Auditioning Characters

Originally published 22/11/2015

There are more genres of fiction than there is sand on the shore; more mediums for telling your story than there are stars in the sky; more stories to be told than there are clichés in a blog; but if there is one thing that nearly all fiction has, it’s characters. 

Characters really matter. No matter what kind of fiction you’re writing, characters really, really matter. You’ve got make them as lifelike as possible but you’ve also got to create them in such a way that the reader responds in the way you want them to. We don’t want them to reach the end of your story and feel disappointed that the good guys won but we also don’t want to make them two dimensional, so it’s worthwhile spending a bit of time refining your characters. I like to do this by ‘auditioning’ characters, which I tend to do this in two stages: the Dull Stage and the Fun Stage.

The Dull Stage

Before I begin ‘auditions’, I need to know a thing or two about the kind of characters I’m hoping to create. If I was writing a piece of historical fiction set in the First World War, for instance, it would hardly do to have a cyborg for an antagonist. So at this stage, the main thing I try to do is write a simple character profile which includes all the non-negotiable elements. This will almost certainly include key details such as their name, age, gender, religion and nationality as well as any other relevant or essential detail (distinguishing features, superpowers, etc.). What I would not worry about too much at this stage is personality, physical appearance or behaviour unless it is directly relevant to the story. For example, let’s pretend I’m writing a fantasy novel about a prince who decides to live as a commoner. It’s important that he has a name befitting his royal position and his family background is clearly important also. Is he the eldest son of the reigning monarch or not? This is surely relevant, since in most monarchies the eldest would become king. How does he feel about this? This is also essential because it would have a fundamental impact on the plot and is probably directly related to why he abandoned his royal position in the first place. Perhaps he wants to marry a common woman or perhaps he dreads the responsibility of being king. Heck, since it’s a fantasy, he might abandon the throne because he wants to become a dragon-jockey instead. So, let’s see…

Name: His Royal Highness, Prince Lawrence II

Age: 19

Family: Eldest son of the king. Two brothers.

Likes: Dragons and adrenaline rushes.

Obviously my character profile would normally contain much more information than the example I’ve given above. The more details I have about the character I’m wanting to create, the easier it will be to create a character I’m proud of. I know I’ve called it the ‘Dull Stage’ but I can’t stress enough how important this stage is. The more you know about the character you want to create, the easier it will be to create a character who seems real to you.

The Fun Stage

So, we know what we’re looking for: a dragon riding youth of royal blood. Now we can get down to the serious business of turning that profile into a person. After all, there’s far more to a person than their vital details. Think about your friends on your favourite social networking sites. No doubt they all have various personal details on their profiles; a million different photographs from different stages of their life and a thousand-million status updates telling you everything about their average day, their (least) favourite foods, books they’ve read and everything else besides. But no matter how much stuff they put on their timelines, you just don’t get the flavours of each moment or the sensation of what it’s like to be around that person unless you actually spend time with them in real life.

Obviously it’s not possible to actually spend quality time with a figment of my imagination so what I do instead is open up a new document and write a scene with my character as the protagonist. It doesn’t matter if they’re the actual protagonist of my story or if the scene even makes the final cut. What matters is that they be given a scenario to act out where I can play about with their overall persona until I get it just right. Let’s take HRH Lawrence II for example:

‘I say!’ Lawrence declared, his voice quaking only slightly as the beast raised him higher and higher from the ground. It was hard to believe they were not flying already. He gripped the reigns tightly. ‘He’s a good deal taller from up here than he was from down there!’

‘Adan’s a girl.’ Hakan corrected him. ‘Actually, she’s a mean spirited old crone, but she can fly an’ she’s not too bad with strangers. Long as you don’t make her mad.’ He added, slapping the dragon’s feathery side. It snorted loudly. ‘Well, let’s see what you can do. Try do a lap of the field.’

Lawrence grinned widely in spite of himself and cracked the reigns as hard as he could. ‘Ha!’ Immediately, Adan was up on her hind legs, screeching angrily and spewing out flames into the sky so that Lawrence would have been thrown off had he let go off the reigns. Hakan was at her side, trying to soothe her.

‘No, no, no, stubborn, arrogant, stupid boy!’ He called up angrily to the young prince, continuing to rub the dragon’s side. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Fool! Idiot! Do you think this is just another ass that you have to beat and flog or it won’t move? Imbecile! You told me you knew how to ride, you thick headed half-wit! Get down from there at once!’

Lawrence was speechless. Hakan’s naked anger continued to break out against him in a way he had never witnessed before. How could he speak to him like that? How dare he?

As before, the above example is much too short short and I haven’t put nearly as much time and effort into it as I would if I were doing it for real but I hope you can see how this would help to develop Lawrence as a character. Notice for instance how he attempts (and fails) to handle the dragon. Clearly he has no knowledge of how to pacify such a powerful creature, yet he assumes that he can just wing it. This shows a certain character trait that we did not include in his profile: arrogance. Also consider how outraged he is when Hakan voices his anger towards him. Clearly, he is not accustomed to having people speak their minds to him like this. He might have fled his royal position but certainly hasn’t left behind his expectation that everyone must revere him.

Is this all strictly necessary for creating a character? Technically, no, I don’t suppose it is. You could probably just as easily develop a complex and substantial character simply by writing out a lengthy biography but frankly, it’s more fun this way. Not only that, but I also find it helps to get the creative juices flowing for other parts of my story. For instance, in writing this little audition for Lawrence, I had to give him somebody else to talk to. Thus, Hakan was born with a personality all of his own. I also found myself developing my own idea of what kind of animal a dragon might be; not ‘just another ass you have to beat and flog’ but a creature with a certain level of intelligence and dignity which demands respect. Auditioning characters not only makes the planning stage more enjoyable, it also unlocks a whole host of other avenues your imagination can wander down to see what might be there.

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