Saturday, 1 February 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It: Character


      PART ONE: Character    


I have divided the book into parts to make it easier to reference. Each part has several chapters covering different aspects of the craft of writing in that particular area. As the main character must carry a heavy load in any tale, I'm going to start with this VIP.

Chapter 1: The Protagonist 

There is plenty of information about constructing and developing fictional characters and I’m not going to attempt to condense all that information into a single chapter. What I will be doing though is asking questions that will get you thinking about your protagonist, aka the main character.
As writers we are advised to find the truth of our fictitious creations, but they come in every shape and size from anthropomorphized creatures as in Wind in the Willows to the brooding Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Among a host of other factors, we have to decide if we want them to be strong and punch through every obstacle despite their internal angst like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or do we prefer them to start in a vulnerable position and discover their inner strength during their journey, as with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet LetterOne of my personal favorites (among too many to list) is Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind because, despite her defects, she’s a survivor fighting against the odds. 
The reality is, it doesn’t matter. What is important is for readers to identify with the struggle the hero/heroine is undergoing, irrespective of whether they’re combating many-limbed aliens in another galaxy or dealing with heatstroke while holidaying on a Greek island. 
Is there a distinctive trait or one vital ingredient that that makes a character stand out, draws us to that person and leaves them living in our imagination long after we’ve closed the book? I don’t think there is. We’re attracted by a combination of factors, and these include the situation they’re in, the conflict they face, their flaws, vulnerabilities and strengths. Something in that mix resonates with us, eliciting a response. Even if the protagonist hasn’t reached adulthood, such as Ralph in Lord of the Flies, we recognize and understand these personalities are fully developed for the purpose of the story.
Do these characters spring fully formed into their creator’s minds, or do they reveal themselves bit by bit as the story unfolds? Again, it will be different from writer to writer. One thing is sure—knowing them inside and out brings them alive for you, and that becomes part of conveying their authenticity because she/he is the one person readers must engage with. They are who we identify with and in whose success we are invested.
To make an impression, characters have to be believable, i.e. complicated. In our daily lives we often present different facets of ourselves to others depending on whether our status is greater or less than theirs. A man may be subservient to his boss, dominating with his family and a Jack-the-lad when with his buddies.
If you give them what Aristotle called ‘consistent inconsistencies’, you add depth: an ambitious politician who can’t say no to anything his wife and children demand; a gregarious extrovert who hides a fear of new places; a ruthless spy who teaches his parrot to repeat a joke. When these contradictions are hidden from other characters but unveiled to readers, it produces more drama when the extent the politician will go to protect his family from threats is revealed; we see the extrovert’s fears as, wanting to impress his girlfriend, they go on vacation to an exotic, unfamiliar destination, and how distraught the spy becomes when his bird catches a virus and dies. People with layers of complexity are more credible.

When we make new friends we learn about their history, temperament and behavior over time. In the same way, writers introduce someone’s foibles, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. When I start a story, I have some ideas about the main character, the setting and plot, but the protagonist’s hidden struggles emerge as I write. For me, it takes time to discover the individuals I’m creating. I once read a  book on character development that stated, don’t produce a wimpy protagonist. Immediately I realized that’s exactly who I had, so I turned my wimp into a neurotic woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Well, at least she was less boring!

One standard technique for giving depth and helping to visualize your character is to construct a biography. Depending on how much time you want to spend on this, you can include events that affect their psychological and emotional development. Determining their appearance is a start but don’t stop at age, physique and gender, include how they feel about themselves. Are they comfortable in their skin? Do they carry any physical scars—if so what is the story behind them? Do they have health problems such as asthma or allergies or mental problems? How does this impact their behavior? Do they overcompensate, if so how? Or do they pretend everything is normal? What is the effect on those around them?
Other choices to make are intellectual ability, disposition (where on the spectrum of extrovert or introvert do they lie), and their goals and ambitions—do they have any, and how successful are they in achieving them? How do they cope with the indignities life thrusts upon them? Do they pretend everything is a joke or do they bury their fears? Their circle of friends, family, education, job, hobbies and lifestyle are all areas for consideration and add depth and color to your character.
Most of your protagonist’s backstory won’t make it on to the page, but it works towards forming a plausible individual and, while we may not all create that outstanding character, we should do our utmost to achieve a believable one.
Aspects of a personality can be used to show tensions they don't reveal to others. For example, a man becomes an accountant because he is excellent at math, yet he’s frustrated because he wanted to be an artist. This creates a pressure-cooker situation as he puts up with his circumstances till the day comes when he decides he’s had enough and walks out on his life. What happens to him and to those he left? Giving your protagonist an internal and an external conflict is crucial. You want your readers to become emotionally involved, and how your character perceives the dangers he/she faces draws people in and keeps them captivated. Be bold and let your imagination run free. You can always adapt, exaggerate or reduce, aspects later if you need to, but now is the time to have some fun and color in any blank areas in your most important character. 
Never underestimate the influence of a protagonist. Not only do great fictional personalities enter our individual imagination, but they find their way into our cultural lives. Due the pictorial nature of stories and the emotional attachment we develop as we follow the heroine/ hero’s struggles, they enter our subconscious and have the ability to inspire us. This is no small achievement.

Exercises
The best way to internalize new information is to use it, and the following exercises will assist you in analyzing your protagonist with the goal of deepening your understanding of the character you’re developing.

Exercise 1
A Take a book you’re reading or just finished and make a list of the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. Do the same for their internal and external conflicts and how they cope with and resolve their dilemmas.
B Take a character from your own WIP (work-in-progress) or one you are thinking of developing and do the same. List their strengths and weaknesses, their internal and external challenges and how you plan to solve them.

Exercise 2:
The second part of this exercise is where I recommend you put the most effort.
and study the guidelines and suggestions with your own character in mind.
B Take your character from Exercise 1B and use the information from the article to expand your fictional character. 

Further Reading
If you google ‘creating fictional characters’ a large number of articles on the subject comes up, any one of which will teach you something relevant. Have at it!

There’s a Chinese proverb that states 'perseverance furthers,' so if you keep chugging along, you will get to your destination.

Work hard, play hard, have a great month and see you all on the 1st March.
Teagan.

Credits: 
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