Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Birth of a Character

By K.A. Stewart

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: Today, we get to learn some people skills from urban fantasy author K.A. Stewart.

K.A. has a BA in English with an emphasis in Literature from William Jewell College. She lives in Missouri with her husband, daughter, one cat, and one small furry demon that thinks it's a cat. Her books include A Devil in the Details, and A Shot in the Dark. If you like urban fantasy (or were thinking about trying one) go check these out.

Take it away, K.A...

Stories are great. I think we can all agree on that. They transport you, they mesmerize you. But when you truly look at all the plot lines, broken down into their basic components, there are very few that haven’t been done before. So, if all the stories in the world are just repeats, why do we keep reading?

The characters. We read because we fall in love with these strangers that only live in some author’s head. We cry for them, we cheer for them, we ache for them. Sometimes, we just want to shake them until their teeth rattle. But they are the reason we keep picking up new books.

So, how do you create a character like that? Where do you start to invent an entire person that people will feel compelled to live with for at least 300 pages?

Of course, you have this GREAT idea for a character! He’s cool, and suave, and hot and smart and he knows kung-fu, and bakes like Betty Crocker, and… And by the time you get done, you have a Mr. Potato-Head doll with a Barbie arm sticking out of one ear, a GI Joe leg, two My Little Pony heads and a tinfoil hat. See, the pieces are great, but it just doesn’t mesh well!

So back up, take a breath, start over. Like any great construction, you have to take it step by step. You start with one idea. Maybe it’s a physical trait. (A half-vampire. A faerie. A plain old vanilla human.) Maybe it’s a personality trait. (a codger, a hermit, a bubbly and effusive teen) Whatever it is, you need that basis, something solid to build on.

For me, my founding idea for Jesse was something my husband suggested. He wanted to see a hero who followed the bushido, the Japanese code of conduct followed by the samurai in ancient days. This gave me a great foundation to work with! I mean, here I had a character with a built-in moral compass, and a set of rules to live his life by. Not only that, but I had books and books and BOOKS of stuff to wrap him around. My work was almost done already! Well, okay, not really, but you get the idea.

So, here was my foundation. What could I build on it? Well, bushido demands honor, and has a certain code to live by. So now I knew that my hero was an honorable man, disciplined, with very strict ideas of right and wrong. This tells me why he does what he does.

Then I got to thinking, but what kind of man is he? All of the above is great to explain his motivations, but what about his style? I knew why he did it. I then had to decide how he did it. I pictured a man with quick wit, but from a normal, everyday background. Midwestern, since I knew I wanted to set the book in the Midwest. Educated, yes, because you have to study bushido, but a simple man, really, without pretensions. One who loved his family, his friends.

This told me that I wanted his language to be “normal”. No huge words, no stilted speech. Just your average Joe. A guy’s guy. That dude. He could be your neighbor, your buddy, that guy down the block. He’s anybody, and that’s why he’s fun. He could be you!

So, now I had his style. I had his motivations. Next, I had to decide the technical aspects. Was he a fighter? What weapons would he use, what was feasible for the world and the time period? Anything I gave him, I had to have an explanation for. Most Midwesterners don’t run around waving katanas. (though the world might be more interesting if they did) His extensive self-education into Eastern philosophies translated easily into martial arts weaponry and training.

Expanding on that point, did he have magical powers? If not, how would he protect himself? What could I realistically expect him to survive? These are what I call the “dice-rolling” points. (can you tell I was a D&D gamer, back in the day?) These are your stats, and they will govern what kind of story you’re able to tell.

For example: If your Big Bad is going to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of a highly populated city, and you reasonably expect your hero to save the world, he should either have a background in bomb-disarming, or a super power that allows him to absorb nuclear radiation, or a cadre of amazing sidekicks, or something. Otherwise, you have hero-soup, a glow-in-the-dark city, and the Big Bad walks away with all the Twinkies.
Next, you want your character (if it’s the protagonist) to be likable. Mostly. Usually. If a reader doesn’t find something in your character to like, to relate to, they’re not going to finish the book.

So take Jesse. He’s a good man at his core, loyal, stable. But he’s not all of one thing, none of another. He loses his temper. He can be petty. He can be snarky. He may feel bad about it later, but he can be cruel and heartless. I don’t know a single person in this world who is all good, all the time. Willing to bet you don’t either, and if you see one of those perfect characters, don’t you just step back and tilt your head kinda funny and say “Hmm…something’s not right here.”? Perfect people are boring, and frankly, I don’t believe they exist.

Springing from that, part of creating a character isn’t just about making them likable. It’s about making them believable. In fact, believable can trump likable in many cases. Let’s say you have a SOOPER evil antagonist. You’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the reader knows that he’s evil to the core, right down to the hand wringing and diabolical laugh. And then suddenly, he’s walking down the street, and he saves a kitten from a tree.

Now, if he’s saving the kitten from the tree to feed it to his pet piranhas at home, I could believe that. If he suddenly develops a soft spot for felines, out of the blue…that might bring me up short, thinking “What the…?” However, if at some point in the book, you’ve already established that he’s prone to fits of melancholy, or sentiment. Maybe he had a kitten as a child, and it was the only thing that loved him. Then, the kitten-saving episode becomes character depth. He’s still evil, don’t forget that, but he’s now also understandable.

And building yet again on that (see a pattern here?), the key to making a character believable is to make them mutable. Everybody changes. I know that I am a very different person now, than when I was…say…17. Shoot, I’m a different person now than I was last week. Experiences change us. We learn from both the good and the bad. It makes us wary. It makes us open to love. It crushes our dreams and leaves us without hope. It reminds us about the good in human nature.

If your character can’t learn and change, whether for good or bad, readers are going to start lining up to whack him with a clue-bat. Worse yet, they’ll just stop reading.
At this point, you should have a cute little house. Something better than a shack, less than a mansion. It’s a start. It’s a fixer-upper. And where you go with it from there is entirely up to where the story takes you.

Every lost soul needs a champion.

Jesse James Dawson was an ordinary guy (well, an ordinary guy with a black belt in karate), until the day he learned his brother had made a bargain with a demon. Jesse discovered there was only one way to save his brother: put up his own soul as collateral, and fight the demon to the death.

Jesse lived to free his brother--and became part of a loose organization of Champions who put their own souls on the line to help those who get in over their heads with demons. But now experienced Champions are losing battles at a much higher rate than usual. Someone has changed the game. And if Jesse can't figure out the new rules, his next battle may be his last...


  1. Great post. It was an awesome explanation of how to build your character. This is something I really struggle with. I'll be using your way of building your character the next time I start a new book. Your story sounds awesome too.

  2. Wow, what an awesome journey! Sounds like a great read too! I love characters. I try to let them find me as much as possible, but if nothing else, I go look for a trait or a virtue or a behavior that helps me get started.

  3. I think characters, more than anything else, can make or break a story. Usually I end up thinking of a kind of character (and situation) I'd like to read about, can't find it, and so I write it.

  4. I love the mishmash doll description of the thrown together character. And you've admitted to being a gamer (who cares that it was "back in the day"). I'd actually started writing out D&D stats for a couple characters for a story I worked on in college. I didn't bother finishing, but it was enough to help me narrow down what skills/traits they had. Someday I may even go back to that story if I ever figure out the overall plot for it.

    Your book is getting added to my to-read list. It sounds fascinating.

  5. Thanks for the great tips on how to build a great character. Can't wait to use them. :)