John Green on creating characters for novels and written stories

John Green

John Green talked today about how to create characters in novels and other text-based forms of storytelling … while playing Fifa Soccer 11, which probably doesn’t have very deep characters.

But his reasons for playing make sense. Fifa is a video game, which is largely a visual medium. The author of The Fault in Our Stars said that what’s often forgotten about character creation is that characters in stories are made out of text, not images. “When I first read Harry Potter, I didn’t think of the physicality of Harry Potter. That wasn’t as central to his character as his interior life and my own feelings and connection to his interior life.”

He added, “First-time readers of Harry Potter are able to read that story without thinking of Daniel Radcliffe or even picturing anyone specific.”

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenGreen said, “While I do try to think about what a character looks like and what her defining characteristics are — what makes her interesting, what makes her special, what does she value, and how does that system of values lead to the conflicts in her life and that kind of thing — I try not to forget that characters are made of language, and you must be attentive to that. So a lot of the defining characteristics of characters in novels are language-driven and ought to be.

“When I think about character, I like to think about them in relationships to each other. In the same way, I think that’s how humans are ultimately defined. We are our relationships to one another. And a lot of what is interesting about us happens in the context of other people. And I also try to think about conflicts … A lot of what kind of defines character — you often hear this — is hard times … Like you hear that in hard times you find out who your friends really are and you find out the true character of people. I think that’s a bit exaggerated … But it is true that conflict does in many ways define us and define our experiences.”

He also said that while characters need to be real to the reader, they don’t necessarily need to be real to the author. “They remain my own constructions,” he said. “But I need to be invested and empathetic toward the characters in my novel … Even if I don’t like them or I don’t agree with the choices that they make, I need to understand the value of those choices.

“[Writing] is a chance to get into someone else’s shoes. One of the pleasures of having this sort of non-image-driven relationship with the character is that you’re able to emphasize with someone you can’t picture in some ways, I think, better than you’re able to emphasize with people you can picture.”

He said, “I really think it’s helpful to try to divorce yourself from the culture of image saturation and try to understand that the people you’re writing about are not characters in movies, they’re characters in novels. And that those people are going to have sort of fundamentally different ways of being because they’re made out of words instead of being made out of images.”

Do you think Green’s nailed character creation? He admitted that he doesn’t think this is the only or even the best way — just what works for him. What do you think? You can watch the full video below.

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8 thoughts on “John Green on creating characters for novels and written stories

  1. It’s definitely a different way of thinking about character construction. When I read John Green’s novels, one thing that always stands out to me is how great his dialogue is – each character speaks differently, and I always feel like the flow of words back and forth between characters is genuine, not forced. Since he’s very focused on language-driven defining characteristics, I guess it makes sense that his dialogue would be so sharp.

    I think there’s no real “correct” way to create characters, but I love snappy dialogue and if that’s how John Green does it, I feel like it would be worth a try. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for your comment! I agree — there’s no one “correct” way. But I do think he has a point. When we write stories, we should write them through language — not like they’re characters in a movie, where the visuals are there to say what the characters don’t. In books, you have to make up for that through words.

  2. such a fantastic way to put it.
    *bows down to the ever-amazing john green*

    I can’t tell you how many manuscripts i’ve critiqued where writers have interrupted their own story to give several paragraphs of physical description introducing each main character. i always tell them to pick a few choice details, cut the rest, and then show us through the character’s dialogue and actions who that person is. it comes down to the old “show me don’t tell me” adage, don’t you think?

    • Precisely! You can learn a lot more about characters by just letting them act and talk than you can by constantly describing their physicality. That stuff doesn’t matter nearly as much, and it doesn’t need to be said often, either.

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