Creating a Character — Part III

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses. I have been creating a profile for Chip, the hero of my work in progress, and I know some of his strengths: he is independent, can cope with adversity, has high ethical standards. The only weakness I know about so far is that he is distrustful of women, which women see as a failure to commit.

Strengths and weaknesses are arbitrary. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for the book: the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters and the plot or subplots to thicken.

I can already see that Chip’s high ethical standards and principles will be a driving force in the story. He is a vegetarian and an animal lover who will be forced to kill to feed those dependent on him. His independence, exemplified by a need for freedom, is also at stake. He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for freedom.

So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a special strength or weakness that would set Chip apart from any other character, but since plot and character are so closely related, this may not be a bad thing. It does no good to assign a special strength or weakness to a character if it is not going to be tested during the story, and I don’t want to Chip to be constrained by a particular trait before he even begins his adventures. If he needs a special strength, I will write it in when necessary. The great thing about writing is that we are not stuck with what is past. We can always go back and recreate it to answer present needs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life outside the pages of our novels worked that way?

Creating a Character — Part II

Nope. Sorry. Can’t do it.

Although I’ve been telling you that to get published in today’s market you need a character who wants something desperately, I’ve never been able to do it. I spend so much time with my characters during the creation and writing of my novels that I have to like them or at least tolerate them. Passionate characters, like Scarlett O’Hara, who go after their goals with no thought for anyone else, might be interesting to you, but to me they are spoiled brats and intolerable.

Perhaps if I could have overcome this prejudice and followed my own advice, I’d have found a publisher by now. Unfortunately for me, all of my heroes have been reactive rather than proactive, at least in the beginning. Seems like I’m going to be making the same mistake again, but I have to go with what feels right.

I just don’t see Chip, the hero of my work in progress, as a driven fellow. Except for his problem with his mother, he seems to be satisfied with his life. He does have a long-term goal: he would like to buy a ranch or farm and take care of old and unwanted animals from zoos and circuses, but since this goal is negated when the world ends, it can’t be a desire that drives him throughout the book.

Still, there has to be a unifying characteristic that is with him throughout all of his adventures. He is distrustful of women because of his mother (and perhaps because of past relationships). That distrust could be his motivating factor, until at the end he finds a woman he can trust. It would also suit his temperament.

In The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Linda N. Edelstein, PhD, lists styles of behavior and explains the psychology of each. Reviewing the list, I can see that Chip does not have an adventurer’s personality, nor is he bossy, conventional, creative, a conformist, dependant, eccentric, a fall guy, fearful, flamboyant, hyper, a loner, a man’s man, passive-aggressive, a show-off, a victim.

But he is resilient. According to Edelstein, this means he has the ability to recover from losses and disappointments. He is generally happy and productive. He can face his problems and cope with adversity. He is an effective problem solver. He has high ethical standards and takes responsibility for his own life. He has a sense of humor. He is interested in others as well as himself and maintains a strong support network. In the extreme, his independence can become an inability to depend on others, which goes along with his distrust of women.

Maybe he is not an exciting and passionate character, but he sounds like someone I could live with for the next year while I am writing the novel.

Of course, this isn’t all there is to him. He does have special strengths and weaknesses that cause the plot to thicken at times, but I don’t know yet what they are.

I’ll have to get back to you on that.