Hello, and welcome to Character Creation 101! I haven’t worked out our syllabus yet, so bear with me. It’ll take some time to work out what we’re going to do in here.
Or… maybe we could just take it one character at a time.
Yeah, let’s do that.
For the next six weeks, you and I will be exploring various character types and traits, and delving into how to write them well, no matter the story you’re working on. After all, characters are some of the most important parts of writing, whether you’re writing novels, novellas, or even short stories. If the characters are awful, no amount of amazing story will help you. Trust me on that.
The last few weeks, we’ve talked about protagonists, antagonists, and even sidekicks. Today, let’s delve into a slightly more specific character type.
The Dead Man Walking
The dead man walking is the character we love, the character designed for everyone to care about, specifically because they’re designed to die in the end. If you know my books at all, then you know I write this character from time to time. There’s often someone loveable in stories, someone highly important, who we know will die in the end. It’s one of the few things I know about the future of my characters, in fact, primarily because I couldn’t bear it if I had to kill them off on the spot.
How to design a loveable character, specifically so they’ll create emotion
If you know anything at all about character writing, then you know this is one of the hardest. In fact, this is the type of character I dread to write. Yeah, I know, I still write it. But I’d rather write dozens of all the other character types than focus on this one.
Use Your Heart
The dead man walking is the heart of a story. They’re the one who holds every good thing in their soul, the one who stays true to the path no matter what. They’re often gallant, often childlike, and often very flawed. The dead man walking tends to be the most loved character in a book, which is what marks them out as the one who may die in the end. The best piece of advice I can give you when writing this sort of character is to make sure you write a character you love. Don’t hold yourself back, don’t keep yourself from loving them, from making them all they could be. If you don’t love them, then your readers won’t either. And if nobody loves them, they won’t work as well, as a character.
Use Your Head
No matter what, design your dead man walking as someone who is not expendable. That is, perhaps, the most difficult part. The dead man walking must be and feel integral to the story, they must be someone none of us wishes to lose, someone we would hold onto until the end of our days, if we could. Make them central, make them matter. Sometimes, you could even make them the protagonist. I’ve done that, once or twice, and it works very well in certain circumstances. If they’re not integral, if they’re expendable, then their death means nothing in the end—and then you haven’t created the dead man walking at all.
Again, when you’re writing one, be prepared to fall in love. Be prepared to have your heart broken when they die. And don’t be afraid to write another one, when you’re done. Why? Because it’s a pure thing, an unadulterated thing, when a writer kills off a character even they love, and readers feel that the same as we do.
They’re a character we all love, and a character we weep over when the end comes. But they’re also a character we cannot do without, because good stories should break our hearts, time to time.
That’s part of the joy of reading—feeling every bit of emotion, from start to finish.
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