Monday, February 27, 2012

The Writing Craft: Character Traits

Hi Everyone:
I am sure that there are more post on the writing craft that I can muster, however, it seems there isn't much interest and I need a new direction. So I've decided to go in the direction of our characters. I will call this, Character Traits.

This is a BIG topic. Many writers admit that their characters are based on real people. Family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances. There are writers who claim that anyone who says they don't do this is lying. I am here to tell you that this is not true. Not only am I telling you this, but in future post I will show you how to write believable characters with a ton of personality without stealing from real sources. This doesn't mean that you will not borrow certain traits. Character traits are sometimes the very source we use as inspiration for a story. Someone you know may do or say something that triggers that spark of imagination. It's what you do with the spark after you find it.

In my epic fantasy, The Treasures of Carmelidrium, I have a spunky young American university student who is so focused on music and her personal goals that she has ignored men altogether. This doesn't mean she isn't attracted to men, she is. There are real people who are this driven. I am not one of them, nor do I know anyone like this. How did I create such a character? The story I wanted to tell needed the heroine to be unique in many ways and yet totally modern in her approach to any number of given circumstance. I cast her in a somewhat modified medieval setting with a prince who is just as unique in his approach. I did this to throw curve balls at my heroine and to bring tension. The only character trait that I am personally familiar with are some of her fears. This I did for realism. I know how looking down the side of the mountain makes my stomach plummet.

Of all the characters in this fantasy only the villain is close to anyone I have ever known. In my youth, I belonged to a Christian free group. It's important to note that we were not an occult. I had a job, an apartment and I went to my Mom's a couple times a week to visit her. No chain link fences in my past. However, one of the leaders of the group had plans. Years after I left I received a phone call and an apology from one of my fellow members. He told me they found mind control books in the leaders belongings after he was exposed. How lose is this connection with my villain? Very. My villain is handsome, charming, powerful, and ambitious beyond anything this leader could have imagined. What is the connection? My villain has a magical power to control people's minds and he has an obsessive personality. We will study this trait in one of my future post.

I will admit to having the idea of my story based, very loosely, on my free group experience. I don't think anyone actually can create a story that doesn't resonate with something they have experienced or are passionate about. We are after all, human.

When I was developing my fantasy, I read a historical romance. I really loved the characters and couldn't wait to get the next book from that author. When it came out it was based in modern times. That was one negative. When I began to read it I realized that the two main characters were duplicates of the first book. Then I read the note the author left and learned that these two characters were based on her children. Ugh! A brother and sister cast as lovers. I never read another book by this author. Her ability to create characters in an interesting story was limited to real life and that just wasn't interesting.

Here is the challenge to improve your writing. It doesn't matter if you have written real people in the past. Once you decide to create a series you need fresh, believable characters. Your main characters must be three dimensional and you minor characters that impact your main characters should be two dimensional. In order for you to do this effectively, you must understand Character Traits.

Do you have trouble with Character Traits? Are you working on a piece that just doesn't feel right? Let me know in the comments.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Oddly enough I've never based a character on a real person. Might've stolen a few ideas from some movies though.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Alex
Movies impact us and we all tend to borrow from them. But those movies began with a vision from a writer.

Thanks for coming by in your busy schedule.

Ciara said...

I LOVE to people watch, but I tend to blend various traits into one person. :)

Joanne said...

I often use research to layer my characters. It has a way of giving them a certain authenticity.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Ciara
An excellent way to build a sense of reality.

Hi Joanne
Research is a great way to build characters.

Thank you both for coming by and leaving a comment.

Donna Hole said...

I'm a social worker; so you can see how I base my character's :) And I augment with the DSM IV.

But I do have quite a few traits based off some of my family members and my own experience. I think it only natural to use what you're comfortably exposed to on a daily basis.


N. R. Williams said...

Hi Donna
Those are some awesome sources and yes, what we are exposed to is often what we write. I only mean we should develop characters that are 100% like those we know.

Jen Chandler said...

This is a very helpful post. All of my characters have a bit of something recognizable. It may not be very apparent, but if I were to tell you where the idea for a certain character came from, you'd see it.

I usually base my characters on actors and parts they've played. It helps if I can "see" my characters that way.


N. R. Williams said...

Hi Jen
Thanks for coming by. I think we are all inspired these days by movies and theater.

M Pax said...

I've only ever based one character on someone I know. It's someone I lost, so it's a kind of homage. Otherwise, I probably use characters in fiction/movies/TV that I've loved as models.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi M.
I think that is wonderful. Thanks for coming by.