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POINT OF VIEW: Building Compelling, Complex and Charismatic Characters

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Every writer has an achilles heel. Mine is characterization.

I’m fantastic at world building – I can create compelling settings that will wrap you up and transport you away from whatever mudane place you find yourself in.

I’m also great at plot. Not bragging here. It’s something that just comes naturally to me.

The one thing I consistently get dinged for is my characterization, or lack thereof. I’ve worked on it for years, and I’m way better than I used to be, bit alas, there’s still room for improvement.

Agents and publishers have a word for this – they call it voice. They’re always going on about wanting stories with a compelling and unique voice. What they really mean is one with characters that leap off the page, that make you need to know more.

Mark and I have been watching The West Wing, binging it from the first episode, and it strikes me what a fantastic creator of unique voices Aaron Sorkin is. His characters are all so clearly delineated – you know what they are thinking and how they will react in almost any given situation. And the sparring between them! OMG, the give and take is nothing short of revelatory.

I’m about to dig into my latest novel after getting feedback from a Pitch Wars mentor (who didn’t choose me but was kind enough to give me some pointers), and from my editor. Both of them encouraged me to go deeper with my characters.

It’s easy to say, but how the hell am I supposed to do that?

I’m taking a few different tacks here.

First off, I came up with the idea of finding a TV or film character to think of when writing my character. I’ve used this trick before – Xander Kinnson in the Oberon Cycle is partly based on Brian Kinney from Queer as Folk.

Second, I found a great book on characterization – Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, by Stant Litore. It’s full of practical exercises that have helped to crack open my brain and make me think differently about how I create and think about my characters.

Today I’m setting off on a new journey, taking a deep dive into who they are and why they do the things they do.

If I can be half as good as Sorkin, it will be good enough. 😉

For my writing friends – how do you create compelling characters? Share your tips and tricks.

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2 thoughts on “POINT OF VIEW: Building Compelling, Complex and Charismatic Characters”

  1. Interesting you should say that because I read your books for your amazing characters. They seem so real and genuine, and I feel that I know them. And all their local coffee shops!

  2. Disclaimer: I’m no writer at all (except in my own vain imagination and puerile dabbling) but what I hear as a reader is that it really needs to be a case of ‘showing not telling’. Get down and gritty with the characters, let them tell the story in their own words, let them mislead themselves, other characters and the reader with their misconceptions, assumptions and cultural/religious beliefs traditions and mores. Less general description and more detailed, messy, conflicting half-communications and misinterpretations, just like uneasy family Christmas dinners where people are talking past each or at other. Or how the characters of Pitch Black really don’t work together and aren’t afraid to let each other know.

    Deleted an example I wrote as I am really aware of the supreme irony of a non-writer ‘counselling’ an actual successful published author, and I’m sure you’ve covered this aspect many times. 🙂

    Being involved in RPGs for most of my life I recognise the strategy in that book, and I recommend similar gaming works to you, because in roleplaying you’re effectively telling a story about your character and the more detailed, exciting/traumatic and dramatic it is, the more interesting the roleplaying is going to be, especially once everyone else comes into play and you’re complementing and/or competing with each other. That’s how Weiss and Hickman wrote the Dragonlance series, inspired by player’s actions and reactions.

    As a reader, detail and realistic interactions is what I look for in a novel, and just as described by m Litore it’s what the characters make me _feel_ through their words and actions, hopes and dreams fulfilled or dashed, that makes or breaks a book for me. I’ve read thousands of books in mylife and to be honest I’ve pretty much seen it all, every trope and every seminal storyline. The characters as brought to life by greats such as GRRM, Anne McCaffrey or Robin Hobb bring wonder and visceral reactions; and breathe life and a suspension of disbelief into the reading. Even now I cry when I read certain scenes from McCaffrey work and feel a certain grudging sympathy when I read Hobb’s child-beater rationalising his behaviour in context of his culture and religion, reading this directly after his daughter gives her version of events of the abuse from her point of view.

    Anyway I just wanted to say that this is by no means at all a criticism of your work, it’s perfectly fine and I’ve gone to some lengths in my reviews to outline some of your talents and where it shines, especially world-building and working on great ‘what-if’ scenarios. I kind of agree with you that sometimes in your stories I want something more, a kind of ‘je ne sais quoi’ from the characters.

    Would more detail and dialogue, more drama, and more conflict add that indefinable quality or would it just bog down into a canonical fact-checking expedition, editing nightmare and become a tiresome, long-winded diatribe that loses all sense of pace and the attention of the reader? (looking at you here GRRM – ASOIAF!) I’m not sure but I look forwards to your future releases to find out. 😀

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