Creating Organic Characters

Almost all well-written stories are character driven, meaning the plot is fueled by the thoughts and actions of the story’s characters. That isn’t to say there aren’t times in which something might happen to your protagonist, just that the reply of your character should be the driving force behind how those events evolve. A simpler way to put this idea is by way of equation.

A plot-driven story will look something like this:

Event 1 + Event 2 = Event 3

In this structure, the events dictate how the plot evolves. Typically, stories involving this sort of technique will seem dry to read, and will oppose most attempts of literary interpretation. Popular examples of this story structure can be found within commercial fiction like The Da Vinci Code. The best way to describe these stories is that the characters are secondary to the plot arc.

An example of a character-driven story, on the other hand, might look like this:

Event 1 + Character Reaction = Event 2

See how, although the external stimulus of Event 1 might catalyze the actions of the character, is is the character and his reactions that drive the plot into Event 2. Examples of this sort of writing style can be seen in popular novels like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Within the book, it is the vibrant and exploratory personalities of Harry, Ron, and Hermione that fuel the plot and drive events forward.

With this idea of a character-driven plot in mind, doesn’t it make sense that creating multi-faceted, organic characters for your story should be a priority? Well, yeah. Of course it does.

As a writer, your characters should live and breathe inside your head. You should be able to have silent conversations with them. They should surprise you sometimes. That level of depth and realism is why most writers tend to compile their characters from aspects of real people. In fact, it’s a running joke within the creative writing community that a writer’s first story almost always features himself as the protagonist, since introspection tends to deliver the most accessible character personality.

Don’t make the mistake of completely basing a character off of a real person. Take a personality trait here, steal a nervous tick there, but don’t entirely recreate a friend or colleague on the page. You’ll find yourself struggling to reconcile how you want to think of them with how they really are, and the extrapolation of what you know about someone into how they might act in a fictitious setting can feel personal — even invasive.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t attempt to imagine aspects of a character apart from the characteristics of real people. Your personal interactions should inspire creation, not limit it. As with everything, practice makes perfect, and eventually you’ll reach the point where you can create characters without looking to the people around you. For many writers, that’s the goal.

So you’ve done some people-watching and you’ve managed to piece together an organic character. Or have you? Don’t forget the most enlivening and empathetic aspect of any character: fault. Every character needs a dramatic flaw. Audiences are drawn to imperfect characters.

When you really stop to think about it, the concept is so obvious that I hardly even need to make an example. Take your favorite television character. Does she have a flaw? Of course she does. Look at popular favorites like Sherlock Holmes (a drug-addicted introvert), Bilbo Baggins (a sloth of self-doubt), Dorian Grey (the poster-boy for narcissism), Ron Weasley (that luckless oaf), or even the Turkish wrestler, Fezzik (what an imbecile) . Empathetic characters are made from imperfection.

Of course, there’s quite a bit more to a character than fault. Readers connect with characters who struggle against their own inadequacies. The cowardly who show bravery (Neville Longbottom); the sad who find happiness (Lilo & Stitch); the selfish who become selfless (Edmund Pevensie). Even if you plan on a character’s flaws eventually leading to their downfall, as can be the case with many antagonists, the hope that the character will overcome those flaws can be a powerful hook in your audience.

But how do you create imperfection in a character? You can’t simply go throwing personality flaws around like candy. Too much fault makes an unlikable character, while an ill-fitting flaw can ruin a story. Where’s the middle ground? Well, that’s hard to say, as it varies from character to character and narrative to narrative. The best method, I’ve found, is to start with your character’s backstory and work forward from there. Was your protagonist penniless as a child? Maybe he tends to be greedy because he had to hold onto what what little he had growing up. Did your foil have a lot of brothers and sisters? Maybe she acts out and seeks attention because that was the only way to get noticed by her parents. Was your character struck blind in a tragic accident? I’ll bet she struggles with self-image. Bullied in grade-school? Raised by a nanny? Had lots of dogs? Even elements of a backstory that don’t seem negative can produce imperfection in roundabout ways. Take your time and don’t be afraid to get creative!

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