Characters are, undoubtedly, the cornerstone of every great story. They can make, or break your book.
But what about the plot, I hear you ask. Surely that is the most important part.
Well, I suppose that is just a matter of opinion. Yes, both are vital, but I personally believe that you can get away with a mediocre plot if you have great characters. Though I certainly don’t recommend ignoring your plot line entirely in order to focus on your characters, as was done in a recent DC movie that will remain nameless.
I have, in the past, forced my way through more than one book with a below average plot line, because of the above average characters. Though those were usually just the one or two inevitably average books that pop up in every great, but lengthy, series.
Just think about it for a moment. Imagine you have a book with the most amazing plot line. It has everything you could want. It is clever, well written, with twist after mind-blowing twist. But, in order to discover said amazing plot, you are going to have to actually read the book. And are you really going to keep reading if the main character is annoying, useless, rude, or even worse, boring.
Because really, if you don’t care about someone, why would you want to read about their life? Do you often make a habit out of hanging out with people you don’t like, and listening to them rabbit on about things you could not care less about?
No? Then I don’t see any reason why your fantasy life should be any different.
Yes? Then maybe you need to re-think your priorities.
Characters are important. Simply because people are important.
Human beings are social creatures. For even the most antisocial, or socially anxious among us, that is a fundamental part of our existence. So again, I reiterate, characters are the cornerstone of every great story.
Now I personally have no trouble creating characters. The people in my head are as real to me as the flesh and blood individuals that exist in the world around me. At times, they are even more so, because I know my characters inside and out, in a way that you very rarely know any living person. So real are the people inside my head, that I occasionally find bits and pieces of my characters’ personalities leaching out into my own life. I’ll spend all day inside the mind of one of my imaginary friends, then will accidentally say something unusual, or just completely untrue in the world of Sylvia Kelly. Later, I will realise it is something that X would say, or that Y would feel. This, I’ve noticed, becomes much worse during social gatherings that involve alcoholic beverages. My alter ego that I have, to my great embarrassment as a writer, very unimaginatively named “Drunk Sylvia”, is wont to say the most ridiculous things simply because they amuse her. Often making up complete lies, or stories, just to see the reaction she will get. Bad Drunk Sylvia.
But, enough about her. Let us get back to the point.
My characters. I know every detail about them. Their life history, their hopes, their dreams, the motivation behind every action, even if they don’t really understand it yet themselves. I know their favourite colour, food, movie etc. Occasionally these things will occur organically. I will be writing, or even just thinking about writing, and suddenly my imaginary friends will reveal something of themselves to me. However, most of the time I know all of this without even taking the time to sit and plot it all out. Most of the time, I will know these things before I have even settled on a name for them.
Despite the fact that I intuitively know so much about my characters, I still write all of this down. I list their key attributes, their appearance, their personality. I write down a timeline for the important experiences in their lives. I write down even the more trivial aspects, like colour preferences.
I even have a whole playlist of songs that remind me of my characters, or of the relationship between two characters. For example, ‘I’m Gonna Show You Crazy’ – Bebe Rexha (my main character), Empty Chairs at Empty Tables – Les Misérables (her brother). These are two very troubled individuals, in case the songs didn’t give it away. I need to use my psychology degree somehow, and what better way than to write about people with brutal backstories and mental health issues.
I even do this for some of my minor characters. Though, of course, not to the same extent as I do for my main characters. I’ve yet to choose a song for one of the random townspeople, though that is not to say I won’t in the future.
I will admit, this attention that I now pay to my supporting players is due primarily to the talk I sat in on last year at Supanova. The talk was on ‘The Rise of the Anti-Hero’, given by: Matthew Reilly, Alan Baxter, Maria Lewis, Lian Hearn, and Greg Grunberg. Though I disagreed with their view on Cersei from Game of Thrones, I did agree on one very major point.
There is no harm in taking the time to figure out the personality, or back story of minor, or even one off characters. Maybe they are not as important as the protagonist, the antagonist, and their respective circles, but they are still people. People that exist in the world you have created. If you don’t know the people in your world, if they aren’t real to you, then how do you expect your readers to connect with them?
I try to make my characters as well rounded, as real, as possible. Because the way I see it, they are not just the voices in my head, the characters that I have created.
They are just people.
And I exist simply to share their stories with the world.