Building Strong Characters

One of my goals for writing characters is to develop them to the point that they feel real to the reader. Story can be interesting, but strong characters are what the reader ends up caring about. An excellent character will keep a reader coming back, again and again… and the victories and defeats of those characters are what bring out the most emotion in the reader. Flat characters are a crime that few authors can redeem themselves from. Flat characters are boring, trite, and often cliché. So how does one develop strong characters?

Strong characters feel like real people, sometimes more real that people we might interact with or deal with on a daily basis (trust me, I’ve had roommates with less personality than Master Harper Robinton from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series or Polgara from David Eddings’ Belgariad). What exactly does feeling real entail, though? I define it by several areas. First off, they typically have some defining character traits. Second, strong characters have a history, a place where they come from. Third, they have a morality (or lack thereof) that is coherent and based upon their origins. Fourth, strong characters experience joy, anger, love, and heartache just like real people. Last and most important strong characters make decisions based off of their emotions, experiences, and morality.

Character traits are often what define a character to the reader at first glance. These are often the most memorable things about them, and are often the things that pop into mind. Han Solo was a cocky and self centered rogue (he shot first!). Doc, from ‘Back to the Future’, was absent minded and excitable. Character traits are often established early on, typically in the first time the reader meets the character. It helps to make these traits memorable, as a writer, because this makes the character stand out in their mind more. Traits, however, are just a starting point. They create a character that has some resonance to them, but if that isn’t followed through, the character will seem hollow. A hollow character might be better than a flat one, but it robs the reader of the pay off of emotions as the character fails to grow over time and their experiences.

History and past play a huge role in our lives as people. It should be no less important for characters. As a writer, often I develop characters based off of the setting and their place in it. From the society and their place in it, I can develop what things they will find important, what their areas of expertise and knowledge might be. A character raised in the slums of a dystopian future might well view morality through a different lens than your typical 21st Century American. Beyond there, I typically dive into family (or lack thereof), which is often more important than society, and indeed, can alter things significantly. That same character raised in the slums might be the son of a missionary, who grew up treating the sick and injured…. Suddenly he might not be the callus killer. Throw in some life events, such as the death of his mother or the discovery that he was adopted and his adoptive parents never told him. These experiences change who he is, and will have effects upon how he acts.

Morality is often based upon the experiences of people. Morally upright characters can be vastly complicated or totally boring, whereas morally bankrupt characters can be highly entertaining or nauseating. Part of this is perspective and experience. A character who has a twisted sense of morals because of hi s experiences is understandable. He or she may frustrate a reader, but the moral code they follow will at least make sense. The same follows for a character with a comprehensive and solid code of ethics. What will drive me as a reader absolutely crazy is when there is a character whose morality doesn’t make sense. Characters who are bad because it’s cool or fun or the honorable street urchin are anomalies… and unless an author has a legitimate reason why, they quickly become an irritation. Even worse are characters with no defined or inconsistent morality. A character who will shoot a man in the back in one scene and yet fights an honorable duel in another would be incoherent without some background or logic behind his actions. A writer has a burden to show the reasoning and logic behind the characters’ decisions.

Emotion is the next crucial part of a strong character. A character who doesn’t experience emotion is boring, regardless of how many explosions or how interesting the setting might be. One of the best examples of this is from the movie Red Sonya. The main character’s sister — her only surviving family – dies in her arms in the opening part of the movie. Red Sonya then says something to the effect of “This is terrible, drops her sister’s corpse, and stalks off to exact her revenge. For a close knit family, the death of a family member is a powerfully emotional event. This event was supposed to drive Red Sonya to exact her revenge. This isn’t to say that the character should have fallen to pieces, but some small signs can go a long way to establishing the emotional toll of such an event. An excellent positive example of this is from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hank’s character, after the Invasion of Normandy, goes to open a canteen and his hands are shaking so much as to make it nearly impossible. This shows that, despite his calm demeanor, he is barely holding it together, and mostly doing so for his men. A show of such emotional turmoil and yet strength immediately establishes his character as someone who feels real. Later on, when he makes decisions for his men, you can see that emotional turmoil is there behind those decisions, at war with his moral code and his defining character traits.

The last crucial part of strong characters is the decisions they make and, as a writer, ensuring those decisions are in line with the character. A character who makes decisions out of line with his morality, emotions and experiences is not a strong character. A character who has his emotions and experiences at odds with his morality is complex and interesting. Difficult decisions are what life is about, and the important decisions are always complex. An important thing to note here is that sometimes the characters don’t make the right decisions. Sometimes their morality or emotions or experiences drive them to make the wrong decision. In those cases, it is often a flaw, sometimes a tragic flaw. This should not be the norm, in my opinion. Authors like George R. Martin make their living by having characters make bad decisions on an almost constant basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting reading, but as a reader, it frustrates me to the point that I give up. Good people make bad decisions sometimes, it happens in real life, and it happens in stories. Bad people make good decisions too, sometimes, which I find far more interesting.

The decisions that characters make often define them. These cause new experiences and produce new emotions that in turn, drive character growth and development. And the next step past making a strong character is to make that character grow as he progresses through the story. That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, what is a strong character that you really liked and what were their defining traits?

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4 thoughts on “Building Strong Characters”

  1. What typically intrigues or perhaps fascinates me is when a character evolves from ruins to chasm then épopée. I tend to live my life as such. One of my favorite book is the Cid by Pierre Corneille (1043–1099). I guess we are all trying to identify ouselves through whichever character we read that most resemble who we either are or trying to be. If not, I’ll say just create it!!

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  2. You bring up a lot of great points and examples. I’m completely into GoT right now, and have to admit that GRR Martin has a neat way of killing people to lock you into the next part of the story, frustrating as it is. I’m definitely going to keep your conflicting desires vs. actions thought in mind, though.

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    1. Oh, I’d definitely agree that Martin does it masterfully. I think his book sales, if nothing else, shows that. It’s the anticipation-reward-frustration cycle that he uses that causes people to love his books… but it’s also what frustrates me as a reader. Then again, I’m probably not his target audience.

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