Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 13)

Private Personas

Have you ever gotten to know somebody? Of course you have. Once you start digging, you discover lots about the next person that’s not obvious. That’s perfectly  normal. We expect that there is more to a person than their surface character. The same is true of fictional characters. The readers need to get to know them.

Private personas defy roles and stereotypes. The private persona pushes roles aside, making the person inside far more important than the role. In fact, once we glimpse someone’s personal side, we have difficulty imagining that character without it. Their personal side pushes away any and all other aspects of their character.

Private personas are far harder to pull off than public personas. Each private persona takes a considerable amount of time to develop, so most writers limit themselves to a few important characters. This is why most books don’t have dozens of primary characters. The more characters that you follow, the more character development must happen, and the slower the plot must proceed. Most books only have one to three primary characters for this very reason.

Writing private personas is also harder than writing public personas. Where with secondary characters you can get away with trickery and sleight of hand, but with primary characters, you need to actually walk the walk. There’s no hiding your primary characters. Because your readers spend so much time with these characters, they quickly pick up on any flaws or poor characterization, so by making them more details, you also make them more unbelievable at the same time. The word for this is in art is the  “uncanny valley”, where something looks human but is a bit off, making it more creepy than human. The same applies in characterization. Humans have an innate sense of character and can pick up when a character is off.

To be effective, your primary characters need to be comprehensible and interesting. I know that’s just saying the obvious, yet it needs to be said. Almost anything else can be true of a main character, but if the character is incomprehensible or uninteresting, you may as well quit your story. Too many writers achieve uninteresting with great ease, and a few even achieve incomprehensible.

Beginning writers usually try explaining their main character all in one go, then advancing through the story. That doesn't work. They forget to make the main character interesting, which is the main character’s job. The readers don’t want an information dump, they want to use the human mechanism of getting to know somebody. The story itself is the process of getting to know the main characters. The stories and character development are indivisible.

I’m not giving you any rules about primary characters. Primary characters are alchemy. When you've got them, you've got them, although you can often get by with enough “meh” to get the reader through the story. In most cases, its better to keep changing you alchemy until you find a recipe that works for that character in that story.

To summarize, the purpose of the main character is to be interesting. The reader wants to get to know the interesting character. The purpose of the novel is to give the main character something to do as we get to know them. How to make a main character interesting will fill the remainder of these posts.