Character — The Carrot and Stick Approach

Posted: January 21, 2015 in graffiti living
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.” — Winston Wolfe, Pulp Fiction

How do you make characters that have character? Here’s my carrot and stick approach.

Badly written characters are cardboard cut-outs: unconvincing, sensational, two-dimensional, exaggerated and only there to serve the plot. Like painting by numbers or dot-to-dot, they’re just there to fill in the blanks. They’re often stereotypes and don’t have enough flaws or substance to make them interesting.

Good characters are like icebergs — there’s far more to them than the jagged bit that you can see sticking out of the water. To create them, you have to know what the iceberg looks like underneath the water.

If you know something about the character and don’t say it out loud, it will inform your writing. Your readers will pick up on it sub-consciously and start to ask questions — What’s their secret? What happened to them? Who are they deep down? From the carefully chosen tip-of-the-iceberg, that you show the reader, they’ll infer enough of the rest to keep reading.

Great characters are seriously messed up. They’ve got issues. They’re flawed, believable and have a sense of their own history. What emotional baggage does your character carry around with them? Who are they? What do they do? What do they think? And most importantly, what do they WANT?

Don’t be afraid to base your characters on people that you know. Real people are always far weirder and more complicated than anything we can dream up. Change them just enough to avoid getting sued.

Spend some quality time with your characters. The more you write them the more you’ll get to know them. What’s your protagonist like when they’re not out saving the world? Describe them getting up, getting dressed and going out. What do they wear? What do they put in their bag?

Follow them round for the day. Take them out shopping. See how they cope with the mundane everyday world. Take your time over this (like eating jelly babies). Once you know what they’re normally like, you’ll have something to compare with how they react under pressure — then it’s time to really put them through their paces.

If you don’t believe in your characters then no-one else will. You’ve got to treat them like real people. What’s more, you have to be willing to treat them badly. You want them to be interesting — put them through hell and see how they react. Shove them together just to see how they get along.

Now stir things up a bit. Think of a significant event, one that will challenge or change the direction of that character’s life. Make it happen. What do they want in life? Whatever it is, they can’t have it. Not yet. Put all manner of conflict and obstacles in-between them and what they want. Throw at them everything you’ve got.

Your characters have got to learn to fend for themselves. And in struggling towards what they want, they’ll change. They might not even want or need their goal or object of desire any more by the time they get there.

Audition your characters. Hold tryouts. Make them earn their place. Scar them for life. Take them to hell and back (sometimes literally). Give them a carrot, to go after, and beat them with a stick. Then decide whether to give them a happy ending, or just to happily end them.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s