Making friends

Dan Lewis is a 43-year-old high school biology teacher living in San Jose, California who is a couch potato, likes football and has a rebellious teenage son, a workaholic wife, and a precocious 13-year-old daughter.

Harris Borden is a 30-year-old Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Round Rock, Nevada. He feels he can’t preach and gets no respect from his congregation. He has no children. His hobbies are running and making love to his beautiful Russian wife.

Dr. Dale Grady is professor of media studies at Fairchild University in Chicago. He is divorced and has a 19-year-old slacker daughter who has just started to live with him again.

What do all of these people have in common? They didn’t exist until I created them. They are the three main characters in books that I have written in recent years.

In If Tomorrow Comes, Dan Lewis and his family endure, learn and grow during the last six months of earth’s history. Dan’s character changes as he learns to trust God in all parts of his life and make him first always. At the beginning, he is a doubting, lazy man who has never seen himself as a leader. At the end of the story, he has grown to stand courageously for right even though he is threatened with death.

In The Champion and its sequel, The Heretic, Harris Borden considers himself a failure at being a pastor, and is overwhelmed with the mundane nature and triviality of much of his career. He asks God to use him in a bigger way, and his prayer leads him to being thrown from the roof of a restaurant, almost blown up in a collapsing building, arrested, and sentenced to federal prison. All along, he is accused of being a terrorist, and in the end, he embraces that identity as an office building goes up in flames. In The Heretic, he becomes a shadowy character that others doubt is still alive, yet leads a secret team against the prevailing evil corporation. He succeeds, but in the end, he is arrested again.

In The Kiss of Night, Dr. Dale Grady is fixated on continuing his normal life of teaching, even when a virus overwhelms the nation and he may be the only answer to the disease. Circumstances force him to become flexible, adapt, and take a lead role in organizing the survivors. In the end, well, you’ll have to read the book….

To me, characterization is one of the funnest (yeah, funnest) parts about writing fiction. And it is one of the benefits of writing fiction over writing nonfiction. In nonfiction, you have to faithfully depict those who was actually involved in the event. In fiction, you can create new human beings. And the closer you can make these characters to real life, the more alive your story will become. Here are a few suggestions I have for creating characters:

(1) Start with what you know. I can say, almost without exception, that most of my main characters in my stories are built around people that I know. Sometimes there are parts of the characters are really from me. That’s natural, I understand. If you are going to go into the mind of your main character (which I strongly suggest), the only mind you have access to (unless you’re either a psychiatrist or an alien) is your own. So tap into your psyche, allow yourself to access some of those dark thoughts you don’t usually share, and begin writing.

(2) Mix and match. Don’t create a character that’s exactly like you, or like a friend or relative. That’s boring, and could end up in a lawsuit. Pick personality traits from more than one person. Mix and match.

(3) Make them complex. Play against the stereotype. Avoid the dumb blonde. Don’t create the smart student with the horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protector. Surprise your readers with some real-life characters that break out of the mold.

(4) Make them complexer. (yeah, that too) Don’t make your villain so bad and so nasty that he becomes a cartoon. Throw in some character traits that make him human, and he will become all the more frightening. At the same time, don’t make your hero squeaky clean. Give him or her some human flaws. Those are the things that jump out and make the character more memorable. What would Indiana Jones be without his fear of snakes? What if John McClain in die hard didn’t have marital problems? Those are traits that make us say, “Well, he’s not perfect. Maybe I can understand what he’s going through.”

It irks me to start reading a story, only to find that the main character is a muscular, good-looking man in his 20s, with his female counterpart gorgeous as well. That’s the biggest issue I have with CSI Miami. It makes it look like all crime scene investigators are supermodels during their spare time. Life’s not really like that, and your character doesn’t have to be either.

Make them more complex. Make them interesting. And you’ll find yourself–like I do–feeling sad because the end of the book has come.


4 thoughts on “Making friends

  1. I think the idea of creating a more human or more visible character is a good lesson for every writer (whatever the medium) to learn. But I find one question in my head. If I create a very human, faulted protagonist, isn’t there a level where your character gets to a point where your reader/viewer wouldn’t believe he/she is able to complete that rescue?

    Here’s an example:

    Our beauty heroin hangs from the top floor of a building about to fall to her death on the pavement below. Is it Superman, no, is it Batman, no, however never fear, Wienerboy is here. Sure he can’t fly, or jump to save our heroin, but he can make a mean Wiener on a stick.

    To say that he is here to save our female is crazy. How is making Wienerboy more human going to improve the story? Sure, it might make the story funny, but is that your objective?

    From Your Rebellious Son!

    1. I respect Indiana Jones a lot more than James Bond (the old James Bond). While James Bond skated through each challenge and relied on gadgets to get him out of tight spots, while never breaking a sweat, Indy sweated plenty. Before the end of the movie he would be beaten up, shot at, blown up, stabbed and thrown off a cliff. But he would still keep on coming. He had plenty of faults, and struggled all the way through the movie. But he never gave up. If he has any superpowers, that is is.

      The trick is to give them human frailties, but give them the character–or have them develop the character–necessary to overcome the challenge.

  2. I lol’d at the comment. 😛

    Any I would completely agree that making characters is the funnest part of writing.


    I think the hardest part of building characters is giving them their own voice. Especially when their personal style is very much the opposite of your own. As you say, it is best to take model characteristics from people you know.

  3. I learned so much from this blog. There are so many things from it I can use to help improve my writing. I think characterization is really fun, but for me, I would say it is one of the hardest parts of writing. I think in some ways it will be hard to apply these suggestions. It’s easy enough to understand the theory of it, but it is a lot harder to put it into practice. I agree with your reasoning of why fiction is easier than non fiction. However, what if you use fiction to tell a non fiction story? For example, the story of how you met your wife, but you replaced the characters with fictional ones. Is that different?

    I think #1 on your list is in many ways the most important. If you don’t start with what you know, you’ll be lost, making a character that is completely foreign to you. I think my favorite is #4. Although, I will be needing a lot of help applying this one I fear. I think it will be exciting to write a book where I am sad the story has come to an end.

    In regards to the comment from your rebellious son: Would you really try to have Weinerboy save someone? Why would you create a hero so ridiculous to be the hero of the story? Isn’t your example slightly ridiculous?

    “The trick is to give them human frailties, but give them the character-or have them develop the character-necessary to overcome the challenge.” I really like this idea. To not only hinder the character by giving them this human failing, but also build the character’s character in such a way as enable them to overcome the failing.

    “I think the hardest part of building characters is giving them their own voice. Especially when their personal style is very much the opposite of your own.” I agree with this without a doubt. How can you give these non- existent “things” voices that people will be interested in? How do you create a character that is in complete opposition with yourself. I personally try not to read stories where the main character is not one I can relate to somehow.

    I think the thing I need to learn in writing is flexibility. AHH! So much to learn and so little time!

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