Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.
Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.
Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.
Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.
I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.
Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.
If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.
If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.