Kill Their Family
(But Only If You Have To)
“On the night of the murder I was at home, asleep.
The characters in my dream can vouch for me.”
― Jarod Kintz
In my early days as a writer I couldn’t work out how to give my characters depth. On the surface they’d seem funny or interesting, but they generally lacked anything intriguing other than their witty dialogue. At the time I was so influenced by Elmore Leonard’s writing style that I tried to mimic him with these ultra-cool criminal types. What I ended up with was cardboard characters spouting one-liners with nothing else under the hood — just a row of unrealistic too-cool generic cutouts.
Then one day I sketched out a protagonist with a dead dad and this piece of information seemed to give him a real emotional weight. It changed my dialogue, too. Not every line was a witty trying-too-hard punchline. My hero interacted like a human. I thought I’d finally unlocked the secret to writing believable characters.
So I did the same thing with my next character: I gave him a dead mother. And I gave the next one after that a dead sister, and it got to a point where every character I created had a dead family member, or two dead family members, or a dead wife. In many instances their death was incidental to the plot; it had no relevance to anything. I just automatically killed fictional parents for the sake of giving my characters emotional depth.
And it was stupid. Not only did my protagonists soon become stale and repetitive, but it rarely added anything fresh to the story.
“I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.”
― Jo Walton
What gave them depth wasn’t the death of their loved ones — it was the fact I’d given them a back story. I knew where they’d come from; I could talk about their childhood, why they’d become the person they’d grown into. By killing someone close to them and delving into their emotions, I was able to paint a broader picture about their needs and likes; their desires and motivations. I accidentally filled in their history when I should have been doing it anyway. And underneath all of this was something my previous characters lacked: truth.
I’m not saying you need a five-page dossier on your protagonist. But you should know them like you’d know a friend. They should seem real to you. They should be more than just The-Girl-With-The-Dead-Fish.
Or else why bother writing about them in the first place?
“The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”
― Lauren DeStefano
If you must kill someone’s family member — if it has some relevance to the story and isn’t merely a fix-on — then do it. In those days my killings were senseless. At least give the death a motive. If it’s to infuse your main character with a deadly desire to hunt down the killers, that’s okay. If it’s to portray the character’s torturous background and showcase his brutal upbringing, or even the sadness at the loss of his parents, then sure, go with it.
But don’t think a death in the family automatically makes someone interesting. And that goes for other things, too: giving him or her tattoos, or a drug problem, or a fetish for shark porn, or a nervous tic, or anything else you tack on for the sake of it. Gimmicks and tics and verbal repetitions don’t make a character. Telling your audience that Bob only ever drinks chocolate milk is not a way to portray a fully formed human being — it’s just showcasing a personality trait. Go below the surface.
People aren’t interesting simply because they have tortured pasts, or because they know a few party tricks, or because they walk with a limp due to a bullet fragment caught in their knee. All of that is dressing. Many character add-ons are dragged straight from the cliché factory. Sometimes they work (clichés exist for a reason), but look around you: there are millions of fascinating people on this planet. Learn about them.
Talk to people in bars, in queues at the supermarket. Do you find them funny? Arrogant? Smart? What do you like about them? What do you dislike about them? If you look hard enough, you’ll see that the most interesting people aren’t just those who’ve suffered personal loss or pain.
Ultimately we’re drawn to those who reflect our own beliefs and morals. Which can be dangerous for your creativity.
“I’d like my readers to feel they want to follow my characters off the page at the end of the book.” ― Vanessa Couchman
In order to grow as writers we must seek out those whose principles clash with our own. Those who believe in the opposite to us ― politically, emotionally, mentally. Seek them out and study them. Why do they think so differently? What makes them stand out? Why would other people find them interesting? The more answers you have for these questions the more you’ll be able to write likeable three-dimensional characters, and they won’t all be manifestations of yourself. They may, to an extent, have a piece of you in them — but they’ll also have a piece of Fred, Sally, Dave, and anyone else you’ve been in contact with.
And that’s important if you want to build a diverse range of characters.
Even if you hate people, make it your goal to engage with them. Don’t talk about yourself. Your story isn’t important. You’re not trying to impress anyone. Talk about them. Ask about who they are, what job they have; find out what their passion is, what drives them in life. You might meet a raging racist or homophobe who’s also an animal activist/charity worker and a loving father. Those kinds of dichotomies are compelling to learn about, and they’ll give your work an extra layer if you portray them in a relatable way. Good and bad is never black and white. It’s important to seek out the grey area in people’s twisted thought processes and transfer that to your work.
If you’re shy, join up to classes, get into a book club or a dance class or something similar. Make sure the next time you’re invited to a barbecue, you say yes. Get out of your comfort zone. This will not only help with your character writing, but your writing in general.
A good writer lives a varied and plentiful life. Soak in experience.
Then drain all of that into your ink and write your masterpiece.
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” ― William Faulkner
A word of warning: don’t get too caught up on the same people, the same areas, the same places. The moment you begin to gravitate to a certain section of people, or of character design, you’ll be destined to repeat patterns. Always make sure you’re challenging what you know and who you know. Let your characters change and grow. And the way to do that is to actively change and grow yourself.
Even if it means confronting your greatest fears head-on.
Why be a timid sheep when you can be ferocious wolf?
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