If there’s one thing people love to create, artist or writer, novelist or comic artist or casual doodler, it’s a character. Creating your own character opens up a world of storytelling possibilities for you, enabling you to control their destiny, to take them to far off places where they can fight dragons and dinosaurs and robots made of lasers and--ahem. I’m getting ahead of myself. When an author creates a character, however, there is one thing that they desperately want to avoid: the infamous Mary Sue, chief destroyer of interesting plotlines and worshipped by all--except, of course, the reader. A Mary Sue is the bane of any writer’s existence, her rainbow hair waving in the wind like some kind of sick banner of plot destruction.
There’s a lot more to a Mary Sue than an impressive grocery list of skills, color-changing eyes, and giant tits, though. You may be asking yourself ‘How do I avoid making an unrealistic character?’
The answer, my friend, is to make them dynamic.What is a dynamic character?
Put simply, it’s a character who changes over the course of the story. Perhaps a shy, reserved character learns to open up and talk to people when she wouldn’t before--perhaps a brutish jerk learns to care about other people. A common problem with the Mary Sue is that they never seem to really change--their opinions and beliefs are infallible, their every action is never challenged or questioned. Consequences don’t exist, or if they do, they are minor and can be brushed off.
A character who learns and changes is automatically more sympathetic to an audience than someone who never seems to learn--or needs to learn--from their mistakes over the course of the story. Your character could have naturally purple hair and golden eyes and be far more interesting if he wrestles with doubt and uncertainty and changes the way he thinks, in contrast to a plain-jane girl with brown hair and brown eyes who never has to face real conflict.How do I make my character dynamic?
To start: GIVE THEM CONFLICT.
Conflict is a much more complex thing than just ‘oh there’s a monster go kill it’. Good conflict is the modicum by which a character changes, and can turn a cliche’d, uninteresting plot into something that forces your readers to the edge of their seats. It can span multiple stories ‘til it’s completion or be resolved within a chapter, but it's always there, and without it your story is a bland grocery list of promises that never get fulfilled (much like the Twilight
Conflict comes in three distinct flavors:
Emotional conflictEvent-Based conflict
An event occurs in the character’s storyline that causes a problem. A great war happens and a character joins the army to try and help out, maybe. The treasure is stolen and your character has to retrieve it. A dragon is sighted in Skyrim and your character is the Dragonborn. The zombie apocalypse occurs. In this type of conflict, a major event is the source of upheaval in a character’s life, and what they must adapt around. Often this type of conflict is the backdrop for the other kinds of conflict.
With event-based conflict, it may not be something your hero can solve. Conflict may come in the form of them learning to adapt to their new environment or helping find a ‘niche’ for themselves. Maybe they and their ragtag bunch of teammates find a family together. Event-based conflict tends to be more long-term, rather than something your character can solve over the course of a chapter.Character-Based conflict
Another character is the source of conflict. The princess has been kidnapped by the evil overlord. The leader of a tribe of bandits has taken you prisoner. The bridge keeper won’t let you pass without answering his questions. A giant monster swoops down and blocks the path, essentially trapping you until it is defeated. Generally when people think of conflict, this is what they go to: the final boss, so to speak. Character-based conflict is often critical to Event-based conflict.
Character-based conflict is generally more short-term, a ‘day-to-day’ type of conflict instead of one that spans years. However, long-term character-based conflict is often the fodder for excellent plots, and is most certainly not off limits.
It’s easy to fall into a trap with character-based conflict, though: the idea that your character is coasting through their challenges, defeating enemies in swathes, having epic battles with almost no consequences afterward. It’s easy to confuse your hero’s new scars and awards for actual growth. Don’t let yourself get sucked into thinking that a fight always equates with a conflict, because if no character growth occurs because of it, all your efforts are for naught.Emotional conflict
Conflict that comes from within a character, rather than an outside source. An alcoholic begins to understand how her addiction is destroying her life. A young man is forced to confront the difference between who he wants to be and who he thinks he can be. A child has to grow up too soon.
Emotional conflict is often overlooked in favor of epic battles and dashing swordfights, but it’s often some of the most important--and interesting!--development a character can undergo. Emotional development happens when a character begins to really change. A common, and often very effective way of causing emotional conflict in a story is by having some great trauma affect the character. Perhaps someone close to them has died--or was murdered. Perhaps they themselves have been assaulted. A character confronting their fears and learning to move past a debilitating event in their life in order to be happy is often far more satisfying--and interesting--than seeing same character simply kill the next boss and return to their idyllic life where, in essence, nothing changes.
A NOTE: Emotional conflict becomes ineffective if overused. While throwing in the brutal murder of your character’s love interest can be an excellent way to build sympathy for your character, throwing too much death and despair in your character’s storyline becomes tired and ineffective. But I want to traumatize my character!
That’s all well and good, but keep in mind the easiest way to bump a strong character straight into ‘Mary Sue’ territory is overusing trauma in an attempt to build sympathy. Creating and developing a character is like cooking; too little spice and they’re stale and uninteresting, too much and they’re unappetizing and overworked to the point of boring. Over time, you need to mix it up a bit, to keep your audience interested rather than having them get used to--and bored of--the constant stream of trauma and sobbing.
Your best way of avoiding an overworked sob-factory of a character (and keeping your audience from dismissing them as a hopeless cause) is to first show that the trauma actually affects them. Research Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, think long and hard about how the trauma affects not only them, but their lovers, their friends, their family. If your character starts their story with their entire family murdered, avoid making them into a stereotypical ‘angsty teen’, ready to get over the trauma the moment someone showers them with attention and love. In real life, learning to cope with trauma takes time, and is an ugly thing--most average, healthy people don’t shrug off a fear of abandonment or the deaths of their family at the drop of a hat. It’s a struggle. Your character might push away people out of fear of losing other people in their lives, or mistrust even the most honest, charming people out of fear of getting attacked again. More than anything, this is not something a character can be helped with: they need to look their fear in the eye, work up the courage on their own, and begin the slow, agonizing process of learning to trust or love or believe in magic or whatever again.
If your character’s misery causes them to grow and develop, you have a strong character and the plotline will be met with tears and support. If you’re throwing in more trauma because ‘well obviously they’re not traumatized enough yet everyone needs to feel bad for them’, you’re doing it wrong.
An important note: A LOVE INTEREST DOES NOT CURE TRAUMA OR THE PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDERS ASSOCIATED.
I REPEAT.A LOVE INTEREST DOES NOT CURE TRAUMA.
A depressed person will not magically become not depressed when they start boning someone. A person who became a psychopath will not suddenly start caring about other people and putting other people’s needs before their own. Can a love interest assist someone in their struggle to overcome PTSD after watching their family get brutally murdered? Of course. But a thirty-minute makeout session is not going to make them forgive themselves and stop having flashbacks.Development is hard! I don’t know how to do it without help!
One amazing thing about online writing groups is the magical land of roleplay, where you and another person can throw your characters into a situation and let them have at it. Another person’s help and questions can often help you see areas of development that you’ve missed so far, if not spur on the development itself in RP.
The catch, though, is that you can’t use RP as a substitute for developing on your own. Anyone who wants to create a strong character needs to primarily be doing development on their own, with some assistance from outside sources when you think you might be missing something. Ask yourself questions. Challenge what you think this character may or may not do. Have a scenario you want to RP? Take a moment and ask yourself if there needs to be another character. What if your character faced that challenge alone?Questions to ask yourself:
Where do I want my character to go? What is my end goal for them? How do I want them to change by the end of the story?
Is my character learning from their mistakes?
What is my character’s role in their organization/society/job/etc? What do they do, and how do they do it?
Do my character’s current actions put them at odd with how I want their life to be? With how they want their life to be?
Does my character’s misery have a purpose, or am I just being sadistic?
How will this help my character change? What do they learn from this?
Are my character’s issues directly affecting them, or have I not shown them enough yet?
Is my character reacting to issues in an appropriate, realistic way? Are they suffering from ‘whiny emo kid’ syndrome?
Why did my character make the decision they did? What are the consequences of that action? How will that affect them in the future?