In this tutorial, we’ll be examining:
- Why character backgrounds are important
- How fictional characters differ from real people
- Wimps and stereotypes – what they are and how to avoid them
What makes a memorable character?
So far, we’ve discussed how to engage your reader with your fictional world. We’ve seen how sensory description and careful choice of words can turn your stories into fully-immersive experiences for the imagination. Now it’s time to see how this guidance applies to your characters.
No matter which incarnation we are dealing with, Tomb Raider fans can usually identify what they admire most about the titular character of Lara Croft. From Toby Gard’s original 90’s Amazonian adventurer to Square Enix’s rebooted archaeology graduate, Lara Croft’s trademarks are intelligence, courageousness, inquisitiveness, and a determination to reach her goal no matter the cost.
However, these traits are only the tip of a very complicated iceberg. To really understand your characters, you need to get inside their heads. You need to unravel their motives and constantly ask the question: what would this character think, say, and do in this situation – and why? Even Lara doesn’t decide to travel halfway around the world, brave deadly traps, and confront gun-wielding mercenaries because of simple curiosity or boredom.
Put simply, memorable characters are those who have many layers (depth) and who have the chance to develop because the author is constantly throwing questions at them. A good way to get started is to imagine that you are interviewing your character: bombard them with open questions (what, why, where, when, who, how), and observe their responses. Be prepared for the unexpected! Some characters will be only too happy to chat and talk about themselves. However, you might find that the wrong question at the wrong character causes them to throw their coffee in your face and storm out of the interview. You might laugh at what your imagination can get up to when you let it play and experiment like this, but even if your face is dripping imaginary coffee, you’ll have learned valuable information about that character and their feelings on a particular topic!
Another important factor that governs your characters’ motivations is conflict. At its most basic level, conflict translates to Character A wants something – an object, information, a service, etc. – and Character B stands in their way. Your characters naturally need to have motivations and goals, but to make for a riveting story those motivations and goals must pit your characters into conflict with each other. In the Tomb Raider universe, the most common example of conflict by far occurs when Lara is in direct competition with another character to find an artefact; e.g. in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Lara and Powell both want to find both pieces of the Triangle of Light but for different reasons – Powell to use it for his own ends, and Lara to keep it away from him and the rest of the Illuminati. This conflict of interest pitches the characters against each other and makes for a strong driving force behind the story. Conflict doesn’t have to mean your characters are physically fighting each other; it does mean that your characters are constantly running into obstacles and setbacks (which includes other characters and their goals). Part of the reason why we consider Lara to be such a kick-ass character is that she faces many conflicts in the course of her adventures, and always (well, nearly always) manages to overcome them through her courage, resourcefulness, and ruthless determination.
Crafting a character’s background
Your characters’ actions are dictated by our old standby, cause and effect (or stimulus and response). When you sit down and create a new character, you need to be able to trace these stimuli and responses all the way back to their origins. We sometimes call this information backstory or character background. When you think about your character’s personality or what they have done in the past, you are essentially figuring out what stimuli they have experienced and how they have responded each time. Each set of actions and reactions adds another layer of depth and makes your characters more believable.
For example, in the original Core Design biography for Lara, we are told that her love of archaeology was first kindled when Professor Von Croy visited her school to give a lecture (stimulus). Lara later learned that he was planning a trip to Cambodia, and she begged to be allowed to accompany him (response). This adventure (stimulus) led to a life-long interest in archaeology, which culminated in dozens of different adventures (response), and so on ad infinitum.
This stimulus-response logic also applies over the long-, medium-, and short-term. For example, we could imagine a Tomb Raider story with the following backstory:
- An aging professor has always longed for the chance to recover a certain artefact from their ancestors’ homelands (long-term motivation).
- This professor learns from a colleague that the artefact was excavated in a recent dig, but has subsequently disappeared (medium-term motivation).
- The next morning, the professor reads in the paper that Lara Croft, archaeologist-adventurer for hire, has just returned from her most recent adventure (short-term motivation).
These three stimuli, applied over the long-, medium-, and short-term in our story lead perfectly up to a logical effect – namely, the professor’s decision to contact Lara and ask for her help to recover the artefact. If Lara was randomly contacted by a random professor who just happened to want her to hunt down a random artefact, then it wouldn’t make logical sense – it wouldn’t be obeying the rule of cause and effect / stimulus and response. The stimuli and responses are like dominoes, each triggering the next in line. When they don’t line up and topple properly, your reader will at best get a sense of anti-climax or, at worse, think that you have cheated and simply made things up on a whim.
This harks back to the point in our previous discussion Part 1: Planning Your Adventure: Real life does not have to obey logic, but your fiction does in order for it to be believable.
Fictional characters versus real people
Stimulus-response also applies to the personalities of your fictional characters. A good writer might make them seem real, but fictional characters are actually very carefully-constructed caricatures. They are selective exaggerations of real people, not real people themselves.
Let’s go back to an earlier example – thieves breaking into Croft Manor in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – to illustrate how Lara Croft is different from a real person (note: if you happen to know any real people who would do the same as Lara in these situations, make sure your insurance is up to date):
- Real people choose to beat insomnia with a mug of warm milk or sleeping pills. Lara Croft prefers bungee-ballet in the main hall. She’s more eccentric and outgoing than a real person.
- Real people would call the police when their homes are attacked, and would probably get themselves injured or killed very quickly. Lara Croft takes on the mercenaries, armed with nothing more than some bungee cords and her wits. She’s more reckless, aggressive, and better-trained in combat than a real person.
- Real people would find somewhere safe to hide until the authorities arrived. Lara Croft would much prefer to sneak into the garage, improvise weapons out of ordinary tools and a motorcycle, and beat the living daylights out of the intruders. She’s craftier and more determined than a real person.
Good characters versus wimps
The example of the Croft Manor invasion illustrates another very important point about creating fictional characters: it is the actions of characters that drive the plot, not the other way around.
Lara Croft is an engaging character because she makes decisions and doesn’t shy away from taking action. We love Lara for her daring and willingness to take control of her situation (no matter how dangerous or extreme). She is not a simple bystander to the story, but an active participant and driving force behind it. She also has hopes and dreams, fears and vulnerabilities. She has undergone many unique trials and dealt with them in her own way, growing and evolving so that her character matures and broadens in experience. Everything about her – from her physical appearance and speech to the way she walks – is instantly identifiable and unique.
Good characters like Lara don’t sit around waiting for things to happen to them, and when things do happen they don’t hang back, refusing to take part. The opposite to this kind of plot-driving, engaging character is the bane of both real and fictional worlds – the wimp.
Wimps are forever going ‘umm’ when asked a question. Wimps turn down the Call to Adventure over and over again. Wimps don’t say or do anything that improves – or impedes – the actions of other characters. In other words, wimps are about as stimulating and vital to your story as a shot of general anaesthetic. If any of the characters in your stories sound like they might be wimps, remove them or improve them as a matter of urgency!
A word of caution: in your efforts to avoid wimps, don’t fall into the scorpion-filled death trap of creating an army of bombastic, over-the-top characters to populate your stories! For example, a character who is quick to anger and breaks bottles with his teeth is not going to stand out if everyone else in your story is equally short-tempered and violent. When we talk about the need to exterminate wimpy characters on sight, we don’t mean that you should leave out characters who are cowardly or shy.
For example, in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider we have the character of Bryce, Lara’s technician. He’s clearly upset when mercenaries shoot machine guns through his camper van door (what sensible person wouldn’t be?!). However, instead of simply scurrying for cover and sobbing into a blanket, he screams in a high falsetto and gathers his wits enough to try and reactive S.I.M.O.N. This means that he’s unashamedly scared, but that he also overcomes his fear to try and come to Lara’s aid. Bryce might be a coward when it comes to violence, but this doesn’t make him a wimp. To really bring your fictional world to life, you need to create a balanced population of diverse characters who we can empathise with and grow to love (or hate!).
Stereotypes and how to avoid them
Stereotypes are another whirling blade-trap writers sometimes fall into when they create characters (and, sadly, they can even be found in the official Tomb Raider universe from time to time). These are the characters we’ve seen a hundred times before in a hundred different settings. For example, the loyal friend from school with an unrequited love for our hero/heroine; the old colleague who turns out to be the arch-villain; and the father-substitute who dies tragically saving the hero/heroine.
It can be very difficult to come up with completely fresh and original characters. However, it can also be fun. Play with people’s expectations. Experiment with different modes of speech, accents, and background. Research established tropes and clichés and think of ways of challenging them, for example by reversing genders or swapping nationalities. When we used ‘an aging professor’ in our earlier example, it’s likely that it conjured up an image of a distinguished gentleman wearing Oxford shoes, a tweed blazer, and smoking a pipe. However, what if I said that this professor was actually a woman of Indian extraction in her seventies, who wears a bright scarlet sari, likes listening to Black Sabbath and Louis Armstrong, and is confined to a wheelchair? The trick is to deviate from the pathway of what people expect and onto the road of what you want them to imagine. After all, Lara Croft herself was a challenge to the stereotypical hero-adventurer when she first appeared back in 1996, simply because she was female!
Key points for Crafting Characters part 1:
- All characters need to have some kind of backstory. At the very least, they will need to have a long-, medium-, and short-term goal(s).
- Stereotypes and wimps kill stories – avoid them!
- Good characters drive the plot, not the other way around.
Next time – Part 7: Crafting Characters – part 2
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 6: Crafting Characters (part 1) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.