How To Write Good Characters
A question that all fledgling writers ask at one point or another is how to write good characters. The truth is creating great characters is difficult. Writers have the enormous task of creating a character that readers love and they can relate to personally. Great characters also have to be both flawed and heroic—even the antagonist, who is the protagonist of their own world. Yet, if you don’t have a character or characters in mind before you begin writing, you should consider using Monomyth as an outline for character development.
The Monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, is based on the study of many stories, in which a “hero” in a normal world is forced out of their world, many time resisting their destiny at first, but then goes on an epic adventure in which they embrace or reject their destiny in the end. By doing so, they will bring restoration or balance when they return to their normal world. The Hero’s Journey also includes characters in terms of archetypes, such as the hero, mentor, or sidekick Although this outline simplifies character development, there are ways that it can be useful for you to write good characters.
How To Start To Write Good Characters
The first two characters you need to create are your hero (“protagonist”) and your villain (“antagonist”). Your “hero” doesn’t always need to be heroic and your “villain” doesn’t always have to be villainous. The outline of the monomyth allows for these variations on characters since some heroes don’t accept their “destiny” and allow their flaws to rule their actions. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, the protagonist Hamlet refuses to avenge his father’s death, and his constant delay ends in death for him and several people he loves. Yet, he is a likable character because of his ultimate sacrifice and philosophical reflections. Then there are some villains who aren’t completely evil; for example, Javert from Les Miserables is a legalistic police inspector who must choose between honor and hypocrisy. His ultimate demise makes readers feel compassionate for the antagonist. These characters are great because they have a combination of good and bad qualities.
“If a character doesn’t accept that destiny, she either falls to her own flaws, like a tragic hero, or spirals down, like an antagonist.”
Characters Who Grow Are More Believable
After establishing flaws and strengths for both your protagonist and antagonist, you must then decide how the character will change over the course of the novel. Some characters remain stagnant, refusing to accept the “call” as outlined in the Hero’s Journey while others accept the call and complete the cycle, or die trying. What that call is and whether the character chooses to accept it are direct results of his or her own attributes. For example, a character with temper problems would have difficulty accepting the call of protecting a moody teenager. This conflict is the basis of great character development because if he accepts his call, he grows. If a character doesn’t accept that destiny, she either falls to her own flaws, like a tragic hero, or spirals down, like an antagonist. Either way, the character’s reaction to the call is what drives the plot forward and creates great character conflict.
Starting with a stereotypical character isn’t a bad thing, as long as they grow throughout the story.
What About Supporting Characters?
Once you have established the flaws and strengths of a character, as well as how they develop, you can then turn your eyes to the supporting characters, which often match one of the archetypes presented in Hero’s Journey. There is the mentor character, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, who helps and assists the protagonist’s growth throughout the novel. Or perhaps the loyal sidekick or ally, like Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, who assists and records Sherlock’s adventures. These are stereotyped characters and serve as a great basis to work from. Many times they will fit your character perfectly, but other times you may have to create new qualities to do something innovative with them. For example, you could have a mentor who is youthful and irresponsible, instead of one that is aged and wise. Whatever you decide, you can use the archetype as a base to work from and create a compelling character.
Making great characters isn’t always easy. However, archetypes can help give a starting point build real, believable, well-rounded characters. Not every character fit into an archetype. In fact, some fit into many different ones. What is important to remember is that your characters are believable as real people, not just stuck in your story for no reason. By using The Hero’s Journey and archetypes as a starting point, you will be able to write good characters with a mix of unique traits and popular stereotypes. Either way, the writer is the artist and their play on the original design of Monomyth is the key to creating amazing characters.