DIY MFA: What’s in A Character?

Think about some of your favorite books. What makes the story memorable? Was it the non-stop action? Maybe it was the extraordinary way a tired old plot was presented. Or maybe, it was the protagonist. Who were those characters? Why did they out in your mind?

One of the most standout protagonists for me was Valentine Michael Smith, a human child raised by Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein. I found the book in my high school library sometime around my junior year. I read it in a weekend the first time through. Then I slowed down and reread it, to grok the experience.

Another memorable protagonist is Katniss Dean from The Hunger Games by Susann Collins. She steps up to protect what is most precious to her, even if it means putting her life on the line. Arya Stark, from A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, is another strong character who won readers’ hearts. Despite all the adversity life throws at her, Arya always manages to survive, even if it means becoming one of the Faceless Men.

A good character comes alive on the page. They have depth just like a real person, and might not always act predictably. I don’t know many folks who are on an even keel all the time. Most of us react to the stimuli around us, and your characters should be no different. A poor night’s sleep can put many people off their game; imagine how chronic exhaustion can play havoc with your character’s well-being. Remember to throw adversity and challenges in the path of progress. Your protagonist won’t grow or change if all things remain the same.

How reliable is the narrator? Do they think one thing and do or say another? Look at the people around you, or even inside yourself, and you can see that frequently actions and words are at odds. Use these traits to build three-dimensional characters that pop off the page.

I have a lot yet to absorb and put into practice as I watch videos, take notes, and breathe life into my characters.

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