Creating “Credible, Living” People

A writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

It is the greatest power in the universe, the power to create. This power can be harnessed to form a world and planets, a sun and moon in the sky. It can be wielded to endow the breath of life in order to animate rough figures made of ink and dust to acts of epic valor and renown. Therein lies the ability to set forth laws and morality, to frame issues, to hone a message, to perform miracles, to bestow choice and consequence, the blessing and the malediction, and to even alter fate. It is the power of… a writer. Of course, once a writer decides to tell a story and decides who he or she is telling that story to, the next challenge is to create saviors and scoundrels, vanquishers and victims, prophets and pretenders.

The writer’s greatest task involves breathing the breath of life into these individuals. His or her ability to do this makes the difference between flat, predictable, unrealistic characters and compelling, complicated, conflicted real people who readers will remember long after the book is closed. In most stories there is a protagonist, a person central to the action, theme or message meant for the reader. This protagonist is usually countered by an antagonist, or some antagonistic force. The struggle between the two defines the conflict meant to reveal the meaning of the story. Readers are drawn to a protagonist who is interesting and convincing, who is capable of carrying the action and message forward.

Who is the protagonist? This question begins the creation of the central character. In this case, the “who” does not call for a name, though names are important. Rather, this “who” involves the background of the protagonist and how it affects his or her personality and world view. In my experience, protagonist development should be done as a separate writing project, before actual story writing begins. I begin with a one-page overview, using adjectives to describe what the protagonist looks like in elaborate detail. I identify physical features that reveal and reflect life’s experience and challenges. Does this person limp? Is there an outstanding physical feature or deformity? Is the voice deep or high-pitched? Does the person stutter or talk fast? Is there an accent? How does the protagonist dress? Does he or she work out? Is there a medical condition? I detail hair and hairstyle, complexion, face shape, eyes, nose, mouth, lips, teeth, ears and body type.

Moving beyond the physical, I begin to identify personality traits. Is the person combative, insecure or insensitive? Is he or she religious, political, prejudiced, laid back or high strung? What is the character flaw? Where are the warts and scars? What are the person’s values and sensitivities? What are the passions? Is he or she lazy, clumsy, intelligent, funny, short-tempered, nervous or vain? Is the person honest within and with others? What are the internal conflicts? What does the person love and hate? It is best to write a page, a page and a half—nothing more.

With that done, the next step is to write a 2-3 page mini biography. Begin with parents and family background. Who are they and how have they influenced the protagonist? Are there siblings? Where was the protagonist born and how did the family come to that place? Be specific. What is the protagonist’s birthday? Where did the person begin school and how did he or she perform? Elaborate on the person’s earlier experiences and describe the influence they provide. Describe past successes and failures within the context of protagonist’s place in time. Is he or she happy, pessimistic or ambitious? Romantically involved, conflicted?

Detail this person’s education, hobbies, training and employment history. Who are the person’s friends and colleagues? What is his or her favorite restaurant? Tell the story of your protagonist’s life. Let us make man in our image, in our likeness – it is inescapable. Every person a writer creates will inherit a portion of its creator. Every protagonist and antagonist will reflect qualities, morality and idiosyncrasies from the writer’s super-ego. Writers write from experience. Use what you know to give your creation a heart, breath and a soul.

If your people come alive, then that life will come directly from you. As for naming your creation, it is important to choose a name that is fitting, memorable and easily pronounced. Irony works, alliteration works, rhyme, meter, though names with a “familiar ring” work best. Some of the names I have chosen include Deuteronomy Saint Claire, Destiny Mitchell, Winston Princeton Dork, Bubba Barnes, Antonio Castañeda de Castilla, Sylvester Smallpepper, Easton West and Pericles Agamemnon Smith. Avoid difficult names. If your protagonist’s name is Apichatpong Leszczynska, it is next to impossible for a reader to describe this person, let alone pronounce the name as he or she might recommend your book to friends. You might not incorporate much of what you have written into your proposed work, but this exercise serves a useful purpose—that of background. You have created a real person.

As you begin your work, you will realize that you are writing about a person you know, with a real life, and that will make the person credible. If your protagonist knows who he or she is and you allow that person free choice, then his or her story will be compelling. When you have finished this mini biography, move to the next protagonist if there is one, as many stories have two or even three protagonists. After you have finished with the protagonist(s), move to the antagonist, if the conflict is brought by the actions of another person. If the protagonist is set against an antagonistic force, then research and describe that force with the same detail.

When all the biographies are done, you can begin your work with a good grasp of the backgrounds, personalities and proclivities of people involved in your story in juxtaposition. As the story develops, you will be surprised when these people take over and begin sharing their lives, thoughts, pain, conflict and convictions with your readers. Your biographies should sound like they are about real people, with warts, scars, conflicts and other factors that make protagonists less than perfect. Protagonists should not be model heroes, supermen and superwomen. A character who is the most intelligent man in town, and the best-looking, a great lover, the perfect husband and father, a virtuoso on violin, worldly, speaks seventeen languages, is psychic, pious, honorable, charismatic and a person who has never failed at anything – is unbelievable. Protagonists should be imperfect, insecure, biased, conflicted, failing, wrong, twisted, obsessive, sinning and foolish at sometimes in their lives.

Real character is about how persons deal with challenges and shortcomings. Above all else, these living people you have created should be stressed to the extreme. If there is no conflict, then there is no story. After you have defined your protagonist, you must make it your mission to make his or her life utterly miserable, to put that person in the worst possible positions, to challenge his or her faith, convictions, beliefs, morality and very sanity. Terrorize and persecute your protagonist and you breathe life into a real person who stares back at you in defiance. Strained vines produce better wines.

If you are working on a project now, I challenge you to approach your protagonists and antagonists in this manner. It is extra work and provides only background, but it is an excellent technique for creating compelling and “living people.” Take the time and effort to detail and write the short biographies and if you are so inclined, send them to me. I will do my best to respond in a timely manner. Of course, I realize that writers are resourceful. I am certain other experienced writers have developed other strategies and methods for dealing with character development.

And so I ask, what is it that you do? What suggestions can you offer fellow writers who struggle with presenting real, flawed people in their work? Perhaps we can share our ideas and benefit from community. For aspiring writers, what are the challenges you experience in character development and in other areas? If your work has been rejected by publishers, share with us whatever comments or direction you have received. Have you ever read a book in which you felt the protagonist was alive? What made that person real? Were there flaws? Did you identify with the person? Did you like the person? Who was the writer, what worked for you and what did not? An ongoing discussion would be helpful. Please share. Thank you again for taking the time to consider my blog. If you have any comments and suggestions, I am anxious to hear them.

Marcus McGee

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