Hello all, I’ve decided that every Wednesday I’ll be taking a break from writing my novel, and work on something for the blog part of my website. Today, I want to discuss character building.
One of the first things that I noticed when I started reading as a young girl was the colorful main characters in every book I read. From Hermione Granger in Harry Potter to Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ book series, the stories behind the characters drew me to their parts in the novels I read.
Let’s start with Hermione Granger: she is everything that I wanted to be as a young girl; an intelligent, driven women who uses her logic to help solve the big problems in the world. Then Hannibal Lecter, the charming suave cannibalistic serial killer who seduces an FBI agent away from her work at the Bureau and into his arms. Now, the two characters that I just named may not have been the main characters but their stories added layers of subplot and, in the case of the novel Hannibal the main plot of the story. Why am I talking about other writers fictional characters and not my own? Simple. It’s easier to define these characters as their stories are, at least at the moment finished. Mine however, are a work in progress.
Now, let’s look at how these characters were built, how they interact with their world and see how that can benefit the characters in our own story.
Hermione Granger is an eleven year old girl, new to both Hogwarts and the Wizarding world and eventually befriends our main protagonist, Harry. What does Hermione do in the stories? Well, she functions as Harry’s more logical mind, helping him to achieve things that would otherwise be a bit out of his range, either in the scope of his character or in the fact that Hermione acts as a sort of encyclopedia, helping Harry to decode the logic puzzle, the mystery of the Basilisk, rescue Sirius, learn spells for his time in the tournament, fight with him in the DA, and then in the sixth book; argue with Harry over his academics. She becomes even more essential in the seventh book, saving Harry from an attack by Voldemort’s snake. Now Hermione is indeed not the protagonist in the novels, but she is a character that everyone remembers. Now how can we use Hermione in our own work? For me, in the detective novel that I’m working on she manifests herself in the form of a mentor, someone with more experience working serial homicide than my main character. When I think of Hermione I think of a mentor, but a peer mentor, someone with whom my protagonist has a nearly equal relationship to and who can impart information I want my main character to know that he or she cannot necessarily find out in the story.
Now, as for Hannibal Lecter, he is a character in passing in both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs but comes into his own in the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. I found myself wondering about what he was like, what did Hannibal know that both Clarice and Will didn’t? He intrigued me as he intrigued the entire American public as a character and then as Anthony Hopkins portrayed him in the classic film. What role(s) does Hannibal serve both as a character and as a theme? Well, in the first two novels we see him in he is the anti-hero, the dark figure tempting both proteges of Jack Crawford. He functions as a bouncing board, a place for them to learn what they need to know and as a subplot to the main function: catching a killer. In the next two novels we get a much clearer picture of character. For my purposes Hannibal Rising serves much more of a purpose to discuss his character. That novel is entirely driven by the question: what makes Hannibal who he is?
We find the answer within the pages, the way his history is shown through tableau and scenes from his youth, it serves as a character study. Hannibal, we learn is a troubled child, forever traumatized by the knowledge that he participated in the eating of his sister and, it seems he is doomed to repeat the act of drawing people into the act of unconscious cannibalism and also a more human version of themselves. He acts on his desires, not fearing the repercussions from society. Now, while this is off the topic slightly, yes, the prequel to the series serves to demystify and deconstruct the character that has been one of the most feared villains of our time, it also shows how backstory, whether known or unknown to the reader layers the characters writers create with mystery and helps, in the case of very character driven narratives, to help readers question themselves and make a lasting impression on those who read the work.
I’ve found that asking myself simple questions about each character helps me to build a profile of them so I know what they want, and how they go about achieving their goal. In my head, when I find out these answers I see myself as interviewing a character, and watching their body language as well as what and how they respond to my questions.
- What trait does this character value above all else?
- What is the character’s worst memory?
- What is their happiest memory?
- How did they grow up? (Was it happy, sad, lonely?)
- What motivates the character to get up in the morning?
- What do they look like? (An obvious question, I know, but I mean deeper than just looks. What expression do they make when they’re sad, happy angry?)
- What is their favorite curse word? Why?
- Are they very physical? (i.e. do they gesture when talking, do they tend to hug people when they meet them?)
- What did they want to be when they grew up? (Did they achieve that goal, why or why not?)
- What is their greatest achievement?
- What is their most embarrassing moment? Why?
- What book do they read before bed, if any?
- What is their favorite food?
- How is their room/home decorated?
- If they could visit any place in the world on vacation, where and why?
These fifteen questions help me to get a deeper understanding of my characters and what makes them tick. I find that even just knowing the answers to this helps it bleed into my writing in subtle ways, like the gestures they make while speaking, the way the interact with colleagues and others and the background of a scene.
Well that’s all I have today for the blog as I have to go meet with my professor about my applications to MFA programs. Happy writing and good luck with your own adventures on the page.