We’re working our way through the list of how to create strong characters. So far, we’ve ensured they had goals and analyzed how their self-image differs from reality. And related to that contrast we talked about last time…
Do They Merely Represent an Idea?
Characters are often most cardboard-like when they exist only for some superficial purpose: making the protagonist look good or the villain look bad, beating the reader over the head with the theme of the story, giving the author a chance to preach to their readers, etc. The worst is when this shows up in a main character.
So how do we avoid these paint-by-the-numbers characters? By creating even more contrast in the character’s life.
Yep, I’ll admit it. I like contrasting things. Anyone who scrutinizes my writing style would figure this out about me. If it weren’t for my critique partner training me otherwise, almost every one of my sentences would have a “but” or “however” for the point and counterpoint.
This time, we’re talking about the kind of contrast that people create in themselves—on purpose. Real people have many facets to their personality. The persona a soccer mom portrays on the sidelines is different from the one she uses in contract negotiations, or with her parents, or in the bedroom, etc. Virtually everyone wears a mask as they deal with various groups.
Our characters should have these multiple layers to their personalities too. Yes, that’s right. I’m advocating for everyone to join me in my multiple personality issues. Bwhahahaha. *ahem* Sorry. But it’s true.
I’m going to geek out again and refer to the old White Wolf gaming system for this. When creating characters for our stories, we should give them at least two personalities: one for their nature and one for their demeanor. In the old White Wolf system, the concept of Nature referred to a character’s innermost being while Demeanor was the face(s) they showed to the world. For an excellent run-down of the various personality archetypes with the old White Wolf system, I recommend Death Quaker’s Big List of Character Archetypes.
We can then use these different facets to reveal a character’s motivation. What is it about their nature they’re trying to hide from the world? And why do they use that mask? Does the mask change depending on who they’re interacting with or does it stay the same? Are they honest with themselves, or do they have a mask for their internal thoughts too?
Maybe that Mary Sue character isn’t there just to be the perfect love interest for James Bond. Maybe she’s only pretending to be a Thrill-seeker. Inside, she’s a Loner who uses her crazy lifestyle to push people away.
With motivation, characters become more than a cardboard fulfillment of some plot need. They become living entities who will tell us what they’re doing and why. And as long as we listen to them, they will grow into full-blown characters, beyond whatever purpose we’d originally envisioned.
Do your characters have masks they show to each other? Do your characters let your reader see their true self during internal monologue? Was it hard to find their real personality because it was buried so deep?Pin It