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Create a character: The Hero

Young guy, older guy? Tall, short? Walks with a limp due to old injury? European, Afro-American, Native? Aussie accent? Good looking, scar-faced after the old injury? Bad tempered, sweet tempered? Foul mouthed? Snazzy dresser, or grunge guy? Rocker, rapper, or violinist? College educated or dropout? Brave, or scared silly? Straight, bi or gay? Tee-total, drinking problem, drug problem? Smoker, or non-? Republican, Democrat, or couldn't care less? Religious, spiritual, or atheist? Intelligent or a bit dim? A son, a father, a brother, a nephew?
Education, natural abilities, athleticism, trade skills — politics, sexual orientation, religious inclination, fashion preference, musical tastes ...! All these considerations, and many more, are invested in a solid character. And they're all going to come from your own imagination. A large part in winning the 'Create a Character' game is to stretch your imagination to the utmost.

There's a pitfall to watch out for right here. The tendency, especially for new writers, is to model the hero (or shero) on their own preferences. This is fine, up to a point, but take care that all your heroes and sheroes are not cast out of the same mold. Readers will soon notice.

Instead, try building a central character who fascinates you exactly because he's different from you. He likes jazz, not pop. He likes Mexican food, not Chinese. He likes old movies, not new ones. He drives a beat-up car, not an SUV. He's college educated, but dropped out before getting a degree. He had a drug problem in the past, and beat it. He's a tee-totaller now. He's apolitical, has no political preference. He's an agnostic, even an atheist, not religious. Create a character, not a stereotype. (Need to know about stereotypes and archetypes? See the lower sidebar, to your right!)

A real live guy just took shape in the above paragraph. He's driving down the road in a beat-up car, listening to jazz on the radio, looking out for a Mexican restaurant to get lunch, talking to his buddy about classic movies, refusing to talk about politics because he's bored by the subject. The two of them go into a restaurant, and our guy won't have a glass of wine, and won't be drawn into religious debate.

Is the other side of this conversation also a major character? His life partner, girl- or boyfriend? A workmate? A client? If the character will take part in much of the book, inject a little dynamism into the relationship. This second character likes rap, not jazz, is a Republican, a churchgoer, drives an SUV, likes Indian, not Mexican food...

They have something to argue about, like real people. The whole story of their lives can be spun from details which are filled in, like fields on a form, right here. You 'only' set out to create a character, but in fact a relationship wove itself out of the details and the conflict of interests.

Working backwards from what the character needs to do physically and intellectually, lets you design the whole guy in two dimensions. His personality can come along later (along with his name and even his face), but you know right at the start, he's big, athletic, and smart. (The stuff you're going to put him through, he'd better be, right?)

With these physical characteristics in mind, you can easily audition. Run your favorite actors through the role, see how they fit. Brad? Harrison? George? Nicholas? Tom? Hugh? The choice is up to you. Are you writing a shero? Angelina? Sigourney? Charlieze? Sharon? Sandra? Julia?

The last step in the 'create a character' process is probably the one your imagination wanted to start with: the character's face. Okay ... it's tempting to work backwards from your favorite actor, but try not to! Mis-casting can be one of a movie director's worst nightmares, and when you write a book, create a character, develop a plot, you are director, producer, writer, cinematographer, all rolled into one.

And as soon as you're done with casting, you'll also have a clear picture of who you're describing in the narrative. In short ... the real fun just started!

BUT! (There's always a "but" in here somewhere.) Be clever. Be cautious. Beware! Know the stereotypes and, if you want to create a character in the hero role who is believable, watch out that archetype doesn't become stereotype. It can happen easily.

The hero archetype: Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Maximus (Gladiator), Conan, Robin Hood.

The hero stereotype: Flash Gordon (rent the movie on DVD!) is the absolutely perfect example. Also Robin, in another comedy, Robin Hood: Men In Tights. And you're noticing already that when heroes turn into stereotypes, the movie promptly turns into a comedy.

This is what you're looking out for, when you create a character to carry your story. Hero or shero, he or she MUST be a real human being, if s/he is to be taken seriously. If s/he is too perfect, too beautiful, too strong, too honorable, too fast, too good ... you'll blunder right into what we'll call "The Flash Gordon Effect." We'll coin a phrase here.

When you set out to create a character from the ground up, be vigilant. What are his/her failings and weaknesses? A phobia? An old injury which leaves a weakness? Fatigue, burnout, tiredness? Heroes come in a stunning range of roles. While you're renting Flash Gordon, rent a Harrison Ford movie called Regarding Henry at the same time ... and be astonished.

Now --

Turn page to Create a character: The Villain...

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