I’m going to tell you about the defining characteristic that I most admire for each of my closest loved ones. I’m doing this partly because I need to share all my feeeeeeelings but also because I think there’s something to be learned about character building by taking a look at this.
You buying that? Notsomuch? Whatever – strap in:
- The Man: This one is the hardest for me to pinpoint because I wouldn’t be marrying him if I didn’t love and admire so damn many of his qualities. He’s generous, he’s smart, he’s honest and loyal…are you fake-vomiting under the table yet? What – you thought I wouldn’t see you? Uh huh. When it comes right down to it, though, I choose his nerdiness. It sounds like a cheap answer, but it embodies so much. He loves stories in all their forms, and he loves to learn and teach, and he exudes a childlike excitement for these things. It just lights him the fuck up. He’ll gobble up anything that catches his interest, and it’s awesome. Every time he nerds out over something, I fall in love with him all over again.
- My father: For most of my childhood, my very quiet father was an enigma. He wore a business suit, watched football on Sundays and read to us at night. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve realized how much of a learner he is and the value of that quality. He actively seeks out the answers to all of his questions – politics, religion, science, and even just what kind of car is going to be best for his family. He taught himself how to build, how to install, how to garden. It’s impressive. He’s the most self-made man I know.
- My mother: I’ve come to realize in the past few years how much I’ve lucked out with my mother. She’s always there as a safety net, but I’ve never felt smothered. She knows when I need advice and when she needs to let me swim on my own. The only label I could come up with for this is unselfish. She lets her daughters chart their own courses without making it about her. She spends her working hours healing strangers and her at-home hours healing the family. She’s an amazing woman.
- My older sister: If there’s one thing I’ve always envied of my older sister, it’s her passion. Sure, I can get riled up about certain issues or uber-excited for movies like The Hobbit, but my older sister has passion for life. She has that in-born zeal for seeing things and meeting people – traveling, having adventures, wandering streets in Lebanon and going on runs through sheep fields in Ireland. The girl has natural zest and embraces just about everything as an experience. She goes for 6 AM walks on Christmas mornings in the butt-ass cold just to welcome the holiday. You can’t fake passion like that.
- My younger sister: If my older sister has natural passion, my younger sister has a naturally open and accepting heart. I’ve never seen the likes of it. So many kids in grade school will throw up those barriers against the outcasts; they can’t even explain why, just that those kids are “weird” and it makes them feel funny. Not my sister. She sees something good in absolutely everybody, even the girls who were mean to her. I don’t know how she jumped out of the starting gate with this awesome insight, but it is a special trait.
Now that I’m done with the heart-spilling portion of the post, it’s time to talk about what we’ve learned today. You ready for it?
You should be able to do that exercise with every single damn character in your book.
Can you? Be honest now. Because, personally, I can’t. I didn’t realize this until I sat down and tried it, and now I know something huge I need to work on if I want to grow as a writer. I can do this with my loved ones because they are living, three-dimensional people. Characters ought to be, too.
“Sure, yeah, of course,” you say, “but I’ll get to it after I write this amazing, epic climax that I thought up that is going to blow your mind!”
Stop it. I don’t care about your climax. Or, at least, I won’t if I can’t connect with your characters. Because even if your story has demigods and werecats and apocalypses and all kinds of crazy Big Picture shit, at the heart of it – still – are people. Amazing, beautiful, crazy, flawed, fucked-up people. Lose them, and you’ve got plot with no heart. I might read your story and think it’s neat, but it’ll never be one I cherish.
So…what’s that one defining admirable quality about each of your characters?
And don’t answer, “She’s strong.” That’s a bullshit answer because there are 80,000 different types of strength. All of my loved ones up there? Each of them has a different type of strength that I value, so look deeper. How is your character strong? Or brave? Or intelligent? Every quality has facets; don’t just tag with an empty label. Fill that label up. Define it. Deconstruct it until your MC is the strongest damn doormat of a human being that readers fall in love with despite themselves.
And, on the flipside, what’s their one defining weakness? I’m not going to list real-life people’s weaknesses because that’s just shitty, but we all have them. You should be able to tell me one for each character – their Fatal Flaw, if you will. And if “she’s strong” is a bullshit answer for an admirable quality, then there are equally bullshitty answers for this category as well. For example, any douchery you might spout off in a job interview like “caring too much” or “working too hard.” Faux-flaws don’t count.
And then throw them into that mind-bending climax you dreamed up. I’m going to be chomping on my fingernails to see how they make it out.