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Character vs. Plot

Updated on July 10, 2013

How to Create Character

Most people think that they’re more interested in plot than they are in character when it comes to genre literature and films but, the fact is if they didn’t get to know the character on some level, it would be like watching the news with no commentary. Confusing, weird, maybe even boring.

People are interested in people, so much so that we anthropomorphize animals. Consider that one of the most popular websites in the world is a site where people put captions on pictures of cats. The audience is automatically connected to the feline because human characteristics have been assigned to it. Some level of character development is necessary to get your audience emotionally involved so that when bad things happen to your protagonist they will be invested in the outcome.

Details, please!

Giving a character substance isn’t all that tricky, you simply have to think. Ask yourself some questions about the character. What does he look like? Describe hair color, scars, height, weight, and style of dress, anything that may give us a clearer image of this person. A woman in jeans, t-shirt and western boots is going to be different from a woman in a fashionable dress wearing stiletto boots.

Your protagonist, and all your main characters, has a personality. The audience will either like him or not like him. They had better not be indifferent to him. If they are, you have failed and need to go back over your work and give that guy some strong personality traits.

Who is he?

What makes your character smile, laugh, or smirk? Does he smirk? Or is he too nice to do that? Does he have fears or secrets? These would be things he thinks he must protect. What makes him angry? How does he respond to his, or other peoples, anger? Has he ever been in love? What is his attitude towards love? What is his attitude towards public shows of affection? Does one influence the other? If he is disgusted by people kissing in public perhaps he has had bad luck in love. This is something that can mold character.

Where is he?

What is your character’s home like? Does he have furniture? Is it cheap, expensive, eclectic? What about his eating habits? Is he on a special diet or does he pig out every time he sees a fast food restaurant? Does he keep a secret stash of something? There’s that secret again. Secrets add tension.

What does he do?

Does your character have a job? If so, what is it and does he like it? If he doesn’t like his job then why does he continue doing it? He could have dependents, debt, or perhaps he just doesn’t know what else to do. Maybe he never thought it through until it was too late. Is it too late?

If he does like his job, tell us why. If he doesn’t have a job, tell us why.

What does your character do after work and on weekends? Does he have weekends? Has he forgotten what fun is or does he live for it?

A Case Study

Let's use vampires for an example. In Anne Rice's "Interview With The Vampire" we see two very different vampire characters. Louis, who is dictating the story, is attractive but subdued and tends to whine, while Lestat, Louis' maker, is also attractive but quick-tempered and hedonistic.

Rice clearly was writing for an audience who would find these characters physically pleasing. So much so that they would forgive them their transgressions no matter how heinous. However, when Louis is first introduced she makes sure that his vampire looks are unsettling by showing us the response of his biographer as light suddenly illuminates the smooth, white sculpted face. She then goes on to describe his clothes; black silk tie, white collar, black coat and cape. Makes an impression, doesn't it?

We learn his story and see how Louis' present personality developed. He had a family, he ridiculed his brother who then died. We see how his apathy turned to anger and remorse then finally to a reluctant acceptance.

Rice shows us where he originally lived and what he did for a living. He was the owner of a Louisiana plantation in 1791.

All of these details shape our perception of Louis. There is a plot with loads of adventure but without character it would not be as exciting.


Give it a try

You don’t have to use all of these ideas in your work but the more questions about your character that you can answer then the more you understand your character and the more real he will become for your audience. Their emotions will unconsciously try to match his. That’s what we, as writers, are trying to do; evoke an emotional response.

So, get to it. Create your character, give him strengths, flaws and a landscape to live in.

Now, put that character into a situation and see what happens.

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