Think bout your favorite books or movies, and there’s likely a character that sticks with you or even makes the story one you want to come back to again and again. Why do some literary characters become iconic, vivid parts of our imagination? There are lots of reasons some characters resonate with us and others seem to fade into the background. Here are a few thoughts

  1. Complexity. We can easily make characters cliché when we leave them as two-dimensional caricatures rather than developing them further. Think about how complex human beings are. Even your favorite person in the world isn’t cheerful all the time, nor is your least favorite person always grouchy. Or if that’s the only side you see, the reasons why are likely complex, layered and numerous. What’s the story there? Often a character has conflicting characteristics, and in these we sometimes find a story’s central conflict or motion.
  2. Counterintuitive situations. Think of the archetypal “hero” and the hero’s journey – an example might be Frodo Baggins in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. He’s the “chosen one” to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, yet he’s an unlikely hero – small, peaceful and compassionate – considering the seemingly insurmountable challenges and physically imposing foes he will face. How will he ever succeed?
  3. Evolution based on environment. We want to see characters evolve over time and watch how their environment or situation changes them. Think of the Walter White character in the TV series “Breaking Bad” – how does a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher become a ruthless methamphetamine kingpin? How much is his evolution is truly based on the exterior environment and how much is based on his internal landscape?
  4. Interesting characteristics. The tiny interesting details about a person can sometimes endear you to or interest you in a person immediately. Think of the party game “Two Truths and a Lie,” in which you offer to guests two true facts and one untrue fact about yourself. You might choose to share unlikely places you’ve visited or unusual hobbies you enjoy. Maybe you won a pole-vaulting contest in high school or you like to collect ceramic owls. The quirks of a character or a historical figure can add a layer that makes them particularly intriguing. (I once purchased a biography of Alice Roosevelt simply because I learned that she once owned a pet snake named Emily Spinach.)

Capturing an essence of a character—within fiction as well as nonfiction—is a skill that can help bring authenticity to your work. On Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Appleton Public Library, I’ll lead a two-hour workshop during which we’ll explore what it means to develop a character, as well as who—or what—a character can be (Hint: A place or a setting can be a character as well). We’ll also do some writing exercises to create, build or enhance character in your work.

The class is free, but registration is required. Hope to see you there!

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