Storytelling: How to Create Good Characters
Imagine you’re in the middle seat for a long flight. You’re not usually a talker on rides like this, but you need all you can get to help pass the time. On one side of you is a middle-class businessman who has taken this trip several times. He seems busy on his tablet and doesn’t talk to you much, but when he does, he’s fairly irritable and not very helpful. He just tells you things you already know, like how the food on the flight isn’t great and you should chew gum during takeoff and landing. He’s just not very interesting.
On the other side of you is a retiree who has never flown before. He seems scared but thrilled, and everything is new and exciting to him. As you both enthuse about what’s out the window and what you can do for in-flight entertainment, you ask him about his line of work, and pretty soon he’s telling you things he’s learned in his career as a veterinarian. You ask about his family, and pretty soon he’s sharing with you about his grandchildren, his own exploits as a rambunctious teenager, and a mistake or two he regrets as a young father.
If you’ve got the time, it seems pretty obvious whom you’d rather spend your time with. And when you’re writing your own stories, you likewise want to have in mind an experience like the latter and not the former. You want your audience to stay engaged, and one of the best ways to do that is through character. Flat characters make flat stories, and dynamic characters create depth, intrigue, and relatability.
Put another way, boring characters will quickly cause your audience to tune your story out, whereas interesting characters will draw them in.
Of course, the characters in the Bible were real people, but God formed their characteristics, wove their stories, and made them the protagonists in His account. It was that realism that made them unique and powerful, especially for their time. Compare the characters in the Bible to the characters of Greek mythology, for example. The gods of mythology were meant to be fear-inducing, with over-the-top and entitled behavior, acting on their whims, usually in conjunction with their one notorious fatal flaw that stained their otherwise impervious nature. The people of the Bible, however, were highly complex, flawed, and most importantly, relatable. In fact, most of the characters of the Bible were marginalized, working-class people; and even the ones who were more traditionally heroic had elements that allowed readers to pull back the curtain and see their similar, down-to-earth qualities.
So, as we tell stories, how do we build strong characters in order to draw in our audience? The first and most important quality is obvious from Scripture: relatability. It only takes a quick look into Jesus’ parables to see how often He used relatable characters. The easiest way to create relatability is to incorporate truth.
So many of the characters I’ve written are conglomerations of many people I know; this situation comes from something my friend told me the other day, this physical movement is something I’ve noticed my teacher do, this way of speaking is just like someone I knew in middle school, this job is from an interesting documentary I watched, this dream happened to me the other night, etc. You’re sort of making a person salad, stirring up various things you see in real life and meshing them together into one cohesive character.
It requires keen observation and a good memory (or, better yet, good note-taking) and may take the addition of research and questions. For example, if you have a character who’s a doctor, you can draw on your own experiences from going to the doctor, but you may need to read up on what the job really entails or ask a doctor directly for information. Elements of truth make the strongest stories, and readers lose respect when they can tell you haven’t done your research.
Another important quality in a strong character is complexity. One vital thing I learned from taking a Character Development class in college is that even if your audience doesn’t know your character’s full life’s story, as the storyteller, you need to. There can be no holes in the narrative, and the fact that you know all the information as you weave the story will give glimpses into the depth that may not actually show directly in the story itself. Of course, God knows everything about all of His people, and it shows through the complexity of the characters in the Bible. We see dynamic characters with dreams and fears who change and struggle and persevere.
Naomi, for example, experienced grief and chose sacrifice to provide for her daughters-in-law, but when Ruth decided to stay with her, it brought comfort–but also immense struggle for both of them. Then, finally, there was hope and joy in God’s provision through Boaz. This is a wave of emotions and circumstances that become even more powerful when you understand the nuances of marriage, widowhood, poverty, and familial relationships in the culture at the time.
So get to know your characters intimately even before you create your story. Learn their origins, interview them, find out how they would act in different situations. Then, as you put them into the narrative, it will not only be a lot easier for you to make them move through the world but also for your readers to connect with them and enjoy their company.
A dynamic story arc is different from character complexity. Complexity refers more to a character’s personality traits and history before the actual events of the story, whereas arc refers more to the events in the story itself and how the character changes because of them. If you’ve taken a writing or reading course, you have probably heard of the terms “rising action,” “climax,” and “denouement” or “falling action.” This touches on an upcoming article on conflict, but the way a character responds to these movements in the story can develop them into a more dimensional person.
Underdogs are so often inspiring and empowering because audiences love to see the characters succeed despite insurmountable difficulties. Some of my favorite characters are what I call sympathetic villains because of how they become overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and handle life in the way they know best, which is usually twisted by pain and anger; I hurt for them and want them to find light at the end of the tunnel somehow.
As the writer, you can brainstorm different paths a character can take and see which one you believe to be more effective and moving. Some of the best “aha!” moments–both as a writer and a reader–are when you see an alternate path that connects points and builds character in a way you never imagined before.
Many of the characters in Scripture have powerful arcs, but let’s look specifically at Paul, one of my favorite people in the Bible.
Early in Paul’s story, he’s a villain, attacking Christians mercilessly and creating fear throughout the growing church. But at the same time, readers can understand why and sympathize with him. As an educated Jew, he believed the Christians were blasphemers. Yes, his violent response was extreme, but he believed the crime was extreme and demanded an extreme consequence.
But later, because of his incredible encounter with Jesus, he had a major change of heart and began to understand how Jesus fit into his beliefs. He began to dedicate his life to following what he previously believed was impossible–and was willing to kill for. Thus he became one of the most relatable characters for that day and age. Even he said in I Corinthians 9:20-22 that because of the life he led, he could become a sort of shapeshifter to best relate to the audience he was trying to reach.
One of the amazing things I love about us as God’s characters is that every single person–regardless of time, language, location, culture, or background–can have a truly awesome story if they allow God to write it without clutching the pen to themselves. So whether you’re learning about someone else’s story, crafting one to share, or examining the narrative that God is forming in you, you can apply this same information. What audiences can you relate to? How has your history and your personality made you into the person you are today? How have you responded to the events in your life? Would you be the person the middle-seat plane-rider would be happy sitting next to?