Writing great characters is, for me, at the top of the priority list for writing fiction. Whether you’re looking at the next Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones, or A Song of Ice and Fire), or Billy Lynch (Charming Billy), you are seeing a well thought out character that an author spent many an hour contemplating. If you want your fiction to shine on the level or anywhere near the level of such authors as Martin or McDermott, you can’t just pick up a pen and go, you have to spend the requisite time getting to know your characters.
Do you have to write a character bio for each of your characters? No… Not exactly. But if you like to explore while you write, I recommend you at least keep track of everything you discover, so you can later reference this as well as check it for inconsistencies. Trust me, it’s hard to keep all of that in your head. A great piece of advice I heard is to write “Character X is a character who ….” and fill in the blank. Simple yet satisfying. For example, “Tyrion Lannister is a character who seeks acceptance through gold and his quest for knowledge through books.” You could put other things about Tyrion there, like the fact that he enjoys whores or whatnot, but for me this is what truly makes Tyrion and causes him to act how he does at every moment.
OTHER POINTS TO CONSIDER
Do not forget to look at your character on a macro level as well as a micro, per chapter level. Really consider what your character’s motivations are for the chapter, what their goals and expectations are, how they fail in their attempts and how they make us fall in love with them. Think about how the characters feel about each other, and how their actions may change these dynamics. The common saying is that they don’t have to be likable, just interesting. If you are going that route, such as in Breaking Bad, what are you doing to make that character three dimensional so that we can at least relate on some level? Breaking Bad was a great example, because the protagonist got involved in the drug game because he found out he had cancer and not long to live but needed money to care for his family, a family that included a son with a medical condition.
MY JOHNS HOPKINS ADVICE
If you want to get really into the details, and I certainly recommend doing this at least once, try one technique that I learned at Johns Hopkins. My professor had me set up an overall timeline for the novel, saying who did what when and what those actions meant for the main character, emotionally. Next I had to set up a timeline for my main characters, from birth to the end of the book, with main events in their lives and, once again, how these moments affected my characters emotionally. This was an amazing experience and I learned so much about my characters. Best of all, my novel has greatly improved.
This is simple advice, but so often I see people writing a short story, novel, or screenplay without putting in the time to know their characters. If you don’t care enough about your characters to get to know them, then why should w
Some additional great advice can be found in Stephan Bugaj’s free ebook, “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story, Analyzed,” which I blogged about on my www.BayAreaScreenwriters.com website.