Tips To Keep Your Characters In Perspective & Make The Right Impressions With Them
If you want people to see your characters (whether individuals or factions!) how you intend them to be seen, you need to make sure you keep the right perspectives about them and make sure that you're cultivating the right impressions. Otherwise, you risk creating a story that makes people hate the characters they're supposed to love, love the characters they're supposed to hate, or just simply makes no sense. So here are some tips to help you keep your characters in perspective and make the impressions you need.
Table of Contents
- Always remember that the audience doesn't know your characters as well as you do.
- Pretend that everyone is the protagonist for awhile and look at things through their perspectives.
- Make sure everyone has around the same level of complexity.
- Don't base characters on friends, family, and/or yourself.
- In summary!
Always remember that the audience doesn't know your characters as well as you do.
It can be easy to forget that other people don't have the intimate understanding of our characters and their motivations that we do, and so end up leaving out critical details that they really need to know in order to understand what's supposed to be going on. It doesn't really work to leave out these details and just expect people to fill in the blanks with something that will work out for you. Sure, some people might presume something that's more or less what you had in mind, but a lot of people won't.
For example, you might write a protagonist whom you imagine has been having a very rough time lately - people at school or work have been awful, the family's been a pain in the neck, and a long-awaited trip out with friends had to be canceled. So from your perspective, it might be understandable that your protagonist would be in a foul mood and snap at a few people. But if you neglect to let your audience in on why your protagonist is so crabby, there's a good chance they'll just see a very rude jerk.
Conversely, you might write in a character who, in your mind, is every school bully you ever knew. So when this character enters the story for the first time, it might make perfect sense to you that your protagonist would react negatively to this character in some way. But other people, who have no way of knowing who this character is supposed to be, are just going to see your protagonist being unfairly judgmental or rude. So if the first character is supposed to be a bully, you need to make sure you show that to your audience.
Likewise, if you have an alien creature suddenly show up, you might know that this alien is a sick, twisted individual whom the world will be very much better off without. And so, the protagonist team leader who wants to blast it with a rocket launcher as soon as look at it might seem like a pretty reasonable figure to you. However, to those lacking your authorial insights, the odds are just as good that this alien is a refugee simply seeking asylum. Thus, they would not be wrong to perceive the leader as a trigger-happy xenophobe. If you want people to really get behind the necessity of blowing this alien creature to smithereens, you need to make sure the audience can observe for themselves why it needs to be done. (And you need to make sure the leader is acting on actual evidence, too, or else you've still got a trigger-happy xenophobe on your hands.)
And don't forget - showing over telling is much more powerful here. If the audience is just supposed to take someone's word for something (especially if there are good reasons to think that person might be mistaken or lying), they might not buy it.
Pretend that everyone is the protagonist for awhile and look at things through their perspectives.
When writing stories and backstories, many people fall into a trap of boresighting on the lives of their protagonists and what they want them to do and experience. Other characters end up built up around that and that alone, and as a result stuff often doesn't make a lot of sense when you really think it through. What happens is the minor/background players end up feeling like contrived plot devices more than actual people and/or seem incredibly incompetent and short-sighted.
As you're developing your story, set your main character or characters aside for awhile. Look at everyone else - specifically, the characters who are going to be playing important roles in the story, or whose actions will affect your main character's life, or who will affected by what's going down in the plot - as take turns with them treating them as if they were your protagonists instead. Does it still make sense for them to be acting the way you originally intended? Or is there something else they could and probably should be doing, now that you think about it? If so, you should make some adjustments somewhere so their actions feel more realistic and natural.
Make sure everyone has around the same level of complexity.
You can write stories where everyone is fairly simplistic. You can write stories where everyone is complex. But you really, really should not mix complex and simplistic characters or else people are going to see your characters in ways that will probably hurt your story. Here's why:
- Simplistic antagonists, complex protagonists: The antagonists look unrealistic and cheesy. The conflicts they create feel forced and contrived.
- Complex antagonists, simplistic protagonists: The protagonists are seen as boring. People are more interested in the antagonists instead - and end up rooting for them.
- Complex main characters, simplistic secondary characters: The secondary characters look like shallow caricatures. People resent them for taking focus away from more interesting characters - or worse, for looking like an insult to any real-life demographics they may represent.
- Simplistic main characters, complex secondary characters: The secondary characters are more interesting than the main characters. People wish their stories were being told instead.
Now, this isn't to say that you have to, say, give as much insight into every secondary character as you do your main characters. After all, the story will probably spend less time focused on them, and you don't want to halt the plot to show the audience something that doesn't actually matter to it that much. What you need to do here is avoid having these characters say or do anything that cements them as less complex. Also, Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story article has some tips that you can use to throw in a little depth without diverting too much attention from important characters or plot elements.
But - a caveat! "Art/culture aficionado" is to "complex" or "deep" characters what "clumsy" is to "flawed" characters. There's nothing inherently wrong with it as a character trait, but it doesn't really do what it's supposed to because it ultimately ends up being a bit superficial. If you want to give your character greater depth, core drives are more effective for that.
Don't base characters on friends, family, and/or yourself.
First of all, there's nothing wrong with using a trait or two from yourself or someone you know for your characters. This is all right. Where you run into problems is when your characters are basically fictionalized versions of you or people you know living different lives in a different world.
Doing this kind of thing can make it difficult to maintain appropriate emotional detachment from your characters, which can lead to two problems. First, you might not be able to bring yourself to write your character really and truly messing up and having to deal with the consequences, or write anything really and truly bad happening to your character. You also might be more inclined to give your character nice things (EG, powers, lovers, wealth, etc.). The result is a sheltered and spoiled character, which can turn people off both your character and the story. Secondly, even if you can put your personal feelings aside, consider that your friends and family might not take it well (and might even take it personally) if the characters based on them end up messing up or not getting what their real-life counterparts think they deserve - which might make you feel pressured to do things with the characters that you wouldn't have done otherwise. So no matter how hard or how much anyone might beg you to include them, just don't.
It's also worth mentioning that in the event you become a famous author, there might even be negative repercussions for the people your characters are based on. Christopher Robin Milne, whom the character of Christopher Robin from A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh was based, grew to resent being identified with his fictional counterpart (and the teasing he received in school over it certainly didn't help). So while you might think you're doing your friends and family favors by including them in your story, the reality might be just the opposite. Do you really want to saddle them with the burden of being associated with someone else's character for the rest of their lives? Do you really want to stand them under that shadow?
Again, a few traits gleaned from yourself or people you know are perfectly all right (and might help you connect to your characters more), but refrain from making your characters into fictionalized versions of you or people you know - no matter how much or how hard they beg.
- Remember that your audience doesn't know your characters as well as you do! Be careful that you're not neglecting to let them in on something they need to know in order to understand or appreciate why your characters are acting the way they are.
- Take turns with the various characters in your story pretending that they're the protagonists. Do the actions (or lack of actions) you initially planned for them still make sense? If not, something needs to change.
- Give everyone approximately the same amount of complexity. Otherwise, the less complex characters will likely not be taken well.
- Don't make yourself or people you know into characters. There are just too many ways for that to end badly.
These might also be relevant to you:
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Core Drives: What They Are, And Why Your Characters Need Them
Tips To Create & Write Better Non-Protagonist Characters (NPCs)
More Tips For Portraying Believable, Functional, & Healthy Relationships
Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses
So You Want To Have An Attractive Character?
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You