The Writer's 12 Commandments - S. King

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Creating foundations for memorable Characters


Understanding the main character’s goals, motivations and conflicts, are critical. By digging down deep into their characters flaws and strengths authors create people their readers can identify with, care about and root for.


Whether the story is character or plot driven the character(s) will define its success. If the characters are flat , the reader will put the book down and may never come back to it, regardless of how intriguing the plot is. 


Characters are people, and people reveal themselves over time. It’s a simple fact that you can’t know everything about someone at first glance or for that fact, a character, up front. Only when the author is eyeballs deep in their novel do they really begin to understand who they are, and because of that they often find themselves re-evaluating some of the things they had planned on having their characters do and also what they plan on doing to them.


If the author bounces around, picking names, occupations, jobs, etc. out of thin air their characters could likely feel helter-skelter and hard to get to know. Taking the time to choose the hero/heroine and antagonist’s attributes is important because it brings authenticity to them. 


Names are important. 


Psychologically, people attach memories and meanings to names. For example, when people hear the name, Mary: they may think of a chaste, devout and maternal woman at first impression. If the antagonist in the story is named Mary, this connection or attachment may be a good thing or a hurdle to overcome for not only the author but also the reader. 


Another thing to consider when choosing names, is a choice of ethnicity. There are many interesting names to choose from in different cultures and the author should pay as much attention to picking out ethnic names as they would were they looking for a name within my their own culture. 


Also, the author ought to look at the time period they place our characters in. What were the popular names bandied about in the day at that time? And sometimes, the author will run into a character that just tells them what they want to be called. 

Resist the urge to look for exotic eye-catching names, and look instead for names that are grounded in the story.

 

How do they dress themselves


As authors begin to flesh out their characters they will want to consider their choices for clothing. Do they choose jeans or slacks, frumpy clothing or a suit and tie, designer dresses or athletic attire? How they dress their character is telling in how the reader perceives them and also how the other characters in the novel perceive them. 


For example, a character attired in a suit throughout most of the novel may come off feeling rigid, both in mind and in body to the reader. A banker, politician or an attorney comes to mind here. Conversely, a character in jeans and flannel shirts, exudes a laid back attitude. A rancher or construction worker may come to mind here. 


Colors and patterns of fabric also come into play. Colors have attached psychological meanings that can be played up should the author choose to do so. For instance: red is a color of power and authority in men’s ties. Yellow in women’s clothing invites an air of openness and acceptance; white conjures up a chaste and purity attribute. Solid colors without patterns, speak to conservative attitudes, while prints and buoyant patterns speak to liberal attitudes.


Revealing clothing such as low neck lines, slits in skirts, short shorts and skirts, tight-fitting shirts and jeans and the like can send a number of messages to the reader depending on the character. While this clothing choice is steeped in sexuality, it can also be an attribute of power and passive aggression over another character. How and when the author chooses to use it is telling. Does the character wear revealing clothing all the time or just on certain occasions? 


The clothing the author chooses, its colors and styles project a subtle but important message to the reader over the course of the book. The clothing may vary on the  characters , but what they wear should be congruent to the persona they've given them.


Hair styles: 


People identify with hairstyles and thus there are messages about our choices in length, color and how we wear our hair. On men, long hair tied back into a ponytail can project different messages in different time periods. In the 60’s for example a man wearing his hair this way, would probably be considered a hippy or a rock and roller or a vagabond. Today, he would more than likely be looked at as an artist or a tech head or any persona, which speaks to a person of creativity. 


On the other hand, parted ear length hair that is well groomed on a man gives the feeling of conservatism, a man who prides himself on his success and his outward appearance towards others. Again, think of a banker, attorney or politician.


A purposeful shaved head on a man projects an aura of self-assurance and reliance, exuding a subliminal aura of sexual prowess. It speaks to power. "I know who I am, I’m bold and I take risks", while a man who has gone bald with a modest amount of hair left around the rim of his head projects another image entirely different. He is a man of presumed wisdom and intelligence, thoughtful and retiring, maybe shy.


Women look at their hair in a myriad of ways from how it shapes their face to how it sustains their perceived youthful appearance. To a great degree, women are concerned with color and the messages it sends about her. Fair or not, blond hair sends the message of one being wild and free, a risk taker, party girl and sexually adventurous. Brunettes are usually perceived as grounded and thoughtful, maternal.  


Hair color, length and how people wear their hair, is a powerful and telling connection in how we identify ourselves to others and also to ourselves. 


What about occupation?  


Different lines of work not only speak to a character’s drive and passion, but also to their deepest desires. People inherently identify themselves with what they have chosen as their vocation. 


When the author chooses a occupation for their hero or heroine, they have two ways to go. They might pick one that lends itself to the story and the conflicts they have planned for their characters, remembering the quirks and attitudes inherent in particular vocations. For instance: an engineer will look at a problem empirically and will logic it out. He’s probably not the best choice in a situation where the author needs a man or woman of action. 


Or: 


there is the fish out of water scenario, where the author has their major character ill equipped to deal with the problem they are leveling on their shoulders. This challenge, should they take it, can bring great rewards down the line for them and their reader for it offers the unique opportunity to show perseverance and ingenuity in the hero or heroine. 


Whichever way the author goes they ought to look at choosing the best occupation for the major characters in their novel so when it comes time the hero or heroine is  equipped to deliver the impact they need for their plot.


What are their religious beliefs, if any? . 


Are the characters passionate about their beliefs of God and the way they worship or do they look at God with ambivalence? How will this affect how they behave in the story?


If the author decides to make God and religion important to their major characters, it's important the characters core beliefs are clear to the reader so that when they have them acting in a certain way, whether it jives or conflicts with their core beliefs, they end up on solid ground when it’s all over. 


Having a character suddenly abandon their belief in God or accepting Him without a damned good reason would lead the reader to question just how reliable the hero/heroine are. 


Furthermore, it’s important that the author reveals their character’s uniqueness. Just as there are billions of people on this earth, there are also the  same amount of spiritual paths and beliefs. In fact, many people blend certain aspects of different religions into their spiritual life. For lack of better wording, this cross over contamination is useful in creating interesting perspectives for the reader. 


What are their hobbies and talents, if any


What people choose to spend their free time on is telling. The same should be said for characters. Hobbies and talents can fold in with the narrative or distract. If the author chooses to introduce a hobby or a talent, it would be wise to give the reader a glimpse into the heart of their character. 


People gravitate to hobbies because they feel called to them. Whether it’s woodworking or painting or writing, these things speak to their heart of hearts. 


What are their fears 


This is a major point. Gripping and emotionally satisfying endings, are the result of overcoming character flaws, which are predicated on fears and shortcomings. To know where these flaws evolved from the author need only to look into their characters backstory. 


Over coming character flaws is an essential part of the character arc. The flaw is the fence the hero and heroine have to jump over in order to make the change to reach their goal and be happy, which is what the reader is rooting for.