Characters are more than just the sum of their actions. In the previous weeks, I discussed character archetypes and negative/positive personality traits, but all of these really just boil down to actions. So what more do you need to create a living, breathing, well-rounded character?
To give your characters the breath of life, you need to give them a past full of good and bad experiences, even though their full back story will never be revealed to the reader. Susie May Warren does a fantastic job of explaining how she does this in her book The Story Equation (SEQ), and I highly recommend getting it. For the meantime, here is the basic process derived from her SEQ.
Developing Character History
Your character is who they are when they walk on the page due to their histories. As an author, it would be impossible create a comprehensive life story for your character from birth to the time they walk on the page. Many of those details are not important.
The important details of our lives are those life-altering parts. Those moments in time that end up wounding you, burying a lie deep into your heart, and creating fears. Susie May Warren calls these Dark Moment Stories.
Dark Moment Stories
These dark moment stories aren’t as vague as “my parents divorced.” As bad as divorce is, moments within the divorce will be what really shaped the experience of your character. They are the stories that can be retold in detail to another character.
For example, take a story of a four-year-old boy whose father walked out on him. That memory is so painful, so poignant it becomes immortalized in the mind, twisting and growing roots down to the soul.
He can remember his Dad loading up the car, ignoring the son as he followed behind asking questions.
“Daddy, where are you going?”
“Can I go, Daddy?”
“Why is Mommy crying?”
“Can I help?”
Then it happened. Dad closed the door, separating the boy from him forever. The boy runs to the window and watches as the car putters off into the distance without one backward glance from the driver.
Imagine the wound developed by that. What fears would develop from that experience? The fear of abandonment. The fear of being unworthy. The fear of being out of control.
Lies will develop from this experience. I’ll never be good enough. I am unlovable. I can’t trust people. People I love will always end up leaving.
These lies and fears developed from the wound determine the actions of our characters and make them believable. The wounding story is what makes us sympathize the character and even connect with the character. You don’t have to have your father abandon you to understand the feeling of abandonment.
Bringing your characters to life means giving them experiences that readers can connect to and identify with. Give them experiences that define who they are at the beginning, but are overcome and redefined at the end.
Exercise Your Brain
This week, come up with your own dark moment story for a character (or use a real experience, we’ll never know!). Then tell us the possible lies and fears developed from that dark moment story. Come back and encourage one another and comment on the different stories.
What draws you into a book? Is it the thrilling plot? The sizzling romance? The comical situations?
Or is it something more?
I am willing to bet that the reason you love your favorite book is not because of the plot but because of the characters that move through the plot.
As a writer, it is absolutely crucial to create characters that are well-rounded and real. So just exactly how is this done?
Creating Real People
A couple weeks ago I discussed the idea of using archetypes to develop a general idea of your character’s profile. While the universal elements of archetype may draw a reader initially to a character, there must be something more than just kiddie pool depth for your characters to become favorites. They must be real.
Real people have good qualities and bad qualities, or flaws as they are often referred to in the writing world. We see these traits in people through their actions. You don’t hear people going around announcing “I’m cynical” or “I’m adaptable” to the world (usually), and even if they did, you wouldn’t believe them until you saw it through their actions.
I can say I’m a morning person all I want, but until you see me actually willingly getting my butt out of bed before 9 AM and happy about it, you might doubt it. By the way, if you haven’t guessed, mornings and I are not on speaking terms.
Thus, as a writer, it is critical to determine the personality traits of your characters, both good and bad, and determine ways to show this subtly through their actions.
Positive and Negative Traits
If you are like me, at the beginning, I struggled with deciding what are personality traits and the behaviors that go with my characters. Enter one of my favorite writing resources, Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglist’s Positive and Negative Trait Thesaurusus (or thesauri, depending on your grammar philosophy).
Each thesaurus includes a definition, category (they have a whole intro section on this), similar attributes, possible causes, associated behaviors, associated thoughts, associated emotions, positive aspects, negative aspects, examples in literature and film, traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict, challenging scenarios, and even how a negative trait can become overcome.
Whenever I create my hero, heroine, and even my “villain”, I am sure to pick out 3 – 4 positive and negative traits each to help define my character. Sometimes the traits are a major part of their character, and sometimes the traits are just one of those little quirks that people have.
Determining How a Character Behaves
After I have listed out their traits, I also list out the associated behaviors I can see my character doing. Sometimes I begin to see a pattern of behaviors that are repeated across traits and I realize these behaviors need to be something highly visual in my storyline. For quick reference sake, I “distill” my characters down to a few, easy to reference traits and behaviors to post onto my bulletin board.
Here is my heroine’s “distilled” list:
Values: Security, Loyalty, Honesty
- Holds on to goals long after prudent
- Unparalleled sense of morality
- fight for what is right no matter what
- Ferocious Loyalty
- Not letting others help
- Refusing to admit defeat
- Acting without thinking of the consequences (courageous, impulsive)
- Acting in response to emotions (this and the next behavior cause inner conflict at times)
- Firm control of emotions
- Light manipulation to keep attention away from self
- Thinks in metaphors
- Growing quiet, lost in thought
- Creative problem solving
It might still need a little fine tuning, but I use it as a general list as I work through my story.
What about you? How do you determine what traits your character has? What traits do you admire in heroes or heroines?
You’ve learned part of my process above, but the traits I love most in my hero and heroines are quick wit, loyal, independent, and strong senses of justice. This is perhaps why most of the stories in my head center around some of those themes.
Come back in a couple weeks when I talk about Creating Well-Rounded Characters – Giving Them Life on 3/15/17.
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