More on Developing Great Characters!
A blog by ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂
The key to writing a book that people will like is writing characters that appeal to the readers in some way. This does NOT mean that they have to be perfect in order to be likeable; in fact, flaws are often what makes them more appealing as we are drawn to and relate to characters that are like us (a.k.a flawed). As said best by Ernest Hemmingway, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
How to Build Characters
Name them right. I spend A LOT of time trawling through baby name websites in order to find names that fit the characters (or notably don’t fit – I like the irony in that I have a philosophical, atheist character called Emmanuelle!). I always try to match characters carefully with their names; sometimes purely aesthetically, but often also based on the meanings. I know that realistically names don’t describe those who have them but I like the idea that a name can give us insight. It is generally where I begin when I build characters as this gives me something to work from. When I wrote my Movella Iris, the entire prologue describing the girl stems from the idea that she is called "Iris."
Fill them in. Knowing their name, age, and appearance is not going to enable you to write about them well. Knowing their name, age, appearance, birthday, relationship status, family, financial state, political standpoint is not enough. You need to know them better than you know your best friends; you should know their memories. Know what they think of their name and age, what they thought they might have achieved by that age, what they looked like eight years ago, what their favourite birthday party has been, whether they had any awkward ‘relationships’ back when they were nine, where their family is planning to go on holiday, whether they/their parents enter the lottery, why they’ve lost faith in government… no one is ever going to know your character as well as you do yourself, so make sure you know them well. You don’t need to tell your readers all of these details, just like you might not tell your friend that you have a vivid memory of collecting pebbles on the beach with your dad when you were five, you just HAVE to know them.
Assign your characters’ tastes in clothes, music, and films - and don’t just base these on your own tastes.
Take personality quizzes online from your characters’ perspectives.
Basically, know your characters because how else will readers believe in them if you don’t yourself!
The Mary Sue Phenomenon
Mary Sue’s are characters that have been overloaded with flawlessness so that they are sickening and often quite painful to read about. No one can relate to a character that is inhumanly perfect and therefore Mary Sue’s do not make good characters. Mary Sue’s are often super-versions of their creators. By this I mean that the writer has created a character that is their ideal self and so they are naturally highly protective over them and become defensive when anyone critiques their protagonist. They tend to be exceptionally attractive, more talented than their peers, with special powers and uncommonly good luck. There may well have been traumas in their past which have not disturbed them but made them more beautiful, they often are the centre of prophecies and have quirky names. Any ‘flaws’ will be ‘cute’ things like clumsiness and will be dwarfed by their virtues. All other characters will make a point to extolling these virtues at every opportunity. Mary Sue’s are particularly common in fanfiction and (for some unknown reason) are either called Darcy, related to Darcy or have kids named Darcy…
Is your protagonist a Mary Sue? This is a great quiz to assess your character and don’t lie to the quiz because the quiz will then not be helpful! Lying would suggest that you already know your character is a Mary Sue but are in denial over it because you’re so attached to him/her. You have to be honest with yourself if you want to improve your writing.
How to Avoid Writing Mary Sues
Admit to yourself that your character is a Mary Sue. This is probably the biggest and hardest challenge you’ll face. You have created this character and it is not fun to recognise a flaw in your own creation. For example, I have to admit that – in all honesty – my character April in my Harry Potter fanfiction is a complete Mary Sue. I still consider writing from her perspective to be a guilty pleasure and have accepted the fact that, unless I make drastic changes to the entire story, I cannot take her seriously. She is too pretty, too intelligent, too perfect, too funny, too brave and set apart by a prophecy…
Give them flaws, real flaws. By this I mean that I cannot just say that April is reckless and so that makes up for her being otherwise perfect. A character in my Movella Iris (a character I’m slightly more proud of) is curious by nature but he is lazy, he is capable of insightful thoughts of others but he’s not very good at talking with his family, he is not outstandingly gifted at anything, although relatively intelligent, he’s the youngest sibling of four and so has always felt a little stepped on and is not very good at standing up for himself, can be frequently selfish and fail to think things through before reacting and terrible at eavesdropping… I could go on but I’d get boring. What I’m saying is that there has to be a balance of attractive and unattractive personality traits in your character.
On the contrary, don’t take it too far the other way. You need your characters to be likeable so don’t overburden them with disagreeable features.
Hope this helps, leave any questions below!
Thank you ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂ for writing this blog post and designing the banner!