Yes, I know, Day 5 is a little late to think of starting to create characters and deciding on what sorts of characters you need. If you’re one-tenth of the way into the NaNo already, you’ve probably got most of your characters set already. But some characters may still pop into your mind and your story who you haven’t even thought of at this early stage, and you may be surprised by how important they turn out to be. Meanwhile, you may discover a hole in your story and realize that on Day 9, you suddenly have to invent a whole new character to fill it unless you want your whole plot to collapse. Character creation can be fun, and you want to have a good idea what sorts of characters you might need.
THE “THROWAWAYS” AND SURPRISES
Characters who I refer to as “throwaway” characters are those that you make up on the spot, you know, when your main character dashes to the elevator lobby on the fortieth floor late one evening and waves goodnight to the cleaning lady who is dusting the reception desk. You’ve never heard of this cleaning lady until that very moment, and this may be the only time she appears. She may just pop in to add extra realism to the scene or to reinforce just how late your character is.
And as your character waves down a cab on the street below, he may bump into and apologize to a young woman who gets out of the cab, and you might write the briefest of descriptions, again for realism.
Not watching what he was doing, he yanked the cab door open, and his teeth immediately clashed together as a young woman swung her legs around and started getting up from the seat inside, the top of her head just catching the point of his jaw as she tried to stand up. Moving his tongue experimentally to make sure there was no blood, he mumbled an apology, but the tall woman was already turning away, clutching her fur coat at her throat as she shook her head to clear it, her long black hair cascading down her back.
You may never see either of these “throwaway” characters again, but you’ve added extra realism and atmosphere to your story.
However, you may find, to your surprise, that one (or more) of these “throwaways” keeps showing up. After all, your main character frequently works late at night, so he’s bound to run into the cleaning lady now and then. He may even know that her name is Maria. If she’s older, she might chide him for burning away his young life spending all his time in an office. His brief conversations with her might become bright spots in an otherwise harried story as he tries desperately to correct an error he’s made in his firm’s financial program, hoping to head it off before it wreaks havoc not just inside the firm but in the world financial system as well. Perhaps you eventually decide that she’s the perfect foil, allowing him to talk about the mistake he’s made and the steps he’s trying to take to correct it.
And then, maybe on Day 20, it suddenly dawns on you that Maria is actually no cleaning lady. She’s someone who has been planted in this situation, perhaps by the Securities Board or perhaps by some international espionage organization. And you realize that this character who you just threw into the story unexpectedly for added atmosphere is the person around whom the entire resolution of the story revolves. In fact, you look back on little details you added into her conversations with your character, just to build up your word count (you thought), and you realize that some of the seemingly inconsequential things she said included tiny details that tie everything together. Maybe your character starts picking up on clues that she’s a spy, and he realizes that his initial error was small, but she was using his confidences to infiltrate the system and make things worse. He thwarts her, looks like a hero, and perhaps gets the girl. Or she brings him into her confidence, helps him get further into the system, and works with him to bring down the embezzler who is on the verge of bringing the firm down in bankruptcy and escape to the Bahamas.
See what can happen when you just toss a character into the mix to supply interesting details and atmosphere? These characters sometimes have a way of simply barging in and taking over. Those are the most fun developments in a story.
Pro and Con, baby!
There are other characters, though, who need a place in the story almost right from the beginning. You don’t need all types of characters, of course, but you generally need at least a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the main character for whom everybody is rooting as they read the story. This is usually one person, but remember that this protagonist might also be a group (five students, three drinking buddies, members of a book club, three scientists who make a great discovery, a church youth group; the possibilities are endless). Keep in mind, though, that this sort of protagonist group might be hard to handle. You need to deal fairly equally with all the characters in the group, but you might find that one character starts to be more important to the plot. Then you sometimes end up with one main character after all.
The antagonist is usually a person (or group) who opposes or works against or is an obstacle to the protagonist. This person doesn’t have to be a maniacal villain or even evil, though that kind of person can be fun to write. But that type of villain isn’t generally very realistic. Whether you want a mustache-twirling guy in a black cape or an evil wizard may depend on the genre of story you’re writing. But if you handle the story well, the antagonist could also be a rather good, well-meaning person with strong opinions that contradict those of the protagonist(s). That makes a story complex and interesting, when you can make even an antagonist into a multi-layered character with some good features who just happens to be on the wrong side of history.
I still remember once seeing a short play with stereotypical cowboys, one all in black (the bad guy) and one all in white (the good guy). The guy in white was so very goody-two-shoes that the audience started disliking him, while the guy in black was so interesting that we secretly kind of liked him. At the end, when it was revealed that the guy in black was really the good guy after all, we all cheered loudly.
Archetypes and Stereotypes
I once heard it said that there are really only six or seven basic story plots in the whole world. Every story ever conceived is supposedly derived from those plots, with just a difference in some of the details.
It may be the same with characters in a story. You might need at least one character who helps create a humorous atmosphere when things get tense. Maybe a bratty little sister or brother. Maybe a by-the-book character who ends up really loosening up by the end.
In fact, doesn’t this remind you of the famous Jungian archetypes and the Hero’s Journey? You’ve got the Mentor, the wise old man who helps the young hero get started on the journey. Perhaps the character is trying to thwart a Bad Parent. The antagonist who opposes the main character may turn out to be the main character’s Shadow—someone who is actually a lot like him but whose character traits have been turned in a negative direction rather than a positive. (And the reason they grate on each other is that, in fact, they are really rather alike.) You might have someone representing the Warrior. Or the Young Innocent. (Can this person’s innocence be preserved through the story, or does this person’s tragic fall into darkness trigger a lot of the plot?)
Many of these characters seem like real stereotypes, but remember that stereotypes get created because something occurs so often that it becomes typical of that genre or activity or circumstance. Remember also that there are only a few basic plots that are repeated over and over again. These plots and these characters may simply exist because that’s the way humans think and see the world. Maybe we need these characters to express the world completely.
And in the same way, you might see a hole in your plot that cries out for a specific type of character to help you fill it. Read up on some of the Jungian archetypes or look for information on stock characters, and you may find just the person you need.
The soap operas know
Don’t laugh. There may be fewer of them these days, which is kind of a shame, but the daytime soap operas actually know more than a thing or two about character creation and development. Again, don’t laugh—but I once did a project for several weeks, following a soap opera every day and writing down every plot element and every type of character I saw. This was to allow me to create my own soap opera, which I write on, occasionally, just for fun. (Yes. I write odd stuff.)
Let me tell you—creating the proper character balance and juggling a large group of characters is hard. And then you add in several plotlines that have to develop over the months, with resolutions and dramatic endings at different times, some winding up while others are just beginning or others are halfway through. Believe me, after working on this for a few months, I had more respect for soap opera writers than I can possibly express.
Does this list of character types sound familiar?
- The Tycoon and Family
- The Tycoon Son/Daughter, trying to escape the Tycoon’s control
- The Working-Class Family (one of whose kids is inevitably romantically involved with one of the Tycoon’s kids)
- The Cop (or two)
- The Doctor (or two or three, depending)
- The Town Seductress
- The Young Innocent
- The Rebel Guy
- The Saucy Vixen
- The Social Climbing young person who wants to marry rich and escape the lower class
- The Artiste
- The Proprietor of the everyday restaurant where everybody seems to go
- The Exotic Person (usually with an accent)
- The High School Students
Ah yes, they are all familiar. That’s partly because we’ve seen these characters over and over, in nighttime soaps as well as daytime. But it’s also because these characters are necessary for a certain kind of mix in a certain kind of story.
Think of what you need to make your story “go.” There will be characters who help your main character, some who create unwitting obstacles, some who have parts of “the answer” and some who have other parts, and many others. Your plot can determine what sorts of characters you want, and then your characters can help push the plot in directions you don’t expect. It’s a vibrant symbiotic relationship.