Yes, that’s a good technique for describing characters, especially in a first-person narrative where a character is unlikely to describe himself or herself. Thanks for mentioning it, Nick.
Good tips, Melissa. I especially like the idea of diving into a character’s back story. This can provide a lot of depth to your characters and make them come alive through their personality and nuances shaped by the past.
Great post! I come up with realistic characters by fleshing out their similarities and differences in contrast with the protagonist. This naturally gives me a list of lessons the protagonist will get to learn due to their interactions. I also write a short story of their personal biography that includes how their parents raised them, what growing up during school was like for them and basically how their certain behaviours influenced the course of their life time. A lot of extra info is left out from the novel, but what does make it make all the difference. Furthermore, to battle writer’s block, writing a character’s biography is what helped me determine how they would act in a certain chapter, and thus finally moved the story forward. Or should I say is how it kept me Writing Forward 😀
a nice written character doesn’t have to be relatable to be likeable. They need to be interesting. I can think of multiple characters that are interesting while having next to no relatable qualities. For example there’s a cartoon named Panty and Stocking where the two main characters are sluts who got kicked out of heaven for being sluts, don’t care about justice or have a tragic past, and yet they’re interesting because of those qualities.
A good character needs you. You’re the champion, here. You’re the motherfucking engine of creation that will bring this character to life with the eye-watering boozy muse-breath of your drunken imagination. You are a very special ingredient indeed, young captain. See, the idea goes that no story is original, and maybe that translates to character, too. But you are an original. And the way you do things — the way you arrange old elements of story and character — is something wholly your own, provided you let yourself off the leash, provided you’re willing to smear your guts all over the page. You can bring something fucking amazing to every character you write: yourself. The character doesn’t exist without you. You are the puppeteer. You are parent and deity. So go, create. Give them life. Give them soul. Give them character. And then kick their ass.
The picturesque contrasts of character in this play are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present a range and variety of character as striking and palpable as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind's eye, so that even when we are not thinking of their actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is still as present to us as ever. These characters and the images they stamp upon the mind are the farthest asunder possible, the distance between them is immense: yet the compass of knowledge and invention which the poet has shewn in embodying these extreme creations of his genius is only greater than the truth and felicity with which he has identified each character with itself, or blended their different qualities together in the same story. What a contrast the character of Othello forms to that of Iago! At the same time, the force of conception with which these two figures are opposed to each other is rendered still more intense by the complete consistency with which the traits of each character are brought out in a state of the highest finishing. The making one black and the other white, the one unprincipled, the other unfortunate in the extreme, would have answered the common purposes of effect, and satisfied the ambition of an ordinary painter of character. Shakespear has laboured the finer shades of difference in both with as much care and skill as if he had had to depend on the execution alone for the success of his design. On the other hand, Desdemona and Æmilia are not meant to be opposed with anything like strong contrast to each other. Both are, to outward appearance, characters of common life, not more distinguished than women usually are, by difference of rank and situation. The difference of their thoughts and sentiments is however laid open, their minds are separated from each other by signs as plain and as little to be mistaken as the complexions of their husbands.
Plan A: Use Plan A if you have many small similarities and/or differences. After your introduction, say everything you want to say about the first work or character, and then go on in the second half of the essay to say everything about the second work or character, comparing or contrasting each item in the second with the same item in the first. In this format, all the comparing or contrasting, except for the statement of your main point, which you may want to put in the beginning, goes on in the SECOND HALF of the piece.
This seems rather obvious, sure — in a way it’s like saying, “What makes a really good tree is that it has an essential treeness” — but just the same, it bears mentioning. Because some characters read like cardboard. They’re like white crayon on white paper. Sure, the characters run around and they do shit and say shit but none of it has anything to do with character and has everything to do with plot — as if the characters are just another mechanism to get to the next action sequence, the next plot point, the next frazza wazza wuzza buzza whatever. Point is: your character needs a personality, and the rest of this list should help you get there.
Shakespear has in this play and elsewhere shown the same penetration into political character and the springs of public events as into those of everyday life. For instance, the whole design of the conspirators to liberate their country fails from the generous temper and over-weening confidence of Brutus in the goodness of their cause and the assistance of others. Thus it has always been. Those who mean well themselves think well of others, and fall a prey to their security. That humanity and honesty which dispose men to resist injustice and tyranny render them unfit to cope with the cunning and power of those who are opposed to them. The friends of liberty trust to the professions of others, because they are themselves sincere, and endeavour to reconcile the public good with the least possible hurt to its enemies, who have no regard to anything but their own unprincipled ends, and stick at nothing to accomplish them. Cassius was better cut out for a conspirator. His heart prompted his head. His watchful jealousy made him fear the worst that might happen, and his irritability of temper added to his inveteracy of purpose, and sharpened his patriotism. The mixed nature of his motives made him fitter to contend with bad men. The vices are never so well employed as in combating one another. Tyranny and servility are to be dealt with after their own fashion: otherwise, they will triumph over those who spare them, and finally pronounce their funeral panegyric, as Antony did that of Brutus.
Hey, external conflict is pretty cool, too. If the character is plagued by an old war wound, a damaged spaceship, a mysterious old villain who shows up to perform surgical karate on the character, all good. Doubly good if the external conflict matches or speaks to the internal conflict in some way. Say, for instance, an author who is addicted to slathering his beard with illicit ermine scent glands is also pursued by a very angry ermine scent gland dealer named Vito who would apparently like his money. Just an example. With no basis in reality. *runs*
Shitty one-note characters are a Taco Bell product: manufactured unfrozen gray-meat red-sauce in a proportioned somewhat-maybe-kinda-tortilla. They’re good for a quick bite and a hard purge (remember: you do not buy Taco Bell, you rent Taco Bell and then return it to its ecosystem with a couple flushes). Great characters are a nuanced meal: from an aperitif to the amuse-bouche to the first and second course, all the way through to the monkey course and the molecular gastronomy course, to coffee, dessert, and then ritual suicide. Each bite has complexity. Like sipping a fine wine or a great cup of coffee, you taste things that aren’t expected, that go beyond that word coffee or wine. (“I taste figs and fireplace ash, and a little after-hint of the tears from a griefstruck slow loris.”) A good character is complex because that means they are like — gasp! — real people. Real people who are not easily summed up or predicted. Real people with layers and surprises and who are a little bit good and a little bit bad and a whole lotta interesting.