STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: How to Create Intriguing Characters

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: How to Create Intriguing Characters

 

A common divide among great writers is plot vs. character. Some authors are better at creating vivid, so-real-they’re-human figures, while others are better at taking us through winding, fascinating, perfectly-calculated plots.

Great character writers – John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Stephen King

Great plotters – Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Suzanne Collins

The debate of whether character or plot is more integral in crafting a compelling story has gone on since the beginning of time. That is not what this post is about. This post is about what separates cardboard cut-outs from fascinating personalities. Let us begin with two short examples. See if you can figure out the major difference before I point it out.

* * *

Scene 1:

Brad put the seventy-pound dumbbells back on the rack. He sat down, let out a giant groan, then smeared the sweat from his forehead with his towel. He stared eye-to-eye with his own reflection, glaring so intense that any lesser man would have looked away. His stare didn’t waver until she caught his eye.

She was blond, blue eyed, and kept her blond hair in a pony tail. Her outfit was hot pink, as were her lips. She caught him staring, then let out a short chuckle.Brad returned his gaze to his own reflection. He didn’t smile from her laugh – he never smiled. He was there to workout. And if some new beef wanted to flirt, then so be it. For now it was time for another set.

Brad picked the seventy-pounders back up and got back to work.

Scene 2:

Angela cut-short her chuckle. She’d caught the rough-and-tough guy staring at her and laughed. Maybe that was a mistake… just another, stupid mistake.

She shook her head, then walked behind him and over to the rack. She picked up the five pound weights and returned to her bench. He didn’t even notice her – didn’t even care. Was it her laugh?

She’d assumed he had been looking at her because she looked pretty good in her new, hot-pink get-up. Maybe he was staring because she looked stupid.

“Shut-up,” she mumbled to herself, then begin her triceps exercises.

Her friends suggested she wear this stupid thing, not her. This wasn’t her. Angela preferred sweat pants and a jacket when she went to the gym. This wasn’t her – God she felt stupid.

Angela quit halfway through her set. She moved to the front of her bench and stared at herself in the mirror. Who was she fooling? She wasn’t the flirty blond girl she felt pressured to be. She was the ice-cream-devouring, wannabe-mom who texted stupid sweet smiles to boys who didn’t even care about her.

Angela shook her head, then rushed over to return her weights. Her head was down when she bumped into somebody – oh great, it was the rough and tough guy who thought she looked stupid.

“Hey girl-”

“Get out of my way,” she said back.

She hurried around him, put back her weights, then stormed out of the gym. Time for some Ben and Jerry’s.

* * *

Spot the difference? If not, that’s okay.

But I bet you found Angela much more intriguing than Brad. You might be willing to follow her around for a while, stick with her as she tries to build-up her self esteem. One major difference between Brad and Angela is that Brad is a cock, whereas Angela is a sweet girl who we’d like to see believe in herself a little more. Depreciating persons are more likable even in real life, and in works of fiction they are easier to empathize with. Keep this is mind when you draw up your protagonist.

Yet still, this is not the major separation between these two characters.Brad is a meat head. Short and simple. What we know of him so far is entirely predictable – I’m sure he works out, hits the bar scene, gets laid, does it again. He’s that dickhead who greets cashiers with a stern expression no matter how brightly they smile at him and ask, “How are you doing today?”

These qualities themselves are by no means boring qualities – in all likelihood, Brad’s life of lifting weights and finding ‘beef’ is probably quite interesting. So why don’t we care to follow him around for a full length novel? Let’s examine Angela, and why we’re intrigued by her, to find our answer.

What did you think of Angela before you got to know her? I’m sure if you’re a girl it was something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s that stupid ditsy blond girl who every guy likes even though she’s a stupid idiot.” Or, if you’re a guy, it was probably something like, “Oh, there’s that dumb girl who’ll play you the second you treat her nice.” Up until her own scene, Angela was cardboard – she appeared to be just as stereotypical as Brad, and we assumed she would think accordingly.

But she didn’t.

Much rather, Angela was uncomfortable wearing her ‘stupid pink outfit’. She didn’t like the way she laughed, she didn’t even like the way she looked. Angela was so convinced she was unattractive that she ran away from Brad before he had a chance to hit on her. Even more intriguing, she doesn’t really care about having a lot of eyes on her.

She wants one boyfriend, she wants to get married, she wants to have kids. But she doesn’t know how to go about doing any of those things, so she took up the suggestion from her friends to make herself more presentable. The funny part is, she is getting more attention from a guy – but her real issue isn’t presentation, it’s her self-esteem, which still hasn’t been resolved (And that’s probably what her inner conflict would be throughout a novel in which she is the protagonist).

One more spin before I tell you exactly what the major difference is between these two, if you haven’t figured it out already -Imagine Angela never wore that hot-pink outfit. Imagine she showed up in a pair of dirty sweatpants and a jacket. Imagine she sat down without ever smiling at Brad, and from Brad’s perspective she seemed depressed. The more we got to know her, the more we came to realize that this girl is the same self-loathing person we anticipated she’d be.

She wouldn’t have been as captivating, would she have been?

The number one way to create compelling characters is this – Give them contradictions. Show us elements of their personality that surprise us. Have them take actions that are out of the ordinary, that even you, their writer, didn’t expect them to take. Strange personality quirks create dynamic characters, and unexpected courses of action create memorable experiences.

Adding this depth to your protagonist will leave your readers with an intense desire to better understand them. Always remember, questions compel us to seek answers.

If you can get your readers to ask questions about your story on their own terms (such as, why doesn’t Angela believe in herself, and will she land the man of her dreams?), than you are going to give them a reason keep reading.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for Specscout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom

 

A Conversation between Thomas M. Watt and a character from his book

Adam from, “Way of the World.”

Thomas and Adam were both sitting on the curb together. Thomas was wearing his shoulder sling, while Adam was sipping scotch from his flask, dressed in his usual eccentric attire.

“Rah, why are we here, Thomas?” said Adam.

Thomas shrugged. “I don’t know. Just wanted to talk, I guess.”

“Talk? You want to talk let’s do it at a barroom.”

“We’re here, so just deal with it.”

“Sure.” Adam scoffed. “Deal with it. He shook his head. “What a terrible phrase. Well, let’s have at it then. What have you brought me here for?”

“I wanted to talk about your plot. I wanted to see how you felt about it.”

“About what, exactly?” said Adam.

“You know, the love curse. The prophesy on the train. The fact that if you fall in love it puts your entire company at risk.”

“You know that company hardly matters to me. And I don’t care about love, either. Despite what you might think,” Said Adam, scratching his long white chin.

Thomas laughed and adjusted his sling. “What about those quiet moments when you seem ashamed of yourself?”

“What! C’mon! Everybody has those moments! It’s called having fun. Thomas, listen, I honestly don’t care about my plot, whatsoever. I just need you to do one thing for me.”

“What?”

“Allow me to fuck Evelynn.”

“What! I can’t do that!” said Thomas.

“Why not?” said Adam.

“Because that’s what’s driving your whole story now! It’ll kill the suspense!”

“Oh, forget suspense! Here, I’ve got an idea.” Adam stretched his tall lanky legs straight out in front of him, then rested his white-gloved hands in his lap.

“What?” said Thomas.

“How about this – If I don’t have sex with Evelynn at least twenty times in your novel, the Kingsley Products goes out of business.”

Thomas laughed. “I’m sorry, I can’t see that appealing much to readers over the age of thirteen.”

Adam stood up, then brushed some dirt off of his white buckskin shoes. “Rah.” He stood up straight. “Well what’s with you, anyhow?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, how are you? What exactly happened today?”

“With what?” said Thomas.

“Oh, c’mon, you know what! You had a captivating story going for a few days, then you published the finale this morning, and… well… let’s just say it wasn’t good.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“In fact, I’d say it was shit.”

“Yeah. I know,” repeated Thomas.

Adam laughed. He picked up a small black pebble then tossed it into the street. “Why did you publish it?”

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know. I had forty-five minutes to write it, and by the time the first draft was finished, I had to get out the door. I guess I just pressed publish without a second thought.”

“It was a mistake.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. Nine views and three likes. I’m hoping they just didn’t wanna press the button.”

“No,” said Adam. “They read it and decided it was shit.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, or that.”

“Billy the butler? That was almost offensive. You’re not a very good writer, you know.”

“I created you.”

“Yeah, that’s why I said it. You don’t bring a character out of his normal setting to have a conversation with him. And about his own plot, for rah-sakes!”

Thomas stood up. “Well shit, I’ve been struggling all day with this thing. I even wrote a poem about it.”

“Yeah, and the poem sucked.”

“You’re kind of a dick, you know.”

“And you’re kind of a bad writer.”

“Whatever dude. I’m leaving.”

“Hey dude!” Adam called out, as Thomas started away.

“What?!”

“Write me more sex scenes! Get me some new flousies or something!”

“It’s spelled floozies.”

“Shut-it, you’re the writer. It was you who decided to be different and spell it your way.” Adam adjusted his black felt topper and failed to hide his smirk.

“What?” said Thomas.

“I’m just embarrassed to have been created by you, is all.”

Thomas opened to speak, before biting down hard on his bottom lip and walking away.

– Billy the Butler

Mayor Dunlap’s Estate

Mayor Dunlap's Estate

This is the Dunlap’s estate. It is known as the most lavish abode in all of Gnashing, and is frequently admired by all who pass by. It is located in the farm country, and is the same home former Congressman P. Farro inhabited.

Michael has some troubling childhood memories here, as the third story room was where he committed twelve murders during the Slave Owner Slaughter.

For more about my novel, “Way of the World,” feel free to check out my website at http://www.thomasmwatt.com

Casey, Jackson, and Gus

Casey, Jackson, and Gus

Casey is an Irishman who is vulgar, funny, and despicable. He loves his ‘shillelagh’, which is nothing more than a blunt club.

Jackson is an Australian, who is well-built and as crude as Casey.

Gus speaks with a croaky voice, and always is agitated about something. He is heavy, and not too fun to be around.

To find out more about my novel, “Way of the World,” just check out my website at http://www.thomasmwatt.com

Uncle Wiggly

Image

There is no man more bitter about his lot in life then Uncle Wiggly. He has a hook for a hand and a patch over his eye. He is not a pirate. He is not the town’s joke. He is the town’s menace.

Everybody who walks the sidewalk knows to get out of his way. The scowl on his face never leaves, the seriousness of his voice never strays.

I have heard rumors that Uncle Wiggly once shoved his hook through the throat of a dog, only because the poor mutt was urinating where he wasn’t supposed to. I have personally witnessed Uncle Wiggly tear up a bed of roses in a fit of rage, all because he did not like the way the home owner looked at him.

But today, something much different happened. Shortly after I spoke with Tricks Arthur Kids in secrecy, I bumped into him on the street corner. Uncle Wiggly smiled at me.

It was not a genuine smile, there was nothing friendly about it. It startled me, and quite frankly I felt more afraid of him then ever. I immediately turned the other way, and walked down the cross street instead. Uncle Wiggly followed me, so I ran.

He ran too.

Uncle Wiggly chased me up the alleyway. He followed my lead after I hopped a fence and tore through a backyard. He called after me in a frightful yell.

I hurried, but he hurried too. No matter how long or far I ran for, it seemed there was no way to evade Uncle Wiggly. Finally, I stopped, turned around, gulped, then addressed the menacing man.

“What is it you want?” I said.

“What is it that I want?” He returned. “I thought you were after me.”

I shook my head. “Why would you think that?”

He smiled that sickly smile again. “Because I saw you spoke with Trix Arthur Kids.”

Looking away, I felt the shiver run down my spine. No one was supposed to know that. “What?” I responded.

“Don’t play games McWatty9. I know you’re after me now.”

“No,” I said at once, doing my best to deny it. “Your name never came up in our conversation. Only Harry’s.”

He laughed again, turning his face up to the sky. When he faced me again, he spit, and then spoke. “You can be with me or against me, McWatty9. But either way, when this ends, everybody is going to die.”

I swallowed. “It doesn’t have to end like that.”

“Oh, but it does!” He smiled, then pushed his three-cornered hat up with his hook. “And I suggest you pick a side sooner rather than later. You’re in this now, you know.”

Uncle Wiggly turned and started off.

“I don’t want to be!” I shouted.

“Too bad then,” He said, not bothering to face me. “Because the madness has already begun.”

Just then, at the finish of his statement, I heard a loud boom. When I turned in the direction of the explosion, I saw the building up in smoke, searing with flame.

– Thomas M. Watt