Sunday, February 8, 2009

Creating Memorable Genre Characters

Yesterday my friend Julie and I gave a workshop on creating memorable genre characters. Our premise was that good characters share the same essential building blocks no matter what genre they inhabit. Between us, Julie and I figured out we write in about seven different genres, and the basics are always the same.

Compelling characters have:
A past (backstory)
Flaws (internal conflict)

And, because even a flock of great characters does not a good book make...
Stuff happens to them (aggravating circumstances)

So we introduced the idea of a formula that looks like this:
backstory + internal conflict + aggravating circumstances = unforgettable character

I like reducing complicated story concepts down to flow charts and formulas and the like. It's not at all that I think there's a simple recipe to be followed, that I can tell you precisely which ingredients to toss in the pot to create story. Rather, because my head is generally teeming with unrelated, messy, chaotic ideas, any opportunity I have to corral them into a semblance of structure is appealing.

And this one seems to do the trick. When I'm thinking up a new character, there is a jumble of impressions in my head. Sometimes I start with a real person or an impression of a stranger (how, I wonder, can non-writers bear to stand in line, to sit through church, to watch sports events? If you're not inventing stories for everyone you see, what the heck *is* going on in your head?). Backstory and internal conflict arrive in my brain as a disordered mess, like yarn at the end of a skein or noodles left too long in the colander. Teasing them apart is worth the effort, though, because you really do need to make sure you have a balance of the two.

Too much backstory and too little internal conflict lead to unmotivated characters -> reader frustration
Too little backstory and too much internal conflict lead to where-the-hell-did-she-come-from syndrome -> reader puzzlement

(just in case it needs to be said...frustrating or annoying your readers will not endear you to them.)

hard at work creating those memorable characters...