Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Making Believable Characters: Heroes and Villains

Hello, everyone!

I was looking for inspirational quotes, and I came across this quote from Stephen King. The quote was a snippet about the writing process, concerning the building of characters, which is something that challenges authors today. The challenge lies in how to build a character to the point that the lines between reality and fiction blur, making them so real that they are almost palpable.

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose” – Stephen King.

So it made me think about heroes and villains in general. When I used to watch Disney movies, villains didn't have much of a back story. They were bad.  The main characters were the heroes who were inherently and annoyingly good. It didn't matter why. Good always battled evil and came out winning. There is something in our nature that harps back to this ancient battle of good versus evil.

If we look at our own lives, we see ourselves as the protagonists for the most part. Most people I communicate with struggle to see past their own views. They know what is right, and anyone that disagrees with them is wrong...or even evil. They cannot see past themselves. Many of us writers can't either. We build up the hero and use the villain as a secondary character that is simply in the story as an agent for plot twists.

Socially speaking, there is a reason why girls tend to like the bad boys... they appear to be interesting! They do things which intrigue and perhaps scare us. A true villain should be intriguing. The readers should look forward to encountering him or her throughout the story. As an author, it is hard to do this when the character is a figment of our imagination and we basically have to make up everything to do. How do we even start? How do we make them deliciously intriguing as a writer?

First, lets examine how we fail. Many writers outline the virtue of their characters in the planning stages. Some characters fall into supporting roles, most labeled as good, and some others fall into the villain role. These stereotypes are often too black and white to be considered realistic. Most readers fall into shades of gray and cannot relate to characters that are just good or bad solely because they were born that way. Most inexperienced authors conclude that the “villain” is bad, and therefore, does bad things. This could be the case, but in building a proper villain, we must also consider what made this person turn “bad”. Was it morally wrong choices throughout their life? Was it their upbringing? As a general rule, people aren’t just bad to be bad. Most criminals are actually multi-faceted people with their own set of morals, but throughout their life, they have made a series of bad choices. As a society, however, we seem to have borderline disorder, labeling these people as plain bad. That is not usually the case in life and it is not realistic in writing.

There is a way to correct this problem. Many writing programs, such as Storyist and WriteWay Pro, have sub-folders with character profiles. Pictures can be added as well as character outlines and biographies. These programs are helpful. But most people just write on Word documents and don't have this feature. So what can we do?

What did J.K. Rowling do when she was in the midst of writing Harry Potter? She began to draw. She wasn't an artist by any means, but none-the-less, she would make detailed pictures of what the characters looked like in her mind. Drawing is a simple way to create a character from scratch. However, this approach is not for everyone. Some people don't have the time to draw out each character, even the lesser ones. I know I don't, but I still want to form in my mind an image. What I do is simple, I sometimes find pictures of actors that closely resemble what my character looks like in my mind. It is easier for the drawing-challenged to use this method.

After I know what they are going to look like, I create an excel spreadsheet and make character profiles. I ask questions like... What is their home life like? Do they come from a broken home? How did this effect them? Do they have problems trusting others? What is this characters fondest childhood memory? What is his or her worst? Are they religious or do they live by their own set of morals? What qualities do they like and dislike in others? Have they ever been in love? If so, has their heart been broken?  Has that broken heart changed the way they relate to the opposite sex? If your character had a slogan for life, what would it be?

Ask the simple questions and work your way up to those darker crevices of the psyche that make us who we are. Eventually, you will form a comprehensive character study. Those characters, even secondary ones, will come alive.  If there is something like a slogan that a character would use, use it in your writing. Use everything you have to build each character into a dimensional personality. Your writing will grow in the process.

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