Writing Advice #28: Building Character(s) Pt. 2

Picking up from last week’ s discussion of character building and description… This week we’re going to eschew the superficial and dive into our characters’ CHARACTERS — their souls, their insides. In short: What makes them tick.

OK, look — this isn’t actually rocket science here. I’m going to give you a couple of shortcuts that will help you when you think about characters.

It’s important to remember that characters are not people. OK? People are those beings you see walking around all day. Some of them are interesting, some of them are boring. Some of them are goofy and some of them are serious, and that’s all well and good.

Characters, though, ALWAYS have to be interesting.

You can’t come up with a character who’s boring as hell and then say, “Well, I know people who are like that. I’m just reflecting reality.” Uh, no. See, the problem here is that no one wants to read about boring people.

So you have to make your characters interesting. But what IS interesting?

Unless you’re writing a thriller, you don’t need to make your characters ninjas or anything. I mean, yeah, ninjas are way cool and all that, but if you’re writing a story about, say, a kid who’s dealing with his dad’s death, a ninja is just going to confuse the issue. (Yes, yes, I know — unless you’re writing a story set in feudal Japan. Thank you, smart-ass.)

You just need characters who have some element, some quirk, some factor that makes them stand out. This is, in part, why we read — to “meet” interesting people.

So how do you do this? How do you make characters stand out?

First of all, think in terms of SURPRISE. Readers love it when they try to predict a character’s response or actions…and get it wrong. But ONLY when you have a good reason for it, ONLY when it grows naturally from the character. That’s very important — your characters can act contrary to their apparent interests or personalities, but only if you’ve cleverly figured out HOW. Readers don’t mind being wrong when they can step back and justify it. But if you decide that your sexist character is suddenly going to give his fortune to the Hillary Clinton campaign…well, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

One of my favorite characters was on the old TV show Twin Peaks. He was named Albert Rosenfield and he was an FBI agent, a specialist in forensics. He’s called to Twin Peaks to help investigate a murder and he immediately pisses off EVERYONE in town by belittling them, calling them yokels, mocking their small town, etc.

Well, Albert is so obnoxious that eventually Sheriff Truman just hauls off and punches him. It’s a tense moment. You figure Obnoxious Al is going to smack the Sheriff back, right?

Wrong. Albert does nothing. Instead, he delivers the following little soliloquy:


“While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and a hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and will gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject, absolutely, revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

Whoa! That was TOTALLY unexpected! Albert is a pacifist?

Well, sure. After all, there’s no rule that says that a pacifist has to be a touchy-feely, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-together kind of guy, right? Albert’s moral principles are apparently totally at odds with his abrasive personality, but the more you think about his character, the more you realize that while he may be a study in contradictions, he’s wholly consistent in and of himself. He’s a well-rounded, brilliantly developed character. He zigs when we think he should zag and — most important of all — he does so in a way that does NOT make the viewer think, “Ah, that’s bull! That would never happen!”

Instead, it makes the viewer think, “Holy crap! I didn’t see THAT coming!” We realize that Albert can think Sheriff Truman is a yokel and a putz, but still love him as a fellow human being.

If Albert had come to town threatening people with violence instead of just belittling them, then his claim to being a pacifist wouldn’t ring true. Instead, we get a pacifist character who is utterly unlike every other touchy-feely pacifist character we’ve ever seen.

So, that’s one way of making your characters interesting. Think of reversals. Think of ways your characters can act contrary to the expectations of your reader…but (and this is SO important!) in a manner that is still consistent with WHO THEY ARE!

Let me give you an example from real life.

I had a friend I worked with for many, many years. We enjoyed talking politics. He was a registered Republican and pretty conservative.

But one day he told me something that surprised me: He had voted for Bill Clinton!

“What? I don’t get it. Why?”

“Because,” he told me, “I believe that space exploration is the most important facet of our government. It’s the area of study that’s going to change the world the most, and Bill Clinton has done more to support NASA than any other president since John F. Kennedy.”

That blew my mind. But, again, it was wholly in keeping with my friend’s character. It’s just that I expected him to hate Bill Clinton because of the many philosophical differences they had. But he surprised me because I never stopped to think that there might be one issue that my friend AND Bill Clinton both cared about enough that it would obviate all the others.

If you wanted to make this an equation, you might write it out: x=e+s, where x is “interesting character,” e is expectation, and s is surprise.

Let’s add another element to that equation: Obsession.

(Yes, I’m listening to Animotion as I write this. Get off my back.)

We all have things we’re obsessed about: football, Star Wars, Justin Timberlake, the Bible, cats, pottery, knitting, whatever.

To a degree, our obsessions color the way we see the world. If you’re REALLY into Star Wars, then you’re going to noticeStar Wars in the culture around you. When someone jokes about “turning to the Dark Side,” it’s not just a comment to you — it has a provenance that you are intimately aware of. Similarly, if you LOVE pottery, then you’re going to take notice of the vase at the hotel you’re staying at on vacation. Me? I’m not into pottery — I’ll be lucky even to notice that the vase EXISTS. But you will have an entirely different experience in that exact same hotel room.

When I wrote my first book, I decided early on that Fanboy would be a comic book fan. As I wrote the book, that informed just about everything he did or said. When Fanboy was scared, he didn’t think, “Hey, this is scary.” No, he thought, “It’s like Batman going into Arkham Asylum, alone, unarmed, and needing to pee really bad.”

More to the point, Fanboy wasn’t just a comic book fan — he was also a budding comic book CREATOR. So his thoughts would take a certain turn at times, as he would think about artwork and story, and how the two are crafted, and how they can combine together to form a great comic book.

This made him different from other outcast, misunderstood teen boys. I mean, sure — he’s still an outcast, misunderstood teen boy. But he had a perspective and a way of thinking about the world that distinguished him.

In Boy Toy, I went a different way. Josh, I decided, was a math genius who was also an incredible baseball player. So his narration is stuffed full with facts about baseball, obscure calculations, and metaphors from the diamond.

Now, you can go too far with this. You can ALWAYS go too far with stuff like this. If every other sentence in Boy Toy had been something like, “I deflected her question like Ted Williams deflecting a bunt,” my readers would have gotten sick and tired of Josh REAL quick.

It’s important that your character’s obsession be organic to the story AND to the character. For Fanboy, his love of comics had multiple roles in the story: It was partly responsible for his isolation from his peers, it gave him a safe haven when he retreated into his imagination (and his bedroom) to work on his comic, and it propelled his growth as he sought to show his comic book to Bendis.

For Josh, baseball was an escape from his own tortured past. It was the one facet of his life under his control, and he loved it for that reason. The cold statistics of baseball made it possible for Josh to evaluate his life and his status, without ever confronting what had been done to him as a child. It was obsession-as-distraction. And on a plot level, it propelled his story in many ways — Josh’s love of baseball and confidence in his own skills leads him to lose a bet with Rachel, which forces him to reveal his darkest secrets. And his skills on the field put him in direct conflict with his asshole baseball coach, who wants to exploit Josh for his own reasons.

So don’t decide that your character loves Mayan architecture just because you think Mayan architecture is neat and you want something for your character to talk about. In real life, it’s all well and good for people to have interests and obsessions that don’t directly impact or feed into the “narrative” of their lives, but in storytelling, that’s a no-no. It confuses the point of the story and takes up a lot of time and space for something that — in the end — will have absolutely zero impact on the story…or the reader.

Look for an obsession that you can weave into the overarching story. It doesn’t have to be that way right away — it doesn’t even have to be obvious. But if you do it skillfully, you’ll really please your readers by the end of the story, when they come to realize how full and rounded your characters are.

OK, that’s it for this week! If you feel like it, comment below and tell me about a time when a character surprised you.


  1. Ahnai Deveraux says:

    The only time I can remember having a character suprise me was in an adult paranormal romance novel. There was this woman named Gwen who is all tough and badass and she’s just started saying No and it has her all pumped. Then in the very same scene she’s placed in a situation where she’s in unbearable pain and she immediately cracks. Honestly, I didn’t like it but I think it had more to do with me screaming, “Have some pride, Woman!”

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