Characterization 101—How I Invented the Character of Natalie Rhodes, and Tips for Characterization for Any Writer:
A year ago today, Fractured Fate was released, and one of my favorite things about the book we wrote is that it is very character driven. Each of us wrote from the perspective of a different character, which made it easier to integrate all our different voices and writing styles, but was also a big responsibility on each of us to create a full and developed character with their own style and voice—as well as a character that we would enjoy writing for a long period of time.
Without a doubt, writing the character of Natalie Rhodes was my favorite part of the process of creating Fractured Fate, and so I wanted to write an article to explain how I made and wrote her. More specifically, I want to relate it to the art of characterization as a whole, and something that is very important to that process: balance. So without further ado, here are some questions you have to answer when you’re working on characterization, and how I handled them with Natalie.
1. Balancing Strengths vs. Flaws
The Problem: With any major character, it’s important to balance their weaknesses and their strengths. You want a character to be likeable and relatable so that the readers sympathize with them, and are invested in the outcome of the story because they’re invested in the happiness of your character. But if you make a character too perfect, they become what many call a “Mary Sue.” A character who is flawless to the point where they aren’t realistic or relatable—basically, a character that makes you want to gag every time the author forces you to read about their perfect perfectness.
How I Handled This with Natalie: Natalie had a lot of strengths. For one thing, she was very smart. She also was a tech wiz with a pretty cool super power to boot, and above all, she was a pretty good person. But those strengths also led to some big weaknesses—for example, she often let that big brain go to her head and could be very controlling at some points. And like many big brains in stories, she wasn’t exactly big on physical fighting. In this way, I tried to use her strengths to make her likeable and someone to root for, and her weaknesses to make her more human. I also tried to make her weaknesses complementary to her strengths, sometimes even accentuating them. For example, the stuck-up weakness was a result of some of her strengths, and the physical weakness forced her to show off her mental strength in the story.
2. Balancing With Other Characters:
The Problem: Like in real life, characters have all kinds of relationships with other characters in the story. Be it friendship, romance, or hatred, your character will probably have to interact with several other characters in some way. Depending on the relationship and the course of the story, you may want characters who are remarkably different or ones who have similar interests. But no matter what, they should at least be complementary to each other in some way, and should have a variety of relationships with different characters that grow and change as the story develops.
How I Handled This with Natalie: I made sure that Natalie had strengths and weaknesses and goals very different from the other main characters, and she contributed something new and different to the team. I also worked with the other writers to help create different relationships between her and the other characters. She always was good friends with Val, while Grace often served as her foil (a character who complements another character by being different from them and highlighting that difference). She also had a kind of rivalry going on with Joe, although Joe looked to her more as a little sister type.
3. Balancing Write What You Know vs. Making Your Character You:
The Problem: Most writers have heard the saying “write what you know,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. It can be very difficult to write something completely out of your realm of experience well. But at the same time, you don’t want your character to be a carbon copy of yourself. For one thing, it can be hard personally to have people you know think that your character is you, or that situations in the story are related to real life. For another, it can make the character boring to read and write. Make sure there is a clear line drawn between real life and fiction by balancing the similarities and differences between you and your character. (NOTE: In some or even a lot of cases, it can be perfectly fine to have a main character completely different from you or very similar, but for beginning writers, balance is probably a good suggestion).
How I Handled This with Natalie: I started with the grain of experience I already have: and that is being a nerd (well, obviously. I took a creative writing class, didn’t I?). From there I built on details that were mostly uniquely Natalie’s. For example, Natalie is a huge tech geek, where as I am not very into STEM fields and more prefer to read and write things Natalie hates.
But above all, remember that in writing rules are broken all the time, and the number one thing should be to do just do what a good story calls for! So go forth and write!