Creating Characters According to Jim Butcher

From: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/1698.html

The main piece of advice is this: your characters need to be interesting in some way. They can’t be overly ordinary, because that would bore readers.

If you’re wondering what really makes a character interesting, Jim mentions there isn’t any one thing. However, a combination of 5 things can work together.

  1. Exaggeration.
  2. Exotic position.
  3. Introduction.
  4. Verisimilitude.
  5. Empathy.

Note: Jim Butcher says this is primarily “for writing fiction that people will actually want to read.”

1. Exaggeration is overdoing 1 or 2 character traits. One example is “Jack O’Neill is not merely wiseass and cavalier, but suicidally so.” Note that overdoing this can potentially lead to Flanderization in your story, so it’s a bit of a fine line. A larger-than-life character will naturally be more interesting than an ordinary person with an ordinary life, though.

2. Exotic position is putting your character in extra-interesting settings when they’re introduced. The “exotic” aspect can be a social, geographic, intellectual or moral position. One example is “A sentence about a thirty-five year old man sitting in an office is fairly simple and very boring. But it becomes something else entirely when it’s the OVAL office and the youngest president in the history of the nation has just been advised that a nuclear terrorist is loose in DC.”

3. For Introduction, Jim says “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately…. A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.” An introduction has to quickly and firmly establish who your character really is.

4. Verisimilitude refers to a range of things, but mostly making sure your characters are consistent and believable. “When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story.” This doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should extend to every main character you have. Doing it to minor characters can be done to great effect as well, as long as there’s a limit to how many characters. Too many, and readers may become confused.

Jim Butcher says you need to show your character’s emotions, reactions, and decisions. Reactions to events should be appropriate.

He also adds a section on a technique he uses when writing. There are two things he thinks about when creating a character, and makes notes of them.

  • Tags: words to describe your character’s appearance. You can use them to link to certain characters. “For example; Thomas Raith’s tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.”
  • Traits: trademarks, props, attitudes, etc. Easy identifiers for the character. “Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry…. Bob the Skull’s traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.”

5. Empathy is making the reader care about a vivid character. “Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you’re going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.”

“The articles here are just basic writing craft. They aren’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to written fiction. They’re just an introduction to a structured approach to story craft. First learn walk, then learn fly Daniel-san.” – Jim Butcher

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