Writers Block #3: Character Study

Welcome back! So far I've talked about putting together a story and how to come up with ideas, as well as doing research. Today I'm going to talk a bit about characters. How to come up with them and how to make them relatable. Before we get into the nitty gritty, lets start with a basic question. Which do you put more stock in; story/plot or character?

Which is more important? What should you concentrate more on? Like I said, there really isn't a right or wrong answer, it's mostly just preference. But it is helpful to see what side of the debate you fall on, since that will really shape how deeply you develop your characters. Some characters are really just ciphers. Look at a heist movie, or a sitcom. You mostly have the funny one or the crazy one, the serious one, the pretty one, etc. etc. In a story like that, you can just plug in and go, and if the story is good enough, people won't really care. 

Now I fall on the side of character over everything. If the characters aren't either relatable, interesting, or straight up despicable, then it's hard for me to get into the story. Why are these people doing these things, and why should I care. It can be hard to keep people coming back month after month for a story about characters who they don't really care about, but we can all name a show that was on for what seemed like a season or two too long, and we stuck it out because we liked hanging with the characters each week.

I'm not saying you have to choose between one or the other, ideally you'll have an interesting story with interesting characters. What I am saying is it can't hurt to build up your characters, because they can enhance your story more so than a story can enhance your characters. 

Anyways, once you've given that some thought, you still have to come up with the characters themselves. So here are some tips as well as things to keep in mind as you go on.

Nobody is just one thing. People have many sides, some of which nobody but them know. The happiest person can be harboring extreme sadness, and the calmest person can have a rage building up just under the surface. Your characters, like people, should have many sides, not just one main trait. Just because someone is smart, or funny, or timid, doesn't mean they can't also be stubborn, or anxious, or cool under pressure. Not only does this make your characters more dimensional, it gives the reader something to hook into, and usually makes them more fun to write.  

So for example, in my comic Kane Maverick, the title character Kane is the prototypical Pulp hero. He's handsome, strong, smart, etc. But as the comic goes on, we'll find that he's also insecure, immature, and not really considerate of other people. Underneath all the posturing and bravado, he's really just a man-child. He's got a bit of complexity to him, and is definitely more flawed than he appears. 

Which leads me to my next point. How do we give characters dimension? You give them flaws. Vanity, self-doubt, jealousy, stubbornness. All these things can be shortcomings which make characters more human, and more tangible. One of the big complaints people always have about Superman is that he's too perfect. He's got all these powers, he's a big boy scout, handsome, on and on and on. People can't relate to him because he's so unlike us. Which (cue rant) is kind of the point. The writers who get that use all that power to isolate him, to show no matter how much he tries, he'll never be that which he aspires to most, and that's human. That's his flaw or his source of tragedy. He has to be more in order to inspire us to be more, and so he has to remain separate, never to get what he most desires, which is to fit in. 

That's a great segue to this, give your character a goal. A purpose. What is it that drives them to do what they do? It doesn't have to be something as big saving the world, but they should have something that fuels their actions. Monk wanted to figure out who murdered his wife, Rodney Dangerfield just wanted some respect, Fox Mulder and Rhust Cole where driven by their egos and desire for the truth. You don't even have to use your characters desire in the story. A lot of writers (and actors) have secrets that only they and their character know and that helps when it comes to determining whether or not they would turn left or right at a particular fork in the road. It's about giving the character some direction instead of having them be stagnant. 

Kane has a drive to be great, but also to help people. It helps if people see him be great, while he helps people. He also has a nagging curiosity. He can't keep his nose out of other peoples business, he just has to know the answer to all the questions, which usually helps drive the story forward. 

Last couple of points before this gets too long. Don't get too attached to a particular character because they have a habit of taking on a life of their own and changing as the story goes on. It's better to just hold on and enjoy the ride, they might end up taking you and your story to some very interesting places.

No ones going to sue you for doing a Spider-Man like character, but no one is going to praise you for doing a Spider-Man like character. Unless you plan on doing some kind of meta-tongue in cheek-examination of comic characters kind of story, people are just going to see a character that looks/acts like a more familiar character and most likely move on. So if someone asks you what your character is like and you say "well he's kind of like Batman" maybe you should think about it just a bit more. 

As far as character design is concerned, it depends on your role. Writers (like me) have input for sure, and can toss ideas the artist, but the artist is the one who ultimately decides what a character is going to look. So be sure to give your artist any and all photo references and be ready to make some compromises.

If you're struggling to come up with a name for your character, as I usually am, there's plenty of places to go for inspiration. You can find a number of name generators on line, as well as baby name websites. If you want to add more symbolism to the names, look up the meanings of names. My go to is pro sport websites. They have all the player names and as Key and Peele can attest, plenty of interesting names to choose from. So just mix and match. 

I'd like to end with a note on diversity. Nothing is worse in my book than having diversity for diversities sake. Don't just throw in a minority, female, LGBT, handicapped, etc. character into your story just to fit some kind of quota. Every character in your story should have a purpose and add to the overall world and texture of your story. A perfect example of this is Gotham Central, which had an extremely diverse cast, but none of it felt forced or like a character was there because they needed another "black guy" or a "lady cop." Another great comic is Ms. Marvel, about a Pakistani, Muslim, teenager from New Jersey who gets super-powers, with a heavy emphasis on teenager. Her religion, gender, and race are a part of her story, but they aren't her whole story. Ms. Marvel is really about the bumps and pains of growing up and finding yourself, which is something everyone can relate to. 

If you're worried about not being able to portray a character correctly, keep this in mind. Gay is not a personality trait. Black does nothing to describe a character. If I asked you to tell me about Jake and you either said "well he's black" or "you know, he's gay" that wouldn't tell me anything relevant about them, and sounds pretty racist/homophobic. Gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and the like are part of the make up of a person, but they don't make a person. There are some wonderful and amazing people who are transgender or Muslim and some terrible, awful people who also are transgender and Muslim. Bottom line is people are people. All these things definitely play into how they see the world and how people perceive them, but none of these traits singularly define them. So instead of writing another gay best friend or girlfriend who only gets kidnapped, just write an interesting character who is also a woman or a minority. 

So that's it for now. I could write a ton more on character (and I definitely will) but I think this is a good place to start. Try and give a little thought to all of these things, and if all else fails, you can always base a character on a real life person. Either someone famous like Einstein or your mom, both can be a source of inspiration. Next time we'll talk about world building, until then work on your characters, and keep writing!