Ask Dayton 30 – Creating Interesting Characters
Dear Dayton: When it comes to original character creation, what in your opinion is it that makes a character interesting? Which parts of the process do you enjoy and which do you dread the most when creating a character? Which characters are you most proud of? Which characters (either of your own creation or from the franchise in general) do you wish you could fuck sideways with a bat’leth?
PS. Tending to your lawn? Throw in a couple more Vanguard books and you have yourself a deal, brother.
What makes a character interesting? I don’t know that there’s any one answer to that question, at least for me. One easy response is to say that I find flawed characters interesting. Nobody’s perfect in real life, and perfect people in fiction suck. Likewise, characters that are too much like real people also can be boring. Yes, there’s something to be said for the “regular guy” (or girl) caught up in irregular happenings, which in turn can make for interesting storytelling, but if you look closely, even regular folks in fiction have something going on with them. People have all sorts of failings, whether we’re talking physical ailments or emotional shortcomings, psychological disorders, whatever. Examining any of these in varying degrees and utilizing them for story purposes is just one way to create an interesting character.
One of my favorite things to do—and which in turn really makes me start to care about characters I create—is coming up with personal histories for them. I make notes about things like where they were born, where they’ve lived, special skills, personal quirks and relationships, if they’ve ever done anything noteworthy or scandalous, and so on. I suppose you could say it’s a lot like generating a character for a role-playing game, except there’s no guy at the far end of the table sitting behind a game-master’s screen, destroying everything you just spent three hours putting together because he has 20-sided dice and he’s a total dick getting revenge after you dated the ex-girlfriend who got tired of his shit.
Wait…was all that out loud?
So, back story: this is information which may or may not make into the story I’m writing, depending on the situation. If it doesn’t, I still save it, if for no other reason than to re-use it again on some future project. When conducting this exercise, particularly for characters who will play prominent roles in a story, it’s easy to give such fictional people flaws I don’t have, but it’s more interesting to give them physical or emotional traits I don’t possess, be they “good” or “bad.” There’s a fine line between this and just creating an idealized version of yourself, but that’s part of the process you learn as you work at improving your writing craft.
Sure, it’s fun to create a big damned champion who saves the day, gets the girl (or guy or gender-neutral non-humanoid specimen, as the case may be) and rides off into the sunset, and yes, it’s fun to create an unrepentant, totally evil bad-assed scoundrel you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked. Between those two ends of the spectrum is a lot of territory, filled with everyday people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, be they reluctant saviors, anti-heroes, misunderstood antagonists, tragically doomed villains, or people who just get caught up in all the chaos of a story. That’s where you get to go to town, fleshing out your narrative with a host of players who each possess their own unique identity. Sound hard? Good. It’s supposed to be.
As for what I hate most about the process? For Star Trek in particular, I can’t stand having to create a new alien species. To help me with this part, I usually try to figure out what kind of civilization I want them to represent, which starts me thinking about culture and social customs along with architecture and technology, and then I figure out what kind of being might best interact with whatever else I’ve come up with.
So far as characters I’ve created for which I hold particular pride? Given the width and breadth of great characters across all the Star Trek series, books, comics, and so on, I don’t know that I’ve created anyone that fans might find particularly memorable. Still, I like how I fleshed out the character of Garrovick (first seen as an ensign in the original Trek episode “Obsession”) in my first Trek novel, In the Name of Honor. I’m pretty pleased with several of the characters we created for our 23rd century team of engineers on the U.S.S. Lovell in the Star Trek: Corps of Engineers and Vanguard series. Speaking of Vanguard, we got to flesh out several of that series’ characters who were little more than notes in the writers’ bible when we got our hands on them, such as Ambassador Jetanien. Then there was Admiral Nogura, who was little more than a couple of dialogue references in Star Trek: The Motion Picture before we decided to bring him to Vanguard. Also, I rather liked how the character of Master Chief Christine Rideout came together in my recent novel That Which Divides. That the person for whom the character was named enjoyed her portrayal, as well, was a big bonus.
And which characters do I hate? I can’t really say that I hate anybody; they’re not real, after all. Okay, Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars can die in a fire, but otherwise I’m pretty cool when it comes to such things. If anything, I might hate lost potential so far as particular characters are concerned. If you’re going to go to all the trouble to create what you hope is a set of compelling characters, don’t leave most of them on the sidelines because you develop a fetish for one or two. This goes for everything from a Foundry mission to the next Star Trek television series.
So, there you go, hopeful writers. Good luck.
Wait! I just remembered: that Ensign Minecci prick from That Which Divides? Yeah. I’m gonna dig him up, resurrect him, and kill his ass all over again. Why? Just because.
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He is the co-owner of Busy Little Beaver Productions and is the producer and co-host for G & T Show and Gates of Sto’vo’kor. He’s directed voice actors, and produced and edited audio podcasts and dramas because he doesn’t have the face for video. He plays well with others and is always on the look out for the next project, the next thing, the next next. If he wasn’t working on something with a half dozen other projects waiting in the wings, somebody please check to make sure he’s still breathing.
During the day, he’s a mild-mannered computer repair man who dabbles in web design in his small, rural, Central California community. He lives with his lovingly dysfunctional family and loyal canine companion and spends most of his time in the closet concocting some hair-brained scheme or another. He’s got an unhealthy obsession with Lego video games, Klingons, and Star Trek Online that borders on the neurotic.
Despite all this, he still finds the time to write the words. Find out what he's doing here.