I didn’t watch the Grammy’s over the weekend, but thanks to the power of social media I didn’t have to. Instead, I clicked my way through photos, articles and posts and found it was just as good as watching…or maybe not, according to some. While many opinions were given about Beyonce’s performance–it was brilliant, it was terrible, it was evil–the thought occurred that none of it really matters. I will never know if the judgments presented as facts are indeed facts. What I do know is that Beyonce has mastered the art of character.
As writers, we know and interact with “characters” on a daily basis. Our germ-a-phobe friend who cleans every surface with Clorox wipes. The friend who hates when people stab their knife in the butter tub instead of retrieving it smoothly (me). The friend who hates when people stab their knife in the peanut butter jar instead of removing it in a circular fashion which results in a cone shaped center (my husband). There are wonderful characters all around, but it’s hard to create them from thin air. We might come up with one cool thing about them, but it isn’t enough to drive the story.
Now, many will argue the virtues of what makes a good story. Plot. Situation. Conflict. All serve their purpose, but can’t be done successfully without a main character that tugs at our emotions.
Beyonce, for instance. Millions of people watched her performance then took to social media to express their opinions of such. For the number of those who saw it as groundbreaking, there seemed to be twice the number who saw it as a travesty. The question must then be asked, why did they continue to watch? They could have easily turned the channel or turned the TV off. Why did they continue to subject themselves to something they later professed to be tragic?
I can only conclude that it must be like accidents. No matter how much we try, we can’t keep our heads from turning when we pass one. Can’t keep our eyes from searching the scene for casualties. The public character Beyonce has created is much the same. Many love her, but there are also those who love to her hate her, despite the fact that they don’t know her personally. Just like a great fictional character, she inspires some of us to be great, while stirring the vitriol in others.
So what can we learn from her as writers? How can Beyonce—the performer—help us create lasting characters?
1. start with a mystery.
At the beginning of her career, Beyonce was a bit of an enigma. In interviews, she rarely spoke of anything outside of music. She avoided social media. She didn’t sell her wedding photos for millions of dollars. She kept to herself and only told what was necessary to tell, which left fans and non-fans alike thirsty for any drop of gossip about her.
When writing characters, I find this a great place to start. The reader doesn’t have to know everything about a character right away. Dangle that information like a steak in front of a tiger…wait, that’s a bit dangerous. Don’t do that! A bunny. Yes, that’s much safer. Dangle it like a carrot in front of a bunny. Give them just enough clues to keep them wanting more.
Celina, the main character in my forthcoming novel, Immortal, is supernatural. While I give clues as to the category she falls under, I also present evidence that contradicts it. This (hopefully) makes the reader wonder just what she is and more importantly, how she got that way!
2. Be the best…or worst.
There seem to be two main schools of thought when it comes to Beyonce.
School 1- she’s the best thing that ever happened to music
School 2- she’s a hot mess and needs to have several seats (aka sit down)
No matter which school you attend, most agree that she’s one of the hardest working artists out there. Creating characters that are either the best or worst at something will set you up with great goals/conflicts. Forces will either work against your character to bring them down, or your character will have to become a force that pushes them up.
The hero (I think) of my novel, William, is number one in his Grad school class. He’s worked hard to get there, but factors both internal and external start to work against his achievements.
Maybe your character is the best surgeon in LA, but they’re struggling with an addiction that threatens to derail their career. Maybe an addiction or other circumstance has already ruined your character’s life. If so, present them with an opportunity that will put them back on top or at least on the road to being there.
3. Be the best…AND the worst
Beyonce is thought of as one of the most creative artists in music today. She is also considered (by some) as one of the biggest copy cats because a number of her “original” works had already been done by someone else. To my knowledge, she’s never tried to hide the artistic plagiarism, but in most cases she didn’t give credit up front either.
Whatever the case, a character like this is great because it can fool the reader into thinking they’re one way, when they’re the opposite (perfect for villains). They’re also good because they provide a great way to show internal conflict. The character may or may not question who they are and what they’re doing. They might also be critical of themselves because they’re unable to create/”do” at the level they’re believed to be on.
This concept takes shape in the form of Dr. Baron—a world renowned scientist in my current project. She’s been at the helm of every breakthrough in cancer research for the last 20 years, yet most of her accomplishments came off the backs of those she employs.
Try adding depth to your characters by placing them in a world where they are perceived to be the best at something, but their success is derived from someone or something else. Perhaps they’re considered to be the foremost architect of their time, but they’ve always stolen plans from other people…or the same person!
DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying Beyonce is a fraud or that she’s the worst!
4. The Switch-up
I can’t say Beyonce had a “wholesome” image, but when she first appeared on the scene as a member of Destiny’s Child, and even when she became a solo artist, her songs and image were sexy, but clean. It was all about love, relationships and such. They’re still the same, but many have taken on a raunchier quality in which she alludes to and describes her performance of sexual acts. In her words, becoming a mother put her more in line with her sexuality. In the words of others, dropping her father-manager made her better able to express herself.
In either case, events arose that shifted her presentation and performance style from clean to explicit. It was a change like most of her actions that ignited an emotional charge in fans.
Without giving too much away, my main character goes from being a loner to having the sudden urge to be with others. My hope is that readers will connect with the reasons for her change and root for her success.
You can do the same for your readers by creating a character that starts as one personality type, but experiences an event that immediately shifts them into another. This is not to be confused with the character arc of the story, which essentially is how the person changes over the course of the novel. Nor does it mean to make your character suffer from multiple personalities—unless you want to.
It means throwing your character into a situation that requires an immediate change in their present way of doing things. It could be with personality as stated, or it could be a change of habit. Perhaps your character who’s always been a smoker, suddenly meets someone who makes him quit.
5. Tense Relations
Some of the most talked about moments from Beyonce’s life have come not from her, but from relationships. The elevator incident with her sister. The cheating of her husband. The incidents themselves kept everyone talking, but even more was the mystery surrounding them. To this day, no one knows why her sister attacked her husband. No one knows for sure if he cheated. No one cares and that’s the point. Giving a definitive answer would leave no room for speculation which equals nothing for anyone to talk about!
Great characters are made through not only their quirks and hang-ups, but through the supporting cast you place around them. I’m sure we can name a number of moments in which our lives and those of friends or family converged.
In my project, William—the hero?—has issues with several family members that will be the driving force of the choices he makes throughout the book. In turn, his choices leave the heroine (and hopefully the reader) questioning just how much we should allow others to motivate our choices.
Give your characters an extra “layer” by placing crazy, outrageous, dangerous, etc. people around them. Allow the situations from your supporting cast to seep into that of the hero/heroine. Perhaps your hero has a thief for a brother. Fine, until the brother steals something meant to keep your hero safe.
If we learned anything from not only Beyonce’s performance, but from her public life in general it’s that everyone has an opinion about it. So much of opinion that they feel the need to not only profess it to others, but to convince others to take their side.
How wonderful would this be for you as a writer, to have the same reaction for the characters you create?
Take 15-20 minutes to develop a character that features one or all of the concepts listed above. When you’re finished, post it in the comments below. I’d love to see what you come up with.