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.