Creating Characters: How to Build Story People

BOOK: Creating Characters: How to Build Story People
CREATING CHARACTERS: How to Build Story People

Dwight V. Swain

University of Oklahoma Press

2800 Venture Drive

Norman, Oklahoma 73069

Originally published by Writer’s Digets Books, an imprint of F&W Publications, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, copyright © 1991 by Dwight V. Swain. Oklahoma Edition copyright © 2008 by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Manufactured in the U.S.A.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the United States Copyright Act—without the prior permission of the University of Oklahoma Press.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, University of Oklahoma Press, 2800 Venture Drive, Norman, Oklahoma 73069 or email
[email protected]

ISBN 978-0-8061-3918-0 (paperback : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-8061-8384-8 (ebook : mobipocket)

ISBN 978-0-8061-8385-5 (ebook : epub)

This eBook was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
[email protected]

For Phyllis A. Whitney . . .

fine writer and good friend




What’s the one key element any major character must have?

The ability to care.


How do you find the right character?

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


Why do you label a character?

Your reader needs some clue or two to help him recognize each of your story people.


How do you make a character real?

You provide him or her with appropriate tags, traits, and relationships.


How do you motivate a character?

You devise something that he or she must change in order to win happiness.


How do you keep a character moving?

You point that character towards his or her private future.


How do you bring a character to life?

You make the character reveal emotion.


How much background should you give a character?

Only enough to make your reader—and you—believe in him.


What goes into building an offbeat character?

The same elements that you use in creating any story person—only more so.


How do you treat a hero?

You shape the hero to fit the job he or she has to do.


How do you make a character amusing?

You replace reader assumptions with offbeat alternatives.


How do you describe a character effectively?

You build the character with significant specifics that lead readers to feel the way you want them to feel.


How do you write good dialogue?

You pay as much attention to feelings as to words.


How do you treat characters in the various lengths, media, and genres?

You design your people to fit your market.


How do you get people to read about characters in unfamiliar worlds?

You provide emotional insight into the world and individuals involved.


How do you cope when readers don’t believe in your characters and stories?

You plug the gaps where belief leaks out.


How do you maintain your cutting edge as a writer?

You draw on the stimulus of story people.

Appendix: For Further Reading



Fiction grows from story people.

This book is designed to help you bring such people into being. From it you’ll learn barn-brush characterization. Subtlety you’ll have to master on your own.

(Remember what Somerset Maugham said about that? “I was surprised when a friend of mine told me he was going over a story he had just finished to put more subtlety into it; I didn’t think it my business to suggest that you couldn’t be subtle by taking thought. Subtlety is a quality of the mind, and if you have it you show it because you can’t help it.”)

Why will you learn barn-brush characterization? Because I learned my basics in the action pulps, that’s why. Anything else is after the fact.

Beyond that, barn-brush handling is what you need to start. It focuses you on the basics and it’s easy for both reader and writer to understand.

Not that you’ll stop there, please note. Indeed, you
stop, because with every story you write your mind will automatically reach out, groping for better, more effective ways to draw your people. As you find them, make them part of your private kit of literary tools—your skill will increase and your work will improve in keeping with your taste and the direction of your aspirations.

So, here we’ll start with the broad strokes of a barn brush, and don’t be disdainful of the techniques this approach offers. It works, believe me. Indeed, if you’re of an analytic turn of mind, you’ll soon discover that, each in his or her own way, the men and women who created the world’s classics used the same devices presented here.

How should you use this book? A good way to start, it seems to me, is a quick scan. That will give you an idea of your present skill, and where you’re strong and weak. Then you can decide for yourself what’s old and what’s new—to you, that is—and where you need to dig in and bear down.

I do
suggest that you work by the numbers, as it were. That’s a sure way to make writing a drudgery, and writing’s hard enough without that. Rather, fly by the seat of your pants, setting
down characters as they surface in your story. Then, go back and troubleshoot the product, reworking to improve any of your people whom you feel might benefit.

The key word above, please note, is
. Anyone can create a character. What I offer here are merely some time-tried devices by which to make such pseudo-beings better. Sometimes. Because even the best of devices won’t always work. At its heart, ever and always, writing remains—to a greater degree than we like to admit—a trial and error process. So as you work and study to acquire skill, never forget to pray a little too, for in the clinch we all need to have Lady Luck riding high upon our shoulders.

It’s the custom in a book like this for the author to acknowledge the help he’s received from others along the way.

For me, the list would be far too long to include here—the more so, since memory being as fallible as it is, some not included would be sure to have hurt feelings. Let me say only, therefore, that I’ve learned about character and characterization from every book I’ve ever read, every student I’ve ever taught, every editor who’s bought or rejected my work.

One name just can’t be left out, however: that of my wife Joye R. Swain, whose keen insights and discerning eye—and whose too-often frayed and raveled patience—helped to give this book its cutting edge.

Words can’t express my gratitude to her.

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.

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