But what’s hilarious about that advice is that the advice itself is a cliché. (Whoa, so meta.) In fact, writing advice itself is full of great clichés. Let’s all recite the great clichés of writing together: Show, don’t tell. Don’t fear the Sh***y First Draft. (Anne Lamott, it is great advice, but it’s given so often these days it’s become cliché.)
And then there’s my personal un-favorite: Write what you know.
Can you imagine how boring life would be if all we did was write what we know? Like most advice, it has some truth to it, but it shouldn’t be followed religiously. Let’s look at how writing what you know affects the creation of original, believable characters.
Here are five steps to creating original characters, characters who will drive your story forward, whom your readers will believe in, whom they will love or hate, or better still, love and hate, because that’s more real and human. And to follow these steps, you will have to write what you know. But you will also have to delve into the unknown, too, the mystical, even—the super.
This is the easy part. Here’s where you get to write what you know.
Make a list of all the flaws in yourself that you wish you could change. I’ll give you some examples of mine. Sometimes, I takes things too literally and don’t get a joke. This lack of insight was really painful in high school. Sometimes, I get really single-minded in my drive to succeed that I overlook other people’s feelings. I don’t mean to, but I hurt them anyway.
Make a list of 10 flaws. We’re all writers, therefore we’re all a bit neurotic. I’m sure you’ve spent enough time examining yourself to know what your weaknesses are. You can do this.
Here’s where the magic starts to happen. Each of these individual flaws becomes a character. “Too Literally.” That’s a character. “Single-minded” is another. And so on. But in order to make this work, “sometimes I take things too literally and don’t get a joke” has to become “Always takes things too literally.” You have to take the flaw to the extreme. Each of your rather ordinary flaws must become a character’s fatal flaw. (If you want to learn more about the usefulness of fatal flaws in storytelling, Google the Greek term hamartia. Aristotle had a lot to say about that.)
Now that you’re depressed about your sad-sack characters, the fun really begins. Because no one is only flawed. Everyone, even the most flawed individual, has strengths.
So let’s brainstorm some strengths. But not just ordinary strengths. Superpowers. Make a list of superpowers that you wish you had but that you do not have. Note: Here’s where “write what you know” goes out the window. Do not list your own superpowers. That’s boring.
A superpower might be, “Is really good at physics.” Another one might be, “Looks like a movie star.” Whatever you do, pick something that is amazing and that you do not have. When you write about your character’s superpower, you want to sound in awe of her—as much in awe of her as everyone else is. If the superpower is one of your own, then your writing won’t sound awestruck. (You know, because familiarity breeds contempt. Ha! Another cliché.)
One note: A superpower can be something that seems small, like this: “Is really great around death.” Just so long as it isn’t your own. (That superpower is one of mine, so I couldn’t use it.)
At this point, you might see where this is going. It’s time to start pairing the superpowers with the flaws. A superpower paired with a flaw creates the core of your character, like the nucleus of an atom. Using my examples above, we get the following:
– “Always takes things too literally” pairs with “Is really good at physics.”
– “Her single-minded drive to succeed hurts those around her” pairs with “Looks like a movie star.”
Once you’ve paired up all of your flaws and superpowers, you are ready for Step 5.
Nuclei are not characters. Not even close. Lastly, you have to write your character sketches. You build these sketches around the flaws and superpowers. Use the flaw to humanize your character. Use the superpower to help her get ahead, to get her out of (or into) trouble.
For example, in ENTANGLEMENT, Greta the physicist may take things too literally, but that also means she doesn’t fall for the glamour of Hollywood. She sees right through it. Her literal approach also means, though, that she nearly dies because she can’t see trouble coming. Her physics superpower gets her a job that she might not have gotten at her young age and also gives her a very particular lens through which she sees the world, the way she makes connections between events, even people.
What you might notice as you start to write these sketches is that what you thought was a superpower might also be a flaw, and what you thought was a flaw might also be a superpower. That’s a great moment. That’s when your characters start to become human.
Now you need to do this pre-writing work for all of your characters. And when I say all, I mean all of them, not just your main two or three. If you have ten characters in your book, then ten characters need this much development and backstory.
But by doing this work you are doing yourself a huge favor. This level character development pre-writing pays off big time when you start drafting your book. You will already know how all of your characters will act in any given situation. When a character gets in a car wreck. When a character’s loved one is in the hospital. When any of life’s ordinary or extraordinary events occur, having this background prepared means that you already know what your characters will do and say. You don’t have to wonder, you only have to write.
When that happens, you’ll realize that you’re the one with the superpower.
Category: How To and Tips
Sites That Link to this Post
- 5 Steps to Original Character Creation | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life | December 6, 2015
- Sept/Oct Writing Roundup :: Katie Rose Guest Pryal | November 2, 2015
- Top Picks Thursday 10-22-2015 | The Author Chronicles | October 22, 2015
- 5 Steps to Original Character Creation | WordHarbour | October 15, 2015