The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Strong Character
Draupadi, from the famous book Palace of Illusions, was born from fire and was simultaneously married to 5 men. To top it all off she played a vital role in one of the biggest mythological wars, Mahabharat. And still, somehow, women from various walks of life empathised with this character like she was one of their own. Why? What could Draupadi and your average human woman have in common? Chitra Banerjee, the author of the book, found the answers and narrated the story. Draupadi is a beautiful example of what a strong character is and how much the success of the book rides on it. Before we get into the steps and workings of creating a strong and well-rounded character, it is imperative to understand its gravity. Your book is a story waiting to be explored by a reader. The message that the story carries can only get delivered to the reader by the characters of the book. They essentially take the reader through your book. Strong characters can make your book immortal. While writing a book we all think we know our characters well enough. However, it is advisable to keep the following things in mind while developing your characters.
Know your character
Harry Potter is a classic example of what strong characters could do to your book. In her series, J K Rowling explored every aspect of Harry’s life. She introduced the reader to his present, past and future with supporting storylines and characters. From a larger perspective, when a person reads Harry Potter, everything about the character makes sense to them because there’s a lot of context in the book supporting that narrative. In-depth knowledge of your character is paramount, which is not limited to just your main character. Ideally, when you are writing, you should write every possible thing down about your characters, even if some of the information is not relevant to your story. For example, if the protagonist of your book is a 28-year-old woman who is in a complicated relationship, write extensively about her childhood and upbringing in your notes. This will help you to write dialogues and behavioural patterns that are more in sync with your character.
Knowing your character also means understanding and highlighting their role in your story. Identify how the character in question is running your story. Later put their narrative through a quality check to assess if it’s the best way to tell that story. If you remove your character from your book and your story doesn’t change then it means your character is not strong enough.
Avoid stereotypes and clichés
When you’re writing a character think about it as a person. You are introducing this person to your friends and family. Ideally, in a normal circumstance, you would want people to be inquisitive about this new person. You don’t want them to already guess what this person is like. That would defeat the purpose of the meeting. Similarly, you want your readers to be interested and invested in your character. If the characters play into a stereotype, your readers will lose interest. The same holds true for overdone clichés. Readers, in general, are bored with clichés and they want to keep guessing what happens next instead of knowing for sure. The anticipation of what comes next holds a reader’s attention and thus ensures they enjoy your work. In order to create new and interesting characters, one must strive to break the pattern. Make sure your character is not a cliché. On moral ground, books have the power to break stereotypes that have been detrimental to different sections of society. For example, women are expected to quit their jobs post-pregnancy, unlike their male counterparts. Writing a female character who chooses to work after becoming a mother will help break stereotypes and start a conversation around the topic. A strong character commands the reader to think and dwell on them.
Research is Gold
When you set out to write a novel you already have a vision in mind. This vision aligns with your characters. However, relying heavily on your vision and not on actual research would be problematic. For example, if you are writing about a kid who is restless all the time, reading up on what makes a small kid restless will give you a very detailed perspective of your character. Research is not limited to your character and extends to the circumstances around your said character. Even in a fiction novel, it is paramount to study your context. The research adds credibility to your character. It also ensures that your character is authentic and well-rounded.
There are two steps that one should take while researching a character. The first one deals with the external study. Here you learn about your character’s background and surroundings. The second is internal, where you dive into the character’s psyche. This method essentially requires you to think like your character and accordingly write their narrative. When both the steps are followed together and thoroughly, one will get a well-rounded character. This also ensures that you are adding a personal touch to your character that will help the readers to resonate with them more.
Your character hasn’t fulfilled their role if they don’t have a great story arc. ‘Character Development’ essentially means the journey of a character in your book. The journey refers to both internal and external. If your character has had zero changes from the beginning to the end of the book, it has essentially failed its purpose. In order to incubate strong characters in your book, one must give them a story arc that involves failures and victories along with growth. The idea of a character growing is imperative for it to stay relevant to the reader. This also means that as a writer you must provide your characters with internal and external conflict.
Let’s look at what internal and external conflict mean for a character:-
i) Internal Conflict: This aspect of the character deals with a struggle that’s intangible in nature. As the name suggests it is a difficulty the character faces from within. For example, a character who has trust issues because of their past. In such a scenario the character along with fighting their outer problems also struggles with overcoming their internal issues. A lover who is not able to get over their past is another example of an internal conflict. Internal conflicts in characters make them relatable to the reader. It also ensures the uniqueness of the character. Your story should ideally show how the character navigates through their internal conflict and the result of the same. The motive should be to show different shades of your character as they traverse through their internal journey.
ii) External Conflict: This aspect of the character deals with tangible problems. These issues are physical and external in nature. They pose a very tangible threat to the character and the story. An example of the same could be Voldemort for Harry Potter. External conflict provides a strong plot for your storyline. This is also crucial because they have the power to keep the story gripping for the reader. Internal and external conflict need to come on par with each other for the story to progress. One cannot be independent of the other. One needs to learn and explore how to navigate their character through changes and turbulence. Character development focuses heavily on emotions, vulnerability and authenticity. Your character needs to emote and it should look reasonable to the reader.
Writing Diverse Characters
It’s a great time to consider diverse characters for the role of the protagonist in your story. If done right, diverse characters bring in more depth and value to your book. Diverse characters present diverse reality that inspires or sensitizes the reader towards a more educated and inclusive future. Hence, writing diverse characters is something that every author must seriously consider. While you’re working on your book it’s good to check if your work recognises and represents different people from different walks of life. It is important to understand that one cannot include diverse characters just for the heck of it. While ensuring diversity and versatility amongst characters, one must check their personal biases and privilege. The idea is to bring in an objective perspective of the community you are attempting to represent through your work. For example, if you are writing a story about an inter-religious marriage it is crucial that you have an in-depth understanding of both the religions and their history. If the couple in the said story is Jewish and Catholic then you must study the historic context between the two religions. Do not write a Jewish character on the basis of what’s said in pop culture. Similarly, avoid stereotypical jokes unless it plays into the humour of your book and character. Every aspect of your character’s community should be dealt with with sensitivity and attention to detail. Research becomes paramount to avoid errors pertaining to this. A person who fails to do their own research would miss out on the nuances of their character. In order to create a layered character that brings in diversity one must do a thorough study of all elements linking to that character. Talking to people from similar backgrounds/communities as your character will help you to paint a better and accurate picture of your character to the reader. It will also cement authenticity for your character.
Strong characters hold the power to challenge the status quo. Draupadi’s character questions the role of women in society. It also inspires young women to fight against prejudices and biases. One can resonate with Draupadi’s determination to fight for her rights. Characters enable emotions and feelings within the reader. Therefore, it’s a writer’s responsibility to make these characters as wholesome and well-rounded as possible. Another method to ensure character authenticity and development is to observe the world around you. Understand what makes a person an individual and apply the same logic to your character. What makes your character different and unique? Go back to your old favourite novels and chart out the character archetypes and journeys. See what worked for you and what didn’t. This will give you an insight on what to consider while writing a strong character.
In conclusion, a strong character will lead to a lasting impact on the reader. It has the power to inspire and promote change. As an author, one should always strive towards writing bigger, better and stronger characters. The idea is to bring out a voice with utmost clarity and authenticity. Ernest Hemingway once said “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” For a character to live in the minds of the readers it must be as authentic and real as a living person with its complexities and nuances. At the end of the day, your character needs to be honest and you need to write them honestly.