The Craft is a new column that will explore the writing process, each month focusing on a different aspect of the craft. This month I asked Adam-Troy Castro, the author of the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Emissaries From the Dead and the Gustav Gloom fantasy series, about character development.
James Aquilone: What steps do you take when creating a character?
Adam-Troy Castro: In plot-driven stories I figure out who is most vulnerable to the central situation of a story; then I engineer the character around that. In character-driven stories I create somebody who does not get along with the universe and watch the conflicts develop.
JA: How do you make the reader care about your characters?
ATC: Make the characters hurt unnecessarily. Make them harder on themselves than they have to be. Make them fail at some elemental element of human interaction. Make them less than fully competent in at least one way.
JA: What traits make for a great villain, great hero?
ATC: A villain is a person who does the wrong thing and justifies it. A hero is someone who does the right thing and worries whether it’s justified. Villains follow what they see as the most personally profitable path, even if it isn’t really the path of least resistance. Heroes consider the needs of others above their own. Neither heroes nor villains do what they do instinctively. Sometimes they’re the same people on different days.
JA: How do you make your minor characters stand out?
ATC: By making them want to take up more of the story than they do. The guy at the diner who tells the hero how to get to the Interstate did not wait his whole day, nor his whole life, for that interaction. He has his own agenda. Show it. It will not serve as distraction. I promise.
JA: How do you avoid stereotypical characters?
ATC: I don’t always. Stereotypes exist for a reason. People tend to fit into patterns, both in and out of real life. But here’s the thing. Do the work. If you design a character from the bottom up and he winds up a specific familiar type, then he will be a particular person within that specific type: a recognizable individual within that specific type. He can be personalized by as little as a loathing for peanuts, even if he’s otherwise the old man who tells the gang of college students not to venture into Murder Woods. I recall one book with a tough old Southern sheriff whose hernia was bothering him. The hernia was key.
JA: What’s your process when choosing character names?
ATC: Are there two other characters named Mark and Marc? Better not call the girl Marcia. I tend to pick harsh names for tough characters, and unusual names for background characters, another way to personalize them quickly. For years I wanted to name somebody “Hai Dhiju.” I dunno if that name even exists. But I used it.
JA: How do you keep the character fresh over a series?
ATC: By not having them come to the same epiphany, over and over. People grow. They may repeat the same mistakes, but they do so in different ways.
JA: You’ve written several Spider-Man novels. How do you approach writing a character that was created by someone
ATC: In that case, you are unable to change the character in any particular way, but you still have to test the character to destruction, bring him so close to breaking that his inner nature is revealed. Spidey was easy because he wears his heart on his sleeve. He complains. He agonizes. He blames himself. We know very well what affects him. The hard lifting has been done.
JA: Share with us one of your favorite writing exercises dealing with character development.
ATC: Try this: two characters who have, between them, lost something or someone of tremendous importance. They have a conversation. The conversation illustrates where their relationship is, and where their circumstances are, in the aftermath of their loss. Now make sure that the conversation does not, at any point, directly reference that loss. They talk about anything else except for that. It might even be small talk. They may argue about everything except what’s really bothering them. Now do this and make it absolutely clear what they’ve lost. If you can do that, you’ve got it made.