All characters are you
One of the biggest challenges of creating a story is getting the characters right. It’s not enough to just invent a character and expect the audience to flesh it out in their own minds for you. As an author, your job is to bring to life vibrant, complex and believable characters that leap off the page and feel real. That way, they connect with the audience, and lead them into the depths of your narrative.
One of the biggest mistakes we see in modern writing is that the characters are empty and unbelievable. They don’t inspire any emotion in the audience, they just feel like hollow shells, placeholders that still need extensive fleshing out. If we ask our readers to work too hard to imagine the details, they’ll lose interest. It’s human nature, it’s why we buy cars, and don’t all ride bicycles to work, and why cars are being developed that will, one day, drive themselves.
Take the novel, Divergent. Although the book was a financial success, it remains a literary failure. The protagonist lacks any kind of depth, her journey is bewildering, her choices nonsensical. We know barely anything about her by the end of the story, scarcely more than we did at the beginning. This feels like it’s because the author hasn’t really written the story with a solid impression of who this character is, and therefore they simply follow the needs of the plot, rather than driving the events, as they would in real life.
In effect, these kinds of shallow characters are little more than puppets, jerking around on the ends of their plot-driven strings. It might be mildly amusing to watch that for a while, to see what the story is saying, but any investment the audience has dies out very quickly. In the case of Divergent, it spawned a series of movies, but interest declined so quickly that they never even bothered making the ending for it. By then, nobody cared.
To follow another example, Rey in the Disney Star Wars trilogy. They created an over-powered, over-confident character who could simply do everything she needed to, and would fail at nothing. In doing so, she failed to really become a character at all, and remained little more than a plot device. A lot of characters are used as plot devices, but it’s fatal to a story when it’s the protagonist. In this example, the story ultimately failed because it wasn’t driven by the motivations of a character, and it never felt natural, or relatable. We simply didn’t care.
Where this kind of writing fails is in not understanding the first, most basic rule of creating characters.
All characters are you.
It’s as simple as that, every character you create, every hero, every villain, every failure of success is based on what goes on inside your own head.
Where cheap writing shows itself is when the creator has vague, surface-level ideals and hasn’t understood the nature of humanity, or themselves.
First, let’s examine a truism from a piece of moderately advanced psychology. You don’t actually exist. There is no definitive version of you, and you are nothing more than an idea, living in its own imagination.
You see, every human is nothing more than its experiences, layered upon its attitudes. It has that, piled haphazardly on top of vague biological leanings and pre-set temperaments.
So, in other words, you were born to be a certain thing, and then your experiences of the world shaped, soften and hardened you into the person you are today. Our experiences vary wildly from person to person. The most striking example would be between the perspectives of a small, weak child and the largest, most popular kid in school. To each of them, the same world looks remarkably different.
Now, each of those different people around you has a completely different idea about what the world is. Those people will also look at you and see something quite different, depending on their experience. They might hate you, love you, fear you, or find you pitiable. It entirely depends on who they are, and really doesn’t depend much on us.
But, humans are capable of picking this up, at an unconscious level. We are largely a product of all of these different opinions of who and what we are, to varying degrees.
So there is no real, absolutely definitive version of what we are. One person might think of us in a radically different way to another. We’re aware of this, and so there’s no real fixed idea in our heads of who we actually are for ourselves. We’re the product of a huge jumble of different versions, just trying to make our way in the world.
So, when we create characters, it’s important to remember that they’re all really just versions of us. When we base one on a friend, or a person we know, it’s not really based on them at all. It’s really just based on our vague, and unreliable, version of what we think they are. When we fashion our protagonist, we’re often projecting a shadow of ourselves, in the way we’d really like to be.
We see this in novels such as James Bond. Ian Flemming, his creator, served in the intelligence community and drew heavily from his experiences. But James Bond wasn’t just him, it became a more idealised version, the way the author might have wished he really was.
And with villains, we draw on our darkness. We model them after the things we see in the worst parts of ourselves. We look at the characteristics we despise and we give them human form.
So, every character we create is a part of us. They exist, live and thrive inside the fertile worlds of our imagination.
It’s important not just to remember that, but to embrace it. It’s a mark of professionalism as an author, and maturity as a human, to be able to look inside yourself and create solid, believable characters from what we find deep inside.
This is where a lot of works fail. The writers often lack the maturity to really create well-rounded and believable characters. We see it now in almost all Hollywood blockbuster movies, and it’s happening more and more often in modern literature.
All characters are you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Dig deep into your memories, your experiences, you understanding of the world and the people around you. Create vibrant, living shades of your own mind and populate your stories with characters who can come alive in the imagination of others.
Show your maturity as an author by embracing your own imagination and expressing it. After all, you don’t exist anyway, so you’ve really got nothing to lose.
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