Tuesday, November 16, 2021

High School Writing Tip Sheets - Creating Characters in Fiction

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For the past few years I have been teaching high school writing in our homeschool tutorial co-op. Having seen several groups of students through the courses, I've noticed some issues and questions coming up regularly. I hope these Tip Sheets will be helpful to my students, their parents, and perhaps to other students and parent/teachers as well.


So you've got a creative writing assignment and you do have a good plot idea for your story, but you'll need a cast of characters to pull off the story. Most of us have read a book or watched a movie that was a decent story, but we didn't really connect well with the characters. Authors want their characters - especially the leads - to be memorable and distinctive, and to be engaging to readers. After all, if I start reading a book in which I don't care about the lead characters, it's less likely that I'll stick with the book.

The Creative Writing class I teach has been working on developing well-rounded characters recently. Here are some of the tips (most are from the textbook Writing Fiction [In High School] by Sharon Watson) that we've discussed and practiced.

Base characters on multiple sources.

In general, it's better to create a character that is a combination of traits and features from people you know, characters in literature, people in history, and yourself. Placing a character in your story that is  pretty obviously your best friend or family member might not be a compliment. 

Make the details and descriptions count.

Be choosy about the physical descriptions of your characters. It's not necessary to give a detailed description of exactly what the character looks like - so mention the descriptors that are relevant and use physical features, clothing, and movements in a meaningful way. Sometimes those descriptors become part of who the character is - like Harry Potter's round glasses and lightning-bolt scar hint at his personality and background and help define his character. What you choose to say about how the character dresses or moves is important to building the reader's impression of the character, so make sure to mention the details that develop that picture or will shape the story.
Don't write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story. ~Ethan Canin
By the way, the lead character(s) and antagonist need some description, but the 'extras' in the cast really don't. If you spend time carefully describing the three nameless guys that are waiting with the lead character at the bus stop, the reader expects those guys to be important to the plot and that they will show up later in the story. If they don't, you've misled your reader.

Establish the viewpoint character and voice.

If you're writing in first person, your viewpoint character is obvious. Give them a narrative style that suits the personality and setting you've assigned to the character. If you're writing in third person, you'll still have a viewpoint character, and the way the narration describes their thoughts and feelings should reflect the character's 'voice' as well. The voice of a naive young child as a viewpoint character is different from that of an arrogant college student, and different from that of a lonely elderly widow. 

Figure out what makes the character tick.

What is the character's motivation? What does he want? Why does he take the actions that get the story rolling? What is the challenge she is trying to overcome? What is she afraid of? Who does she love? 

The conflict of the story, at its most basic, is the lead character trying to get what he or she wants most despite the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) standing in the way. The character's biggest fear is often the challenge he must overcome in order to reach his goal. So as an author, get inside your character's head and decide who he is and what drives him. 
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, something is bound to happen. ~Anne Lamott

Give characters emotions and reactions that are relatable.

Consider how you feel physically when you're nervous or furious or excited. Pay attention to the facial expressions and actions of others that indicate their emotional state. Use those observations to make your characters come alive with believable responses to their stories, and to do justice to the descriptions. A first person narrator can mention her racing heart and clammy hands when she's feeling panicky about a showdown with her rival, and that's more effective than just saying "I was so nervous." A third person narrator can tell about the viewpoint character gritting his teeth and clenching his fists and the reader will get a feel for how angry he is. And those viewpoint characters will have to interpret the actions of other characters to figure out how they feel. As the lead character watches another character's face go pale and hands start to shake, it's obvious that the character is frightened. 
Character exists in emotions and sensations. Without it, he no more represents a living person than a fleshless skeleton. ~Francis Marion
Characters should react appropriately to the story's situations. When the Big Bad Wolf comes snarling at the door, the little pigs can be expected to be quaking in fear. When the hero finally succeeds in slaying the dragon, he should be relieved or happy, or both. And likely exhausted. The reactions and responses of characters should indicate the impact of the situations they are facing.
You've got to have characters you can identify with, and there'd better be trouble brewing somewhere. Whatever these people's lives have been before, they're about to change in a big way. That's what stories are all about. ~Jenny Wingfield

Create an empathetic lead.

In general, the lead character shouldn't be practically perfect in every way. Mary Poppins is perhaps the exception. In order for readers to be engaged with the protagonist, he should have some weaknesses or flaws that make him vulnerable or relatable. Even a lead character that is an overall lousy person can be empathetic if he has a sense of humor, is in danger, shows integrity or courage, or is vulnerable in some way. 
The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities. ~Raymond Chandler
Some favorite examples we use in class are Tony Stark at the beginning of the movie Iron Man and The Grinch. 

Tony Stark is not a good person in that opening scene. He's arrogant, sexist, selfish, and rude. But he does have a sense of humor, and he does graciously kid around with the young soldiers. The way the soldiers react to him lets the viewer know they don't take his insensitive and sexist comments seriously - they smile and laugh, and they aren't offended. Then when the armored vehicle comes under attack, Stark is in danger and winds up alone and seriously injured - by his own weapon. Viewers might not like Stark at that point, but we've been drawn in and most of us want to know what happens to Stark and if he will have a chance to redeem himself. 

The Grinch is another character that doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities. He's selfish and grouchy and irritable. He's not attractive. He plots ways to hurt the Whos just because he is annoyed by their singing. He is not nice to his little dog . . . but wait . . . he must look after the dog somehow because the dog sticks around. The Grinch is alone and friendless, his shoes are too tight, and perhaps he is cold and hungry. He is an empathetic character. 
Think of your main characters as dinner guests. Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you've created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they'd better be compelling. ~Po Bronson

For more about Point of View and Viewpoint Characters, see: High School Writing Tip Sheets - Point of View

Most of this article is based on information in the wonderful textbook Writing Fiction [In High School] from Writing with Sharon Watson. This textbook is the one I've taught from in the co-op for several years, and I highly recommend it.

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