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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Characteristics of Characters, and their Character


Hey'a readers/writers/random people! There was an overwhelming response to my last post, for which I am very thankful, and one of the topics that started being discussed was characters. What makes a good hero, villains, and where characters come from. Seeing as how this is a very good topic I thought I'd blog on it.

All stories, fiction or nonfiction, fantasy or otherwise, are about characters. Stories are about who characters are, what they want, and how they get or do not get what they want. Every story. And as characters are the most central part of any story, they are likewise the most important part of writing a story.

So what makes a good hero? There have been all types that have had success--underdogs, super-humans, average people, and probably more. What kind of traits make characters believable, and lovable?

My favorite characters and stories involve things that should never happen. Like Frodo Baggins, he's just a hobbit...there's no way he should have been able to waltz into Mount Doom and destroy the Ring. But he did.

I guess my favorite characters are the underdogs faced with impossible tasks.

And why does this resonate with us? Because we feel like them. We all feel like underdogs faced with impossible tasks at some point in our lives. And through faith in something stronger we overcome these impossibilities. These are the stories that stick with us, and the characters as well.

Here's my list of most common traits for a hero;
  • Loyal
  • Trusting
  • Naive
  • Underestimated
  • Innocent
It seems to me that those things make up all good heroes.

But what if you can't write like this? What if you aren't that creative (like most writers)?

Basically what I'm asking is where do you get your characters from?

Mine, in TSOF, typically come from combining characteristics of real life friends. My current project, as with most first projects, has a main character much like myself and supporting characters much like my friends. But the thing is, no one wants to read an allegory of your life--unless its really interesting. Your characters need to be new, and yet real.

This is a difficult thing to balance. Creating entirely new people. People with histories, goals, dreams, hopes, pains, weaknesses, etc.

I find it easiest to steal from real life. Write a character with a history similar to your own, or someone you know. Snag personalities from multiple persons and make this person its own. And after the personality and story is set, the goals and dreams easily fall in line.

You following me? Steal from real life. Throw people together and make a new person. Or perhaps make characters symbolic of a trait--love (make a person who's life is centered around love), loyalty (make a Sam Gamgee character), and more.

So once you have your hero, you need to pit him/her against someone. A villain.

So what makes a good villain? Villains, honestly, are many people's favorite characters. They can define a story. You can have a perfect main character, and write such a bad villain that your story will be awful.

This is a skill hard for many people. Your villains need to be just as real as your hero, perhaps even more so. They need believable motives, readers in fact do need to identify with the bad guys. Because it adds so much more depth to the story. Some of the best stories are the ones where the reader is caught between the two sides--good and evil. Loving the villain but knowing he is evil. That's the goal. Make the reader feel for the villain, or at least understand him. You don't need to write a lovable villain. But write one that makes sense.

For example, a bad story would have a villain that wants to kill the main character...simply to kill the main character. There is no purpose in killing him. He just wants to kill him.

That's a bad character. The villain needs motives, just as much as a hero.

Now, it is commonly misunderstood that villains need to be wholly evil, detestable, ugly, dressed in black, etc etc. You know the picture. Think up the most cliche villain. That's what I'm talking about.

Instead of following this trend, write a seemingly good villain, enchantingly evil, handsome, donning shinning robes. Give your reader the same feeling as the hero. Fearful, but enchanted.

Naturally this varies between stories. But there really aren't rules in writing characters--they just need to be real. Sometimes cliche's work, but not often.

Make a villain that's wretchedly evil. But make your readers like him.
Make a hero with motives your readers understand, and terrorize his life.

So, here's what I'd like to talk about. Do you agree, disagree with what I said? Do you want to hear more on any of this? How do you make up characters? What are the most important traits of a hero/villain?

If this goes well I'll do a series of posts on types of characters. Even if it doesn't I just might. I like studying that :)

So, what do you think?

30 comments:

Ivorydancer said...

Do you know where Scott Appleton will be on the 14th?

Millardthemk said...

I like it very much Keeneye. But that was one WEIRD post before mine.

Pyrosian Heir said...

i very much agree. i mean my main good guys have been based on my closest compadre's from when i started the Knights but as time went on i slowly changed their personalities to where they are similar but different at the same time. as for my villains, with one exception, i've made them up as i went along, names and all. the names haven't always worked but the couple of villains that are going to stick around for a while have good back stories. the one i just introduced is a knight from the past who was booted from the knighthood and taken in by the main baddy to allow the ex-knight to get revenge.
something i've picked up on from reading the likes of goodkind, modesitt, and jordan is that while the hero starts out naive, by the end of the storyline of the series they've been through so much that they had no choice about going through that they've become jaded and are not naive anymore. especially in the WoT series by jordan. his 5 initial mains come from this little village in the middle of nowhere and they all become extremely powerful and important but also a little twisted from who they were at first. yet because the villains in all of these were already twisted a bit, they don't undergo the same process. its wierd.
if you could do more of this kinda thing i would love it. plz and thank you.

Gwendolyn said...

I think your observation on creating fascinating yet hideously evil villians is a pretty good one. I also think that it's a bad idea to make a villian (at least on the human side, I'm not talking about evil angels here, or dragons, or trolls...) decidedly human. Don't make them all out evil where they do everything wrong. Perhaps a murderer has a decided bias against swear words, and loves anchovies. Maybe a professional thief has the memory of two little kids locked away in his heart. And possibly, a bad guy with every evil intent would sit down for hours and have a shout-out discussion on national politics with whoever would listen....

Okay, those ideas were off the cuff, and a little weird. But you probably get what I'm saying - make the bad guy a real guy.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Ivorydancer, Scott will be at Dixie Heights Highschool in Edgewood KY on the 14th. He will also likely be at the Crestview Hills Shopping Mall Borders and later that week he will be in Hebron and Cincinati.

Ben, I agree that in many stories the heroes become twisted at the end. I hate these stories honestly. I believe that heroes should remain heroic and honorable throughout. This does not mean that they need to remain niave. It is best if they don't in fact.

Gwendolyn, that is EXACTLY what I was trying to say :) And I think you did a better job of saying it. Villains need to be real...and have feelings...motivation for what they do. They just don't do evil for the fun of it (well...soem do but you get the point :P)

Millard, are you talking about the tribe blog?

Rien.Tel said...

When writing, I do think that we need to make sure our heroes are slightly flawed. Who wants to read about someone who never does anything wrong, is never uncertain, and who everyone loves? That's not realistic. But they have to grow through their flaws. One of my main characters is a bit impulsive but is learning to be a wise councilor. Another struggles with keeping hopeful in tough circumstances despite his usually chipper attitude. So they both have room to grow over the series.

As for villians. I think that we must be careful about making them too sympathetic, if that makes sense. We are fallen creatures and without Christ, we would all be villians. And evil must be shown as evil. Maybe he has a reason to be evil, but it doesn't have to be a "good" reason.

It makes sense to draw our characters from life, from those we know. I have based many secondary characters off of my friends--and they know it. Sometimes, I do this intentionally, but often I write a character and then realize that so-and-so is very like someone I know. It is quite fun. Basing characters off real people also makes it easier to write them. You can put them in a situation and then say "Now what would Fred do here?" and go on from there. Obviously, you'll need to build on them so that they aren't exactly like your friends but you can keep their quirks to keep the characters real.

Finally, I understand from Storyteller on the Underground that you are seeking my e-mail. It is rien.tel@gmail.com. I assume you're planning to send me the link to that creepy spider banner? :-) Thanks!

Seth said...

I think the best villian of all time that I've seen is Marsuvees Black that Ted Dekker created. Also in Sinner, I felt so much for Billy and the girl's name(I forgot) great books.

Gwendolyn said...

One of the most spectacular villians I ever came across was Dru Polar and his cronies on Three Zed, from Kathy Tyer's Firebird trilogy. She portrayed in perfection what I call 'raw evil'; creating bad guys that literally made my blood run cold. I thought the cold and bare painting of their chilling intent made the story a masterpiece, because the beauty of the light shone all the more in contrast. All the same, it wasn't overdone, so as to be ridiculous. (I would say that it takes some skill to make a really excellently done purely wicked character who doesn't seem foolish and prone to fall flat in the reader's mind...)

Other villians in her trilogy were evil, but they were real enough to garner sympathy(at least mine). They too feared death, and though malicious and positively devilish, they were not so inhuman in personality as to leave the reader devoid of sorrow when they met their dues at the hands of the (more evil) villians.

Another author who really struck me as having done a good job on creating villians is Jack Cavanauh, in his two-book Kingdom Wars series. In that story, a modern day Nephilum was up against rebel angels, who were both fascinating and frightening.

Rien. Tel, I agree that our purpose should not be to create bad guys who draw us to root for their success. That's not what I meant, and I highly doubt Nathan meant that either. I was merely stating that a villian should be believable, real, and human; and not some guy who just randomly does evil acts for the purpose of giving the protagonist something to do. And they shouldn't appear completely wicked all the time. Have you ever read the news? (If you don't I wouldn't advise it; I quit a long time ago...) Most of the crime stories have people in them who led 'normal' lives, yet also broke the law. It's often a case of Dr. Jekyll/Dr. Hyde, where the villian's family or friends see him as a good nice guy; only his victims know differently. But I'm rambling. Do you get what I'm trying to say?


Nathan, you're probably wondering why I create a blog-post-sized comment just about every time I swing by here. Sorry about that....

Natasha Atkerson said...

I'm homeschooled, and going through "One Year Adventure Novel" And its very helpful to me. Some of it comes naturally to me, some of it doesn't! On characters: The guy that wrote the curriculm said to choose a villian with the exact opposite character traits as the hero- or heroine- embodies. Such as, the heroine is very happy (I know bad example, but its the simpliest!) Then the villian would be un-happy. Characters seem to pop out of nowhere for me! One day I'm just sitting there, and a character grabs me by the legs, and drags me to the computer to write!;) LOL! Also, I find that if I choose the name, before the characters traits, it helps. My latest heroines name is Saigan. She is somewhat shy, and everyone thinks shes weak, but when you put her in a diffcult situation, shes a lioN!
Rien. Tel: I think your right. If they don't have some character trait thats not perfect, they won't identify with them. Creating empathy is important too, such as a physical handicap, or something that happened in there past. My villian hates the Skiylovian's because his Mother was killed by them, and his mothers death caused him to embittered and to forever loath the Skiylovians. I especially have a problem with sticking to the story line, and making it have a purpose.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Rien, that will be something I disagree with. I do believe we should write characters that don't have major flaws. This doesn't mean they can't grow. I don't want to read about a character that's an impulsive liar. Dont' want to read it. You say it's not realistic for someone to do the right things all the time. I might disagree but either way its fiction...and I'm not going to have a hero that's not heroic. Yes...he will have much from to grow. But to have a blatant...outright flaw. Not doing it. Now, fear...yes all heros are afraid...all are uncertain. But the best heros have faith in the midst of that and overcome evil, not submit to it.

I didn't mean to make villains otu to be best sympathetic, though some are. I do however hold to the fact that they must have a good reason to be evil. Even Satan has a reason to be evil. And its a good reason--pride.

Totally agree about the drawing from life thing :)

Seth, Black...he's...interesting to say the least lol I like him as well.

Gwendolyn, that's what I was trying to express about villains...purley, horridly, evil...but not silly. And I was also trying to mention what you said about the secondary characters--evil..but still likeable a bit.

Thanks for having my back ;) ::laughs:: That's what I meant ;)
I love reading your coments. :) You should start a blog lol

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Natasha, you're much more creative than me. I stink at coming up with names and have to find names that fit characters after I've made them lol I'm just not a good name comer-upper lol


Back to the imperfect heros. You say that heros need to have a trait of...honestly evil in them in order to gain sympathy. But there are other ways to do this. As a reader myself, I would never enjoy a book if the hero was constantly lying, cheating, stealing, etc throughout the entire book. Unless the whole point of the story was his redemption, I wouldn't like it. That may just be me, but to be honest...I've never read a book where the hero was like that. Ever.

Sympathy and understanding can come in many forms. Make them think a certain way, but not necesarily an incorrect way. Curse of the Spider King was good with this. Characters with personalities and opinions similar to a wide range of people. Give them histories that mold the way they act. They can have quirks, and "un-perfectness" about them. But not like lying, or anything like that.

Natasha, ooh I feel you on stickign to the storyline...though I'm lucky in that I typically have a clear idea of the themes behind my stories. Here's an idea, maybe don't stick to your outline ;)

Storyteller said...

I have to agree with Nathan in that I have no wish to read about a character with repetitive flaws. That said, I know that humans are all sinful; we all have something we must overcome.

There is nothing wrong with making a character that readers can use as a role model. I think that if we give characters flaws, we must be extremely careful to show how the characters overcome those same flaws. It is especially important for Christians to show how the characters overcome THROUGH CHRIST, for it is in Him alone that we have victory.

Nathan, now I know which hero you voted for on my blog. *laughs*

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Thanks ST :)
Right, as long as the point of the story is the character's redemption then I'm cool with a habitual sinner. But personally, I read and write so that I can see and create identifiable characters that we strive to become.

I want to be Sam Gamgee, I want to be Aidan Thomas, I want to be Billy Bannister, I want to be...Gandalf.

These are the things that give characters meaning. When people look up to them.

And yes, I voted for the underdog lol. Can't believe it's losing! lol

Anonymous said...

Good!!! I especially liked the part about the villains. ~whisper

Natasha Atkerson said...

I wasn't saying that the hero or heroine should be completely flawed (constantly cheating and stealing) Just that they should have a few flaws I.E. Shy, too bold, a temper. Things that aren't entirely negative that they need to learn to control. (such as a temper)

Pyrosian Heir said...

when i said twisted i mean like, they are a bit jaded but it doesn't make them more evil. in the WoT series, the main guy Rand starts to overly control his emotions and he just starts to go nuts in general, but at the end of the last book he refound himself, if that makes sense. if the hero were completely twisted that would just stink and i prolly wouldn't like it as much either. and i pretty much agree with everything else that you've pointed out so far.

BrittLass said...

LOL. Obviously, I wasn't quite as clear as I thought in my original post. Allow me to explain further.

I do not advocate so-called heroes who are constantly floundering. I do suggest that we write ones that aren't perfect. They have to have some way to grow through the events fo the story. Take Samwise Gamgee. He's one of the heroes of "The Lord of the Rings" (THE hero in my opinion but that's beside the point). He's steadfast, loyal, and determined--all the things a hero should be. But he's also overly suspicious. Caspian X of Narnia has a temper. Antoinette Reed is too impulsive and overconfident. Those are the kind of flaws I'm talking about--Not a constant, deliberate disobedience of God's law, but smaller seeming things that make characters into real people. Does that make sense?

It grows late, I shall have to elaborate on villians later.

Rien

Nathan R. Petrie said...

I guess I see what you guys are saying. And I agree for the most part. I guess what you're calling flaws I'd say are simply part of people's personality. Like I wouldn't say Sam was overly suspicious. I'd say he was observant. But still, we're both sayign the same things I think ;) lol

Thanks for chatting with me! I've taken a lot away from this conversation believe it or not ::Laughs::

Anyone else?

Pyrosian Heir said...

i know i have. my character development should for sure work better now.

Emily said...

When I first read the part about a hero being naive, I was a little doughtful. In a story, if the main character is that way in the begining, they usually do change by the end. Therefore I can see where you are coming from on that aspect.
Sometimes I read a book/watch a movie, and the bad guys are bad just for the sake of being bad-that being said, I agree with you on the point of making bad guys bad for a reason.
Nice post!

Anna said...

Wow, you guys are making me worry about my current main character...

Keeneye, great post. I would very much enjoy reading a series about types of characters.

So far, my main characters have been based upon myself. I don't mean to say that I enjoy writing stories all about me, but rather stories of characters with similar ideas, feelings, and reactions to difficulties (both real and imagined) similar to my own.

Most recently, however, I have been creating characters that are closer to embodiments of a side of my personality I don't show too often. It's somewhat hard for me to explain at the moment...

I seem to create supporting characters very easily. I take a bunch of personality traits and combine them into an individual. Then the fun part is creating their history.

Villains, on the other hand, are not my forte (For those of you who know Hanna, she doesn't count). I've had very little experience in drawing up villains.

In fact, I just recently made up two villains. The first's motives are cliched in my opinion.
The other is... I don't even have a history for her yet so... yeah.

Barie-ah Hue-en-la said...

I have never had trouble with characters . . oddly enough. I don't feel like a am creating a character, I feel like I am discovering who they are. It's like making a new friend, or enemy for me. It's not making up, it's learning. Exploring their personalities. The longer they hang around, the more I find out about them.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Emily, you lost be a few times but I think I follow ;) ::laughs:: Yes, Characters definitly need to change. And they always loose a good bit of that naivete as well.

Don't worry Anna. I worry about my series all the time ;)

I totally get you about basing characters off yourself. write what you know. And yourself is the easiest.

I agree. My secondary characters have better histories than my main guy o.O Which at times is a good thing. And I LOVE making them. My dad oncesaid I had too many names in my story ::laughs:: So I have to cut back ;)

Villains are tough, writing is tough. I'm just glad there's enough people reading/commenting that we can all help each other out unintentionally lol.

Barie, I love when people say that. Because I get it. I've had characters like that. And it's so much more fun :)

Natasha Atkerson said...

You should post about how people come up with names, that would be really interesting to me! I make mine up or mess with regular spelling. I sometimes Google "unusuall names."

Chris said...

My main antagonist is evil through and through... For good reason, as well. He does have a very sympathetic backstory though. *shrug* I stop short of calling him a "Dark Lord" though, because that has been used one too many times. Darth Vader was sorta the bad guy, but there was the "Emperor" or whatever who was just evil.

For all of my supporting villains, I follow your advice. And I've got quite a few of them... hehe >_>

Jessica said...

Nathan thank you so much for this post and everyone for your incredible comments. I finally got what my villain needed a background story,somehow I missed creating one for the villain. Everyone else that was important had one(I have been creating this story since I was about ten 10 though I fell in love with the original main character when I was 6. Long story). but it never occurred to me. So now that mind sparks are flying I finally have material for my master villain the back ground reason and a deeper purpose to make him charmingly evil. Now for the villain draft...

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Natasha, maybe I might add it to another post lol. I have a feeling most people will have the same answer.

Chris, I don't know why I put the Vader pic up o.O

Jessica, glad to have assisted in the process :)

Sorry in my late replies guys. My email notifications haven't been working right o.O

Gwendolyn said...

You put the Vader picture up because he's a very popular villian, I surmise. :D

Galadriel said...

My two NaNo novels--which are also my two longest stories--have very unusal villins.
Sheltering Wings, a Dragons in Our Midst fanfic, has a dragonslayer, a deranged, insane mother and an utterly deprssed sister. The sister is the hardest to work with--her own worst enemy, really.

Three Dark Roses, an allegorical fantasy, has the typical 'Dark Lord,' named Deathroot, but it also has a 1st person MC prodigal who takes a very long time to relieze his mistakes. But I don't know if he's a villian either...

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Gwen, yes...that is why :)

Galadriel, sounds cool! Are you planning to publish these novels?

"Stand tall now and proclaim what you have seen, speak in whispered roars..."