t like wizards.” These are excuses rather than systemic things from the world that you expect. If you the readers can say “Ohhh no that’s going to be a problem” when the characters haven’t realized it yet, that is always a good thing.
What other relationships work besides a love interest for YA? What if you don’t want to include one? Besides love interests, mentor and student works well, best friends that start as not best friends, the alien creature someone is taming, etc. Although, love interests are very important for YA and is what draws most teens to books.
If you’re writing a teenage boy of 16, he should at least be sizing up the girls he meets and saying which one is pretty or not, because that’s how they are.
Character Building Exercise – four characters
Building a character who is not one dimensional. Building four characters. Not doing the expected.
Other exercises: Try to put your characters in each other’s roles. Put them in each other’s roles and see what happens one time.
What is preventing the main character from being a hero in this plot? That is separate from giving them passions. Make them a square peg in a round hole. They don’t fit their role.
You don’t have to push toward weird/quirks all the time. Some passions can be perfectly normal.
17 year old female (modern in UK)
Passionate about: croquet, necromancy
Secret: loved one died, and failed at raising them from the dead; powerful lich zombie in the basement
Sanderson likes this one so far. She lost someone (used a lot). She tried to raise them and failed and now there are horrible consequences. Good way to start the book.
52 year old guy (24th century; SF)
He’s a trash man in the future.
Secret: he digs through ppl’s trash to make stuff with zen gardens. He created something really dangerous – a bomb; immortality; an alternate time loop and now he’s in hiding
28 year old female
Guardian of her family – got younger siblings; father has Alzheimer’s
Secret: Lesbian, maybe responsible for absent mother, forbidden love interest (put push you away from assuming the women’s role is love interest); she’s actually an anti-war pacifist; or travel (really loves and wants to travel, she’s not telling her family that she feels tied down by them)
Look up the “Betchal Test” – there’s a movie with only one woman in it and a whole lot of guys, and the only conversation she ever has with other women is about men. Is there more than one woman in the book and does she talk to other women about something other than a man? You will be surprised about how often this comes up. This also comes up with minority characters. Sometimes they are cast as the perfect supermen, but they are the only one of their kind and they don’t ever get to be the leads – look up “the magical negro.”
Younger sister steals the first magic sword
6 year old boy
The color red
Superman complex – you feel like you must rescue everyone
Go do this kind of exercise with your friends
Have each of these characters walk through the same scene and notice different things and describe it in different ways – show us all that stuff about them, without saying anything in an info dump.
Not, “She was a necromancer.” But, “Oh, that’s a ward against necromancy on that building. I can’t enter it.”