Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to Build Your Perfect Character

This post is not about the top ten techniques for creating catchy characters. You can read that here, here, here, and at other sundry locales on the Interwebs. This post is about your perfect character.

First, a story.

A while back, I was watching Into the Wild and wondering why the hell my stories are not as beautiful as the ones I'm always falling in love with. (Yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition. I'm feeling rebellious today.) I grabbed the closest notebook and began to list my favorite stories--not books, but stories: books, movies, tv shows, what have you. Here's what it looked like:

Jesus's Son
A Room With A View
A Moveable Feast
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Tao of Steve
The Catcher in the Rye
The Virgin Suicides
Pump up the Volume

I stared at those titles for a long time searching for similarities. Here's what I found: They all focused on deeply flawed characters. More specifically, the characters were sensitive souls, outsiders by nature of their eccentricity, hurt big time by someone they should have been able to trust: a parent, a sibling, a lover, themselves. As a result, they've been driven to extreme loneliness, the kind that only thrives if one cultivates it. In these stories, desperate characters crawl through the muck of extreme loneliness to emerge in a better place, or not.

These are the characters I identify with, and the sort I want to write about. These are my people.

Here is where my story morphs into your perfect character. What are your favorite stories (not books)? Jot them down. Stare at them for a while until you identify their similarities--not just character similarities. My favorites stories are set in strikingly beautiful, colorful locales. Their love interests represent a break from the constant fakery of the world. When I stare at my list, I see a very clear representation of my aesthetic*, and that helps me create stories closer in beauty to the ones I love.

Have you jotted? Are you staring, contemplating? What similarities emerge among the stories you love? What have you learned about your aesthetic*? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

*Aesthetic is a word used a lot in grad school even though nobody knows what it means. I've been using the word for nine years now, and I just started understanding it (I think). Merriam-Webster defines aesthetic as "a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses." Those stories you love and write: they mean so much to you because they fit your aesthetic.


  1. Deeply flawed characters are just so much more interesting than perfect ones. :)
    Plus, I love a good character arc in a story which shows how they start off one way in the beginning and then change by the end of the book.

  2. What a great post!!

    I'm going to have to try this later, when I'm not trying to catch up on all my work and missed emails :)

  3. I love ROOM WITH A VIEW. I think I like characters who fight against their natural tendencies (usually characters that are shy or reserved but want to be something more). I am a fan of deeply flawed too.

  4. What a cool post! I think I unconsciously did this when I started, but its neat to see it expressed this way.

  5. I'm going to give this a try at some point. Thanks for sharing this cool idea.

  6. Great post!

    I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and of course The Catcher in the Rye :) The flawed characters are so much more interesting. My favorite character on tv is Dexter, by far, he is so complex and written so well.

    For a book, The Catcher in the Rye is a good one Holden is such a great character too. Memorable.

  7. Erica, I hear so much about Dexter. I really need to watch that one. I hear House is really well-written as well.

    Frankie, I think all artists probably do this unconsciously, but being a great writer is all about being hyper-aware--this is a theory of mine anyway.

    Jennifer, Flawed characters rule, but I sometimes wonder about the thin line between dearly flawed and annoyingly flawed. Anybody got any advice on this point?

  8. Wow, Marie. "Deeply flawed characters... outsiders by nature of their eccentricity."

    That is some deep thinking, girl! I'm going to think about this some more when it's not so late and I'm not so tired.

    Excellent post.