Whenever I get an idea for a story, the first thing that comes to my mind is, of course, the plot. It may not be a whole plot, but fragments of it. I usually don’t try to connect every event of the story in my head before writing. I just grab my pen and start writing. The next thing that comes to mind is my main character. The only thing I “bother” about my main character at the start of my writing is its gender. And this is usually the easiest part of writing. I can decide in my sleep if I want it to be a boy or a girl. However, literature “experts” have cautioned writers to worry much more about their Characters than the gender they ascribe to them. And true to their caution, I think the most important part of a good piece of literature is its characters.
A colleague of mine was narrating his dislike for the protagonist of Chimamanda’s Americanah. Sadly, I am yet to read the book (it is stuck somewhere in my library), so I lay no claim to the veracity or otherwise of my colleague’s critiquing. Well, it is not a professional literary critiquing per se – just laidback general “small talk” about the type of “person” Chimamanda’s protagonist was. My colleague kept huffing and puffing about the carefree and loose lifestyle Ifemelu lived. His major grouse with Ifemelu was her use of sex as a power symbol. He kept wondering why Chimamanda made Ifemelu so overly loose and confident about her cheating lifestyle.
If I were to capture my colleague’s reactions in a few words, they would be these: “This is a man’s world. We cheat and we don’t feel guilty. It’s almost like our birthright. It’s our thing. So to see a woman do it…. that’s a no-no for me. And to think that Ifemelu was cheating with reckless abandon! Who the hell does she think she is?!”
I was enchanted by my colleague’s obsession with a “common” non-living, inanimate character which is merely a conjecture of human imagination. That experience strengthened my position that, characterisation is the most important part of a piece of literature. Your characters have to be so real that, your audience cannot forget them.
Just as characterisation is the most important part of literature, it is also the most difficult part of the five (or seven?) elements of literature to develop or build. For example, comparing it to a plot, you don’t need something extraordinary to come up with a plot. It only takes a muse or a life experience. Most great writers get ideas for their stories this way. Muses either, just hit you or you “hit” them via physical encounter. And a great storyline is underway! Yes, I agree that to make your plot “thick”, you could need a little bit of research along the way, but really, the mode through which the idea came to you in the first place, is a given.
Further to the above, “theming” a story, when compared to characterisation, is not really a conscious effort. At least, not all the time. The plot of your story dictates the type of themes it would harbour. I don’t think writers sit and say, “okay, I’m going to write a story with themes bordering on murder, man’s inhumanity to man, suffering, pain, adolescence bliss, ambition, death etc”. Instead, writers reveal the themes in their work through the actions and inactions of their characters. Yes, I agree that sometimes, a writer could decide beforehand that, his story would tackle one or two serious topical themes. However, a multitude of other themes are revealed through the actions of his characters. And these are without the deliberate, conscious efforts of the writer.
The setting (s) of a good story, to me, is the next most difficult aspect of writing after characterisation. You might have an idea for a story and its central theme is hooliganism in a 21st century developing city, however, for you to properly depict and tell your story in a believable way, you just have to pick a city, conduct extensive research, visit the area and sometimes, ask questions. The more detailed you are about your setting, the better your reading audience would appreciate your story. However, the characteristics of your character (s), sometimes, influence your choice of setting (s). For example, you may want to write the story of a school dropout who excelled in life in spite of the odds against him. While your character is a school dropout, one major setting you will need is that of a school.
Having examined the important role characterisation plays viz-a-viz other aspects of a great story, one begins to wonder, how do I create unforgettable characters?
I am not an expert in this field and I make no claim to that. However, here are some techniques I use when writing:
Before penning down a story, one factor that influences who my characters would be, is their background. Where are they from? What do they do for a living? Where do they work? Who are the people in their life? Any best friend or confidant? Any family history?
I think this is the most important part of building a character. Your characters traits will likely be responsible for their actions most of the time, and their actions in turn, reveal the themes of the story. You need to ask yourself what is the behavioural pattern of your characters. What they like, hate… How do they deal with conflict or change? What are the little peculiar noticeable things about them? Does your main character like sleeping on the floor instead of the bed? What’s the significance of the floor? Your main character prefers coffee to water? Eats groundnut and bread whenever he has headache instead of taking paracetamol? Is allergic to carrot because it brings back memories? Is a fetish? Your main character is violent? Shy? A sex maniac? etc
This needs no further emphasis. You should be able to properly describe your characters’ height, complexion, eye and hair colours, weight….. Any scar? Deformity? etc.
What’s the aim of your character(s) in your story? Saving the earth? Clamping down on political bigots? Finding true love? etc
Let me conclude this post by saying, there is no hard and fast rule about creating strong characters. You can decide to pour out the first draft of your muse before it evaporates. Then, you can return to specific events in your story and emphasize certain patterns and identity your character should portray.
How do you create your characters? Do you do a rough sketch of their background, traits, looks and mission before writing your story or you build your character as you write?
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Matthias Ziegler