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Creating Characters: How to Build Story People

Creating Characters: How to Build Story People

4.4 7
by Dwight V. Swain

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Along with a clever plot, well-drawn characters make us want to continue reading a novel or finish watching a movie. In Creating Characters, Dwight V. Swain shows how writers can invent interesting characters and improve them so that they move a story along.

"The core of character," he says in chapter 1, "lies in each individual story person's ability to care about


Along with a clever plot, well-drawn characters make us want to continue reading a novel or finish watching a movie. In Creating Characters, Dwight V. Swain shows how writers can invent interesting characters and improve them so that they move a story along.

"The core of character," he says in chapter 1, "lies in each individual story person's ability to care about something; to feel implicitly or explicitly, that something is important." Building on that foundation-the capacity to care-Swain takes the would-be writer step-by-step through the fundamentals of "finding characters who turn you on"; labeling them so readers will recognize them within the story; fleshing them out with realistic "tags, traits, and relationships"; giving them motivations and goals; and bringing them to life with emotions. Additional chapters on giving a character a background, developing offbeat characters and heroes, writing dialogue, and much else make this basic but thought-provoking how-to a valuable tool for both the novice and the seasoned writer.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
YA-- Young people seriously interested in creative writing will find this manual for developing fictional characters a rich source of detailed information. Students can browse through the 17 chapters, each titled and annotated, without reading the book from cover to cover. Swain talks to his readers in a conversational tone, suggesting techniques, giving examples to illuminate his points, and offering activities for sharpening character development skills. This is a book for those already committed to writing fiction and who want to think about the craft of writing.-- Joyce H. Jones, Mount Vernon High School, Alexandria, VA

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Creating Characters: How to Build Story People

By Dwight V. Swain


Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8385-5



What's the one key element any major character must have? The ability to care.

The core of character, experience tells me, lies in each individual story person's ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something is important.

Be aware, please, that it doesn't matter whether this something is major or minor, cataclysmic or trivial, or at any level in between. It may be money that's important to him, or family, or world peace, or ecology, or a vacation, or country living. What matters is that he cares about it.

Additionally, it really is inconsequential whether Individual is aware that he feels the way he does. The crucial issue is that the feeling exists to the point that it's strong enough to move him.

How does this build into a story?

Here is a man—an orderly man, we'll say arbitrarily. He's neat by habit—so much so that he's hardly conscious of it, doesn't even think about it. His shirts are folded neatly in their drawer, his ties hung on a proper rack, the bills in his billfold arranged in order so that the fifties are in the back, the ones in front.

Now he marries. His wife, it proves, is content to let dirty clothes pile up in the corner of the bedroom. The living room floor is ankle deep in junk mail and old newspapers. Dishes go unwashed for two days, three days, a week.

Order is important to Husband, he discovers—far more important than he realized. Or maybe he doesn't discover—that is become aware of—his compulsion to orderliness, save in terms of scowls and sullenness and flaring temper. He forgets all the reasons he married Wife—her charm, her intelligence, her spontaneity, her sense of humor, her laid-back, relaxed way of looking at the world. All he can think of now is her insouciance where order is concerned.

Do you see what's happening? We started with a stick figure labeled "man." Add something that's important to him, something that he cares about consciously or otherwise—the focus on order—and he becomes a person. A character has begun to take form.

Is this all there is to it? Don't be ridiculous. Character creation is a deep and involved subject, as witness to that you're holding a whole book focused on it. But no matter how far or fast you go, the core is still an individual character's capacity for caring, his ingrained ability to feel that something is important. Once you understand that, you've jumped the highest hurdle in the process of creation.

You need to remember, however, that not all characters have the same potential for building into a story. The freaky, the repellent, the boring are unlikely candidates. Indeed, quite possibly they'll alienate most readers. Your best bets are sympathetic characters—characters with whom the reader is able to share and empathize, at least in imagination. And if we use evil characters, they must intrigue us, even though we can't accept their goals.

That said, let's take the story/character building process a step further. How do you make a character feel that something's important?

As a writer, it's alleged that you're creative. So, faced with conceiving a character, you devise—spell that "think up"—an idea or approach that appeals to you. That is, you ask yourself, "How do I bring this lump of mud to useful life? How do I turn him on so he'll move through my story like a reasonable, believable human being?"

The answer to those questions, nailed down as specifically as I know how, is: You assign him an element about which he can care, a factor that looms important to him. You make him a boy with bad eyes; he can't play baseball in a school that lives and breathes the game, and that makes his tape collection the most vital thing in the world to him. Or she's a girl who aches so badly for the father she never knew that she'd sell her soul for kind words from an older man.

You do this flat-footedly. Why? Because you're the boss, the writer. You know what you need, so you brush aside the temptation to vaporings and the permissive, and approach Character on the same level that a housewife stirs up a cake or a brick mason mixes cement. It's no time for whims and fancies. There'll be opportunity and then some for them later. Right now, what you need is a light to guide you.

When assigning a "caring" element to a character, you commit him to a stance which, implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, he automatically will live by. Knowing this is Character's dominant dynamic, you write with more confidence and more assurance. You'll find few tools more valuable.

You fit this to your needs, of course; choose what Character is to find important in keeping with the story you plan.

Then, you figure out ("rationalize" is the dictionary term for it) why Character feels the way he does.

When the time at last comes to write the story, plunge him into a pre-planned situation that challenges the part of him that cares, threatens the thing he feels is important.

You focus and sharpen this to the point that Character just can't stand it, and then chronicle the thrust-and-parry of the challenging element and Character's reactions clear through to the story's ending.

Does this apply on all levels? Test it yourself on whatever literary figure you choose, from Batman to Raskolnikov. And yes, it is flexible, adaptable.

Thus, life and the drive to survive being the force that it is, a madman with an axe will get a response from virtually any of us. At the other end of the scale, is dignity the issue? There are those to whom it's so important that ridicule may well loom more threatening than death. Money? Slum children can respond to it in terms of peddling crack, just as the Ivan Boeskys and Robert Vescos react to the same stimulus with financial chicanery and market manipulation. A girl may feel that the disapproval of her boyfriend is a disaster worse than an unwanted pregnancy. Her mother, a fading beauty queen, may try to forget her mirror in a bottle.

Am I oversimplifying? Yes, of course. But we'll explore the ramifications of such dynamics—in people and characters alike—in more detail in later chapters. For the moment, however, be content to know that only the character who cares about something, finds something important, is worth bothering with. Ever and always, caring is the core of character. Without it, you have nothing.

Work to make every man and woman in your story a separate and distinct individual—at least, an imitation of an individual. I've frequently (for the sake of clarity) used relatively stereotyped people as examples in this book, but don't let that make you think all characters should be this broadly drawn. Competing in the market, you can't afford that kind of thing. Your characters must appear to be individuals if you're to succeed.

What we're concerned with here is how to build a character from scratch, not story construction and dynamics. So though there's no such thing as a standard operating procedure or one right way where creating story people is concerned, it's time we explored Chapter 2, "Searching Out Your Characters," which gives a tentative mode of attack on the problem of creation that many writers have found useful.



How do you find the right character?

You scan the applicants until you locate one who turns you on and fits the part.

Building a character begins with deciding which character to build.

Or, to put it on the practical level, if you need a plumber, you hire a plumber. Maybe you check the classifieds or call the union or look in the yellow pages.

Unfortunately or otherwise, there are no yellow pages in the writing business. Which is the trouble with analogies. They so seldom fit exactly.

So, in practice, how do you create characters?

You start from a foundation of your own fantasies and feelings. Because the character you can't fantasize and feel with will fail.

Back to our plumber analogy. When at last he shows up on your doorstep, you look him over and decide whether you like his looks—whether he impresses you favorably or not. And you probably don't go with the filthy one or the one with booze on his breath or the one that flicks cigar ash all over your prized oriental rug.

In other words, you hunt till you find one whose looks you like ... one who fits your private standards.

You do just that. You find them. And no, I'm not joking.

Perhaps another analogy will make the point clearer—one that will ring bells of memory with virtually all of us, a practically universal experience, at least for males.

Picture yourself, if you will, as male, aged sixteen or eighteen or twenty, and as lonely for female companionship as only a sixteen- or eighteen- or twenty-year-old man can be.

Now, here comes a girl. Maybe you know her; maybe you don't. Maybe she's pretty; maybe she isn't. Maybe she's black, maybe she's white, maybe she's Oriental or Hispanic or Amerind or Hottentot. It doesn't matter. Because win, lose, or draw, she simply doesn't turn you on. You couldn't care less if she had a full beard or three heads.

Exit Girl No. 1. Enter Girl No. 2. A blonde, this time, complete with Dolly Parton cleavage, swivel hips, and a sidewise glance that makes words strictly superfluous.

The eyes of the boy next to you go wide. "Hey, will you look at that!"

"You look," you shrug. Because Little Miss Swivel-Hips, like Girl No. 1, leaves you cold.

A third girl passes. A fourth. A fifth. And still your pulse stays steady; your temperature just won't soar.

Only then, along about Girl n, something happens. Why, you don't know. Maybe you never will. But all at once there's a quickening of the blood, a feeling you haven't felt before. And it doesn't matter that Buddy makes moaning sounds and mutters, "What a dog!" or calls attention to the pustulant acne or the horn-rimmed glasses or the Hindu caste mark or the wrestling champ escort. Because this time, all that matters is that, somehow, a psychobiological spark has been struck and you know that win, lose, or draw, you want to know Girl n better.

In a word, she plugs into your unconscious fantasies, the images and empathies that swirl through the nether reaches of your mind.

The same principle applies where fictional characters, story people, are concerned. One after another, you sort through their assorted possibilities hunting for one who turns you on—which is to say, fits your private quirks and standards—where the particular role you're casting is concerned.

This business of finding characters who turn you on is important on a variety of levels. Not the least of these, often overlooked, is the fact that when you begin any fiction project, you're committing yourself to living with the story people involved for what may develop into a considerable period of time. The classic example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Doyle eventually became so weary of writing about Holmes that he killed him off in the famous scene at the Reichenbach Falls—and then, to placate outraged readers, was forced to bring him back to life again for endless further stories.

With that in mind, you can see how vital it is not to trap yourself into working with a character you find drab or boring or tiresome. Even a short story can drag on interminably if your protagonist—or any other major player, for that matter—puts you to sleep. So keep on with your searching and shuffling until you spotlight someone who both fits your story's requirements and excites you.

You may be surprised at that person. Once, for me, it was a dragon-riding warrior with blue skin. On another occasion a Cretan princess, Ariadne, caught my private spotlight. Same for a crippled World War II veteran named Tomczik; and an Indonesian Dutch girl, Anita Van Pelt of Djaimaling; and Mr. Devereaux, a footloose gambler in the pioneer West. For mystery writer Lawrence Block there was a man who couldn't sleep; for Tony Hillerman, his Navajo neighbors in New Mexico. John D. MacDonald came up with a "knight in slightly tarnished armor" named Travis McGee who lived aboard a Florida houseboat called the Busted Flush. Victor Hugo found fascination in a hunchback, Quasimodo. Shakespeare won immortality with such diverse figures as Hamlet, Juliet, Falstaff, and Lady Macbeth—she of the bloodstained hands.

Now the point of all this is that, actually, "finding" a character means personifying—that is, giving human form to—aspects of yourself that you like, or dislike, or wish you had. For at root we're all writing about ourselves. Or, to put it even more pointedly, all your characters are you.

A conscious process? Seldom. Most of us don't know ourselves that well. But we do, in the phrase, "know what I like." When, for whatever reason, a flash of excitement strikes us as we grope for a character on which to hang our current project, we recognize it—which is to say, it stirs and rouses us to some degree or other, thus encouraging us to explore it further and, if that stimulates us even more, to develop it in greater depth. Tarzan was born this way, I have a feeling. So were Moll Flanders, and Oliver Twist, and D'Artagnan, and James Bond, and Scarlett O'Hara, and Dr. Fu Manchu. Such story people come into being only if they fascinate Writer as well as Reader.


Can you improve your performance in this area—increase your flash-of-excitement ratio?

Indeed you can. The trick is to explore your own reactions until you find what stimulates them most. Music often proves effective—I created any number of science fiction people to the dark strains of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The company of particular people can help, too. So can the right—for you—reading matter. I have a horror-aficionado friend who finds endless inspiration in an old Charles Addams book, Dear Dead Days. A woman romance specialist of my acquaintance wouldn't miss the lonely hearts columns for the world. The photos in the movie magazines and the Academy Players Directory are cherished by many a writer, and there are clinical psychologists who swear by the much-debated Szondi Test, with its pictures of European psychiatric patients, as a means of probing their clients' psyches.

Whatever your approach, the important thing is to let yourself go, via free association and sans self-censorship. For as the late Howard Rodman, a superior TV writer, once commented, "A writer must not be judgmental. Look at people and love them, good and bad, interesting and dull. Cherish them, for they are the stuff of which your writing will be made."

How do you adapt the characters you zero in on to your story?

Alfred Hitchcock put it well: "First you decide what the characters are going to do, and then you provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they should do it."

In a word, you rationalize their presence and behavior.

Regrettably—and, too often, disastrously—many beginning writers fail to realize this. Shaped by the pseudo-profundities of academics, analysts, and critics, they have been conditioned to believe that characters are, in effect, real people, who exist independently of the situation.

Of course, story people aren't real. They exist only in the writer's head. (Which isn't to say that they may not become so real to him, in the course of his imaginings, that he tends to think of them as actual living, breathing human beings.)

This being the case, the writer's job where characters are concerned is to create (spell that "dream up") story people whom he can comfortably make behave in an interesting manner and do interesting things in situations, circumstances, or contexts readers find interesting—yet at the same time keep the story credible and the story people believable.

Part of this is pretty much mechanical, of course. We'll take it up in detail later. But the heart of character building is a good deal more involved and subtle. It centers on the writer's ability to figure out why the character thinks and does the things he does.

To attach a previously mentioned word to this ability, the writer rationalizes the character's behavior.

What is rationalization?

Rationalize: to provide plausible (but not necessarily true) reasons for conduct. To attribute (one's actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.

You'll probably understand this better if you know how I came to my present way of thinking.

My professional involvement with writing began as a young reporter, covering everything from police to garden parties, city hall to civic clubs.

After a few years, that palled. I began to write fiction, and characters came to be an issue. Where did they come from? What shaped their fantasies, their foibles, their thinking? How did you motivate them believably? And so on.

Well, finding them was no problem. My years as a reporter had taken care of that ...

Item: The aging, small-time storekeeper whose illegitimate son was a world-famous surgeon.


Excerpted from Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dwight V. Swain spent a lifetime writing newspaper and magazine articles, pulp fiction, and screenplays. For more than twenty years he taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Oklahoma. His popular books, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People are published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

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Creating Characters: How to Build Story People 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
RainyGirl More than 1 year ago
I tend to believe that, sometimes, reading about writing is a way to avoid writing. A book like this puts that fear to rest. It is well worth the time. If you are having problems with a character, this book will give you the tools to help solve it. The time you save will more than compensate for the time spent reading. And it's a joyful and exciting book! You'll come away with so many ideas you'll WANT to write. Can't recommend it enough!
AvidReaderSB More than 1 year ago
This book starts out well but becomes dissappointing. Too much description and often not enough information about the creating and building of character. An example is Love Character. One small descriptive paragraph. This book does not live up to its title nor its sub title.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow... very well written. I feel so bad! But please continue!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its fgreat so far!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The wind rushed through the leaves and every step was like thunder. A flash of white shot forward and hooked a mouse on their claw. They ran off quickly, covering their trail and scent carefully. "You crossed the border again!" A concerned yet angry hiss sounds. "Lighting, how many times have I told you not to!?" Lightnings head drops. "Im sorry Wind. But no food was to be found here!" Wind shakes her head. "You know i care about you lightning, thats why i don't want you to leave!" Lightning nods. "I care about you to wind. But thats why i go. So that i can get food to help you live." Wind sighs. "Than next time, at least bring me or Storm." Lightning nods. Of course. He nudges the mouse to her then leaves the hollowed log and enters a nearby cave, pushing through the vines hiding it and curls up in his nest. The sun woke him later. He padded to Storms den, a small sheltered alcove. There was no sight of her. "Storm?" He exits and heads to winds nest. "Wind?" Her scent was fresh. He followed, the scent slowly faded as he passed through thicker undergrowth. But were was the other two scents? He then felt a fkash of recognition. "Fox!" He ran forward. There was Storms scent. Blood was strewn on the ground were he stood. "No!" He kept running. A lifeless cat lay nearby. "Wind!!" He screamed. A fox jumped out snarling. Theor jaws snapped right by his throut. But a flash of gray fashes and Storm was there, claws in the foxes throut. "Hi lightning. I guess i got to save your life after all." Storm was always trying to prove her worth seeing as they met when lightning saved her life. Lightning smiles a little untill noticing a large gash on her underbelly. "I wonder if i'll go to the upper forest." Storm murmers, growing weak. "No! You cant! Dont leave me on my own!" Lightning yowls. Storm draws in a shakey breath. "B-bye Lightn-ning" A final breath is taken then she lies still. "No!" Lightning sad yowl sounds. "Over here!" A toms vioce sounds. Lightning jumps up, startled at the sudden appearance of a patrol. "Intruder!" A black she cat hisses. "Look! A fox!" A ginger and white she yells. Lightning does nothing but then looks at the cats, hiss eyes dull. "Let me leave. I have no reason to be here. Let me leave with my friends." The tom who first saw him looks at Storm and Wind. "They should have known better then to flee into lightclans territory." Lightning hisses. "They were chased here! You think thy wanted to be here!?" The ginger calmly replies. "We wish you no harm, but you are an intruder. This must be left to Froststar." The tom shoulders lightning forward. "Move!" Lighting stands and does as said. He looksback one last time at the clearing in which his friends lie, before turnng away. Ready to face any consequences.