Populating a Series With Characters Who Never Get Old

Evergreen Characters: Populating a Series With Characters Who Never Get Old

Pippi Longstocking. Katniss Everdeen. Meg Murry. Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper. Despereaux. Ed Kennedy.

These characters live in our hearts and minds, and will never grow old. They are like old friends whom, when we cross their paths again, we’ll pick up right where we left off and have a nice chat. These aren’t characters, we insist. They are too real to be something created.

3 Traits of Evergreen Characters

How do you create evergreen characters, ones who live on after the pages of a book are closed?

1. Unique

In our examples, each character is unique. The authors aren’t writing about a generic “Male” or “Female.” Instead, each character is unique and can’t possibly be confused with any other character. It’s a paradox: to be universal, you must be specific. In the opening lines of Book of Three, Taran is presented as a poor excuse for a blacksmith’s assistant. Lloyd Alexander takes care to draw us a picture of a specific blacksmith assistant, not some generic assistant:

Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran’s arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.

“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!”

Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. “Lucky for the horses,” was all he said, glancing at Taran’s handiwork.

2. Empathetic

Do I like it that some of my favorite characters are liars, cheats, and thieves? Absolutely not. And yet, I don’t hold it against them. Somehow, in the midst of deep character flaws, I like Despereaux. He may be ugly and socially inept, but he’s honorable. Characters need to be empathetic, to have something that gives readers something to cheer for.

In the above quote, I like Taran after just one sentence, because he aspires to more. He wants to make beautiful, strong, useful swords. His hopes and dreams pull me closer and make me want to like him.

3. Larger Than Life

Characters who live in our dreams are bigger than life. What is it you wish you could say, but polite society holds you back from uttering? Characters we love say it. They do the unthinkable. It’s not just impulse we love, as in the example below, but rather the audacity of characters who think they should attempt such deeds.

“I could do better at making a sword,” Taran protested. “I know I could.” And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.

“Wait, wait!” cried Coll, “That is not the way to go after it!”

Heedless of Coll, unable to even hear him above the din, Taran pounded harder than ever. Sparks sprayed the air. But the more he pounded, the more the metal twisted and buckled, until, finally, the iron sprang from the tongs and fell to the ground. Taran stared in dismay. With the tongs, he picked up the bent iron and examined it.

“Not quite the blade for a hero,” Coll remarked.

“It’s ruined,” Taran glumly agreed. “It looks like a sick snake,” he added ruefully.

Poor Taran. He’s really, really bad at blacksmithing. And yet, I still like him. He had a dream and he went after that dream. He tried. And on the next page, the scene continues with Coll teaching Taran swordplay by using fire pokers; even though it’s fire pokers, he’s getting a taste of his dream.

Why do we return to a story or a series of stories? We return to meet up with old friends like Taran, who remind us of ourselves. Our better selves. Or perhaps, the selves we might yet be.

How to Create Evergreen Characters

Go Deeper

Look at your character and get more specific. If Burmka (a character I just made up) owns a dog, that’s weak. Instead, he should own a pure-white albino wolfhound who is always at his side. (Already, I like Burmka better!) Specific details  help you create stronger stories, because they raise questions: Are albino wolfhounds rare? Very. Where did Burmka get this one? His grandfather, the former Baron of Valeria, brought him the pup for his fourth birthday.

Simply by giving the character a specific dog, we open doors to important backstory about his family. I could continue  awhile and find out more about Valeria and especially why the grandfather is a “former” baron, and what that means today for poor Burmka. Why did Burmka get the albino dog for his fourth birthday and not the one before or after? Letting specifics shape the story will  lead to a more interesting plot and story arc.

Balance Flaws and Strengths

Taran is an unskilled blacksmith, disobedient, impatient, and rather naïve about life. All of that, though, is redeemed because he hopes and dreams of more.

When you create characters, don’t shy away from character flaws. Jealousy, anger, cowardice, deception. Give your character one huge flaw, at minimum. But then, balance the flaw with a redeeming quality. If you err in balancing, let it be on the side of the flaws.

Katniss Everdeen is impulsive, skeptical, and peace-loving. But in the reader’s eyes, she can do no wrong because she volunteered to take her sister’s place in the cruel Hunger Games. She defies cruelty and misjustice, and that very defiance wins our empathy.

Come Up With Unthinkable Things

The nice thing about writing a story is that we can go back and revise. Next time you revise a scene, push your characters to say and do outrageous things.

For a mouse to declare undying love for a human princess is outrageous. What if Despereaux never told the princess he loved her? The story falls apart. It only works because Despereaux, that small mouse, is larger than life.

Look for places where you wish you had delivered a killer line. Revise that line until it shocks—and delights—the reader. Search your story for places where a character’s action can escalate emotions to new heights. Then ask your character to go a step beyond that.

Bigger than life means saying and doing the unthinkable. But you, the author, must conceive that possibility. Often, I use lists to reach for the unthinkable. The first ten ideas I write down are clichés. The next ten ideas are so outlandish they make no sense. Then I get down to business, concentrating on manipulating variables until I find the perfect unthinkable thing. And I let my character think it.

Do you want your character’s name to be a household name? Like the Wimpy Kid? Well, maybe not that name, but Wimpy speaks to the hearts of his audience and says, “I’ve been there and I’ve survived.” And they laugh at him and with him. Bigger than life. That’s the characters we want to write.

Tell me your opinion: What makes your protagonist and his gang evergreen characters?

Evergreen Characters Populating a Series With Characters Who Never Get Old

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About Darcy Pattison | @FictionNotes

Author, blogger and writing teacher Darcy Pattison pushes her students to create bigger-than-life characters. Read more how to create strong characters for your novels.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Darcy!

  2. Excellent post here!

    I’m a big fan of deep flaws in characters. I have one secondary character in my current series who is capable of murder. Everyone knows it, it gets thrown in his face all the time, and he does actually commit murder under the guise of self-defense. He has a reason for doing it and I hope readers see it the same way I do and just want to hug him and tell him everything will be okay.

    Another character, the one the series is named after, has a major problem keeping his mouth shut. He’s always popping off with something inappropriate and getting himself in trouble. But he will also fight to the death to save every single life he interacts with. He takes his responsibility as king so seriously that he won’t let anyone marginalize another person. Even if it gets him in trouble.

    • Rachel:
      Hey, I’ll take a loyal gossip any day. That sounds great. A murderer? You might have more trouble making me empathize with a murderer, even if its in mock-self-defense. Depends on how you write it, of course. You have the right ideas, though, about giving characters a major flaw that balances their good characteristics.

      Darcy

      • I took great care in the way it was set up, and it takes two books of seeing this character struggle and fight against the darkness inside him, before the murder happens. The person he kills is one of the most despicable bad guys I’ve ever come up with and my CP cheered when I told her how he was going to die. Bad guy also killed this character’s brother, right in front of him, just to see how the character would react.

        He’s not murdering a good guy, and it’s right on the line of justifiable homicide. That kind of darkness is in him, and it’s a never-ending struggle for him to keep it under control.

  3. Very intriguing, have sent to Kindle for reading tonight, thanks so much!

  4. Thank you so much Darcy. This is beautifully written. I visualized Taran’s actions while your words explained the meaning. I believe our favorite characters must have flaws to be relatable. No one is perfect so how can a character be perfect. Once a reader relates to a character, they find themselves able to root them on in their endeavors. I love the list idea. Thank you!

  5. CrazyRead says:

    A couple of my favorites (that I’m revisiting for the fourth time!) are Cadvan of Lirigorn (or is it Lingorn? Oh, fantasy spellings haunt me…) and Mearad of Pellinor.
    Cadvan is a great healing Bard and famous Truthteller, who travels as far and wide as the earth allows. But he delved deep in the Dark. And it cost him.
    Mearad is a former slave who was captured at the sack of Pellinor when she was a baby. Now, when Cadvan finds her, she discovers that she is the Foretold, the One who can help achieve balance of the Light and Dark. But she has strange Elidihu powers that run as fierce and wild as her temperament would if she allowed it to. And she is utterly untrained.
    Intrigued? Look up Alison Croggon’s “Pellinor Chronicles”!

    Leif Enger’s character Davy is one that is nearly impossible to side against. Even after he shot a couple of guys. The guys attempted to, ah, get close to his girlfriend, nearly walloped his dad, and then they broke into his family’s house. For the last one, though, Davy kind of asked for it. He challenged them by wrecking their car and leaving a calling card.
    For this story, search for “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger.

    And, of course, Frodo. Legolas. Gimli. Aragorn. Gandalf. All on a hopeless Quest that will push them past the brink. Does anything else need to be said? 🙂

    As for my own characters, one who refuses to cooperate with me is Frost Sounderegger. In the first draft, he was a coward who had blood on his hands because of his fear. But he didn’t really have any redeeming qualities to him…he just kept running and didn’t stop until the Truth slammed him. Even then, he was reluctant to do anything to change (either himself or anything around him). His past was erratic and a downward spiral.
    Now, I believe he’s a silent boy. Bursts of anger get him into trouble.
    He has scars on his legs from something he doesn’t quite remember, is finding that he’s entangled himself in a young girl’s life, and that there are people who want to get rid of/control him. But he keeps going. Totally wicked skills with his staff don’t hurt matters, either. Not sure about his past…I’m going spelunking in his mind later this week.
    Isn’t it awesome that we can do that? 🙂

    Sorry for the long post… 😛

    Thanks for the article! It got me thinking. 🙂

    Aspiring author,
    -CrazyRead

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  1. […] story. Angela Ackerman shows us how to give our characters emotional pull, Darcy Pattison tells us how to create evergreen characters who live on after the book is read, K.M. Weiland explores the impact character, and Melissa McPhail […]

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