Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Creating Compelling Characters: What Every Character Needs

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

It has been a fun two weeks. I hope you had as good of a time as I had. The first week of vacation from GTW was all work to prepare my talks for the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop. The second week was attending the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop.

I had so much fun.

Here is a small montage of the dozens of pictures I took or was tagged in last week. And, yes. I did, indeed, find both a medieval helmet and a TARDIS.


Since I worked so very hard on some of my OYAN talks, I decided to break down two of them for you here on Go Teen Writers. The other two I've done here before. So today I'm going to start a series on Creating Compelling Characters. And it will run for several weeks. It's been very helpful for me as I work on my new fantasy series. I hope that you will find it helpful too. And if you were at OYAN and heard my talk, let me know in the comments how you are coming along with your characters.

So, here we go. Hold on to your fezzes.

Every Character Needs…
(And when I say "every," I mean every important character. You know who they are.)

1. To be unique
All of your characters want to be unique in your story. They don't want to be a carbon copy of Hermione Granger or Augustus Waters, despite how awesome both those characters are. Give each of your characters a distinct personality and voice.

2. To have a purpose
Each of your characters must have a purpose in their lives and in your story. If they have no purpose, they are simply taking up space. Their purpose could be big, small, or even to fool the reader into thinking they are important when they are not. Make them matter to the reader.

3. For things to get uncomfortable (conflict)
Every character needs to be part of the conflict. They could be causing conflict, dealing with conflict, or helping someone through the conflict. If there is no conflict for a character, that character is likely boring. And boring characters are not a good thing.

4. To change or grow during the course of the story
Every character should have some fault, fear, or lie to overcome in the story. Readers want to root for your characters. We want to see them come up against that "one thing" and be forced to make a choice. To grow or change in some way.

Take The Fellowship of the Ring, for example. Each are unique.
Gandalf is the only wizard.
Legolas is the only elf.
Gimli is the only dwarf.
There are two men--Aragorn and Boromir--but they have very different personalities and roles.
And there are four hobbits, but they, too, are each unique in their own way.


They each have a purpose in the story. Life gets very uncomfortable for all of them. And they all grow, even Boromir, in the end.

Fight the stereotype.
It's so easy to accidentally make some of your characters stereotypical. It happens to me all the time. Arianna Sloan in the Mission League books was a clone of Hermione Granger. And they still have similarities. But I finally got rid of the British accent, which helped. So, watch out for stereotypes: the grey-haired wizard, the orphaned child, the axe-wielding dwarf, the bad guy father, the stoic elf... Turn the stereotype on its head. Build flesh and blood people, who have depth and are unique.

Remember, everyone is the star.
In the Diary of a Wimpy Kid story, Greg Heffley might be the protagonist, but every character who walks onto the stage is living as the star of his or her own story. And that's how it should be. Every character has a life of his or her own to live. And just because they aren't in the story for a while, shouldn't mean they are sitting around waiting for the hero to need them. No! They've got things to do! Think about Rowley Jefferson, Fregley, and Patty Farrell. How many times does Greg come upon them and find them in the middle of their own enthralling plans?


And how about Neville Longbottom in The Deathly Hallows? Harry, Ron, and Hermione are off looking for horcruxes, and when their search leads them back to Hogwarts, what do they discover? That Neville has taken leadership of Dumbledore's Army and is ready to fight. Now, who saw that one coming? Good thing Neville had a life of his own, eh?

Next week I'll show you my new Character Chart and walk you through how I've been using it as I work on my new fantasy series. But for today, ask yourself if you can answer those four needs about your characters. Are each of your important characters unique? Do they each have a purpose? Do they deal with conflict? And do they star in their own show? Also, have you fought the stereotype? Have you made everyone the star of his or her own show? In which of these areas do you do well? Which do you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments.

42 comments:

  1. I think I'm doing OK with making them unique. There are five girls in my story that are really important and they are all pretty different. What I think I struggle with is the stereotypes. Hmm... I'll have to work on that.
    Glad you had fun! Today I'm leaving for almost two weeks myself to a church camp. Goodbye! I'll miss you guys!

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    1. Twist those stereotypes around! You can do it, Sofia. Ooh, and have fun at camp!

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  2. My story has 3 main characters, all very different--one suffering from depression, one whose entire goal is to get rid of his friends depression, and a girl who just wants to go home. I like to think that they all have their own little spotlight in the story, but I'm still learning, as always. :)

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  3. Oh, this is AWESOME and so, so timely!!!!!!!!!!!! I've JUST started a new WIP after a long break from writing and this is... Agh, this is so perfect! :') Thank you, Mrs Williamson! Those questions really made me think, and I think I'm going to need to review my characters now. :D

    -Koko :)

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    1. I'm glad it's helpful, Koko. I'm writing lots more on this topic in the coming weeks, but if you want to look at my character chart now, here is a link to it. I'll be explaining it in detail in the weeks to come: http://www.jillwilliamson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Character-Worksheet.pdf

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    2. Oh thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!!! I used something like this a while ago, but this one covers questions I never thought of. :D This is great! Thank you! I can't wait to hear you expand on it, also. :)

      -Koko :)

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  4. Love the post!!! I have gotten so much better with this recently. I'm pretty sure my characters are unique now. Question: Can you combine stereotypes? Or would they still come out as used characters? Is it okay? Or does it depend?

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    1. You could try it and see what you get. But if you had an axe-wielding dwarf who found out his father was the bad guy, that would still be cliche. But if you had a staff-wielding dwarf who found out that his mother was the bad guy, that would be twisting it on its head.

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  5. YAY! You're back! ANd you have a picture of you with a TARDIS. ;) I LOVE creating characters and such. it's my favorite part of the story :)

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    1. The TARDIS made me happy. Very happy.

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    2. :) I had a sleepover at my friends house, and we watched 8 DW episodes. in 2 days. Including Doomsday, the end of the world part 1 & 2, and Vincent and the Doctor. All of which i was seconds away from crying. Have you watched the HISHE (How it should of ended) of Doomsday? It's hilarious. XD Do you ever do book signings?

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    3. I just realized that you said "Hold on to your fezzes." And i about squealed. (by the way...i just crocheted a Matt Smith. :) )

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    4. I have not seen the HISHE for Doomsday. Do you have a link?

      Also... I want to see your crochet Matt Smith! Do you have a pic online somewhere? Again, post the link! :-)

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    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfK8y7KVADo here is the link for HISHE Doomsday. I have not posted a picture of Matt Smith yet, but when I do, I'll be sure to give you the link :)

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  6. One thing I struggle with are the characters having lives of their own apart from the main characters. I kinda tend to forget about them until I need to use them again...also, my secondary characters can almost always use a bit of work. I tend to find out their "one thing" to come up against as the story goes on, but if I'm not careful I can forget what it was and never follow through on it.

    Thanks for the post! Excited for this series!

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    1. Yes, me too. But I'm working on giving them their own lives, and it's kind of exciting! :-)

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  7. really looking forward to the creating compelling characters series!! :D
    the only thing I'm unsure about is: how do I know if my main characters are unique, interesting?
    What may seem to me unique may seem stereotypical and boring. :/

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    1. That's what critique partners/beta readers are for! And with time, you'll start to see it too. I always knew, deep down, that Arianna was too similar to Hermione. But I liked her anyway and ignored that still, small voice inside. Ha ha.

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  8. I'm struggling a LOT with making my MC grow and change through out this novel. She hates asking for help which could turn into something... But there's also this thing about getting over the need for revenge... sigh.

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    1. You need to give her opportunities to come against those things that need fixing in her life. Maybe for a while she will fight them. But near the end of the story, you need to make it a choice she can't refuse, or pit her two needs against each other. For example, the only possible way she can achieve revenge is to ask for help. So she wants one desperately, but to get what she wants, she must do what she really doesn't want to do. That makes things interesting.

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  9. Great post! I love characters and character making.

    Two questions: Is having the character say a specific phrase or word considered unique?
    So I'm writing a blonde character who is smart, snappy (I think), and is in a really good career. However she sometimes has "dumb blonde moments". Is that cliche or childish? I'm trying to twist the typical blonde stereo...

    Thanks! You rock!!! :D Can't wait for more!

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    1. If the only defining character trait is to give her a word, that's not unique enough. But a unique word combined with many other traits is a good thing. As to the dumb blonde thing... so she's not a dumb blonde at all, but many other characters stereotype her as such--and maybe she hates that. ANd if you can give purpose to her "dumb blonde" moments--maybe she can't think when music is on because it reminds her of the dark moment of her past, or something. So she freezes up then and often says something dumb because she's flustered. And maybe there is one, annoying character who takes that moment to needle her and make a blonde joke. And maybe that's another hot button for her. Maybe her mom was the typical dumb blonde and she's spent her whole life trying to prove that she is smart. So this jerk person who jumps on the chance to mock her would be someone who gets under her skin in a big way.

      The uniqueness comes for motivations. If you know all the backstory stuff about why she acts a certain way, it will make her unique. We'll talk about motivation and backstory in the weeks to come.

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    2. Okay, I think I'm getting the idea. Thanks for replying Mrs. Williamson :) I'll try some of that stuff you suggested, and try to survive the time until that post comes ;)

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  10. Ah, OYAN. <3 Thanks for joining in on our fantastic crazy community; I heard about all the epicness of the summer workshop from afar (a.k.a the forum) and I sooo hope next year I can come, and you too. :) goteenwriters +OYAN= ...YES.
    btw You are rocking that TARDIS.

    :)

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    1. And also I am so glad to hear you are a whovian, and a ringer, at least somewhat. Those are two of my major fandoms and that makes me happy. secondly aw, you and mrs. s! third, I just read by darkness hid for the first time and it was awesome. XD (I just am really coming to respect you as a person, okay? I am a young homeschooled christian and it is increasingly difficult to find good YA lit- and usually I don't like christian fiction. But yours was a great blend, so thanks.) :)

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    2. Doctor Who and LOTR totally rocks. Hehe. :)

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    3. Thanks, EtceteraBlue! Yes, I have many fandoms as well. I'm glad you liked By Darkness Hid. I miss Achan. I hope you can do OYAN next year too. Mr. S just officially invited Stephanie and me for next year, so it's on!

      And, Emily, yes, indeed.

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    1. Me, too! I think he almost had a more - drastic might be the word I'm looking for? - character arch than Harry as he bumbles through the series, going from perpetually misplacing his toad to leading uprisings. Of course, that's not to say I don't love Harry as well...

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    2. Yes, I love his arc. He gives hope to nerdly bumbling middle schoolers everywhere (of which I was one). :-)

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  12. *laughs* I'm not surprised that you found a TARDIS at the Workshop. OYANers can be a geeky bunch. :D

    As for giving each of my characters their own story, I, like Amanda above, sometimes forget that the secondary characters don't exist just for the purpose of supporting my MC. They have their own lives, and I need to be careful to give that to them, even if I don't get to show everything. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson! I'm glad for the chance to hear something from the Workshop, even though I didn't get to go. :)

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    1. You are welcome! I hope this will be helpful to you. I tend to ignore my side characters too, but no more!

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  13. Creating (hopefully) unique characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. Sometimes, though, I worry that they're all the same flavor of unique; I once read a goodreads review of The Fault in Our Stars that complained about every character having "John Green humor", and ever since I've had this niggling little voice that says all my characters have MY sense of humor. (Which they probably do. I mean, how can I write humor I don't find funny?)

    Goodreads can be a dangerous place, lol, along with the pet peeve threads on the YA/Childrens' Lit forums of NaNoWriMo. Reading them, you'd think that anything with a hint of romance was doomed or ought to be put to death.

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    1. Yes, do watch out for grouchies. These people have nothing better to do than cruelly rip every story to shreds. It's like they have nothing in life to enjoy. (I try not to read Goodreads reviews for that reason, at least the one and two star ones).

      Also, don't write in fear! John Green's sense of humor is working for him. Know why? Because he's being himself as a writer. He's not being paranoid that all his characters have his humor. It's his voice! They should have it, to some degree. That's what makes his books his. And you need to trust that your voice is what makes your books you. If every writer wrote the same, what a boring world it would be. Then those Goodreads reviewers would be complaining about that! LOL

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  14. Loved that TARDIS. <3 Was awesome meeting you at the SW. (I was almost in one of the pictures you have up there... I'm standing back a little too far, though. Rats.)
    Creating characters is definitely my favorite thing about writing. That and doing horrible things to said characters. >:D (I've gotten yelled at by so many of my friends for the things I've done to my MC... and one of my villains... *hides from angry fangirls* XD)
    Thanks for the post!

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    1. I feel you. I'm brutal to my characters. I'm contemplating cutting of someone's arm at the end. I'm so violent to my characters XD

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    2. XD I've done that before, believe it or not. No, wait, it was their leg. Never mind. :P

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    3. lol. I remember i was in church one time and i was like "i'm thinking about killing blah (cant remember who it was)" and the girls in front of me looked at me weird and i was like "I'm a writer sorry" XD

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  15. I love the idea of giving every character purpose, and how all of them can create conflict--even the 'good guys.' This post helped me realize that I have a character who only talks when I need to tell information...he needs to 'come alive.'

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