“Character is plot,” said Henry James. I think what he meant by that is to have a book, there must be a plot, and to have a plot, there must be a character. The character can only be revealed through the plot. The two are inseparable.
Creating believable characters that are three-dimensional, come to life on the page and engage the reader is key in writing fiction. After you first introduce your character to the reader, you want the reader to want to know more.
Readers want to connect with the characters, so it’s important to create an image for them early on. Some physical characteristics to keep in mind are gender, weight, height, age, body build, hair, eyes, posture, voice and clothing. Other traits can be gradually revealed throughout the story by way of dialogue, actions and internal thoughts – likes and dislikes, their background, values, secrets, mannerisms, speech patterns, thoughts, dreams, opinions, obsessions, IQ, fears, sense of humor, lifestyle, needs, biases, profession, past actions, relationships, habits, flaws, desires, attitude, choices, idiosyncrasies and how they react to situations.
What the character is thinking, called interior or internal monologue, can be equally important in allowing the reader know the character better. Readers generally want access to what is going on inside someone’s head, as it brings them closer to the character. Internal monologue can be effective before a scene, after a scene or even in the middle if it’s kept short. While it may be appropriate at times to actually write what the character is thinking (usually expressed in italics), it is equally as effective to write the action that will enable the reader to deduce on his own what the character is thinking.
No one in real life is totally predictable, so totally predictable behaviors should be avoided in writing fiction as well. A surprising or irrational behavior can keep the reader interested and wondering what will happen next. It doesn’t have to make sense. Just don’t make the character look stupid, unless of course, your character is stupid.
The writer should know the character’s emotional state for each scene. Become the character. Try to show it through actions. Instead of telling the reader the character is scared, describe the character’s heartbeat, his stance, his breathing. Then write the scene based on the emotion.
Characters are a product of their actions. When a character snatches a package from a train platform and runs with it, he’s a thief. But how the reader judges the thief depends on the character’s motive. Did he snatch it because he wanted what was in the package? Or was it to save the people on the train platform from being harmed by what was in it, making him a hero? Action should show the reader the character’s motive as well as his emotional state of mind.
What a character is feeling at any particular time is important for the reader to know in order to understand the character. Some feelings work against the success of the character – inadequacy, envy, failure, trapped, hopeless, rejected and abandoned. Others work in their favor – calm, energetic, lucky, excited, thankful, happy and comfortable. The “Show, Don’t Tell” theory (see my previous blog post) applies as much in character development as anything else. Show the character jumping up and down while singing I’m in the Money instead of telling the reader the character was elated when told of his inheritance. Tune into yourself – how would you react?
In order to create reader interest, each character needs to be unique. If too many characters have similar characteristics, the reader may become confused. Giving characters physical “tags” can help to set them apart from each other – a gravelly voice, buck teeth, a crooked nose, messy hair, beefy fingers, no neck, a lisp, to name just a few. Tagging a character with something unusual can help to make the character memorable.
You can draw from your own relationships to inspire your fictional characters. If your character needs to be shy, think of someone you know who is shy and create a scene from what you’ve observed in real life. Similarly, if your character is in a situation where he needs to muster up an incredible amount of courage, think about someone you know who has been in that situation. Interview them if needed. They’ll probably be flattered you asked them how they handled themselves.
The strengths and weaknesses of most characters as well as what motivates them are products of their past. This is where backstory (the narrative providing history of the character’s past) is helpful. Speaking of backstory, as an author, it is important that you know more about the protagonist than the reader needs to know in order to develop the character. As in real life, the protagonist is a complex being, and only the author will know everything that makes him tick.
Relationships are an excellent way to develop characters – one-on-one or in a group scenario. Think about all the possible scenes that could be developed between best friends, an employee and his boss, a criminal and the police, two rivals, siblings, a person and his pet, a doctor and his doctor, a wife and her husband’s mistress, or two lovers. Each scene has the potential to contributing to a character’s development.
As with anything, use moderation. Over-describing a character can bog down the narrative. The fewer words you use that still do the job the better. And leaving out a few details might even create an interesting intrigue for the reader.
A tool I find helpful for developing characters is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicators. Developed back in the 1950’s when they still called them personality tests, it was used mostly in business for classifying temperament and behavior patterns in people. They identified four continuums of temperament when combined, resulting in sixteen combinations, each describing a person’s behavior. The four continuums are:
I created a spreadsheet (Myers Briggs Personality Traits) that lists the various personality traits for each of the sixteen types. Then I pigeon-holed each of my characters in one of them. As I’m developing a character I refer to the typical traits of that personality type and weave them into the dialogue or scene. For example, a character in one of my books is an ESTP (extravert, sensing, thinking, perceiving). Myers-Briggs describes this type of person as someone who loves people, gossip, social activities, and entertainment. My character was all that, but what I didn’t know is this type of person is also impulsive and a thought jumper, so I weaved that into the storyline as well.
Utilizing the personality traits linked to astrological signs can also be helpful in developing characters and relationships between characters, even if you’re a non-believer.
Another tool I find useful when I’m writing is to keep a picture of each character nearby. How do you do that, you ask? The main character of my first two books is of mixed race but can easily pass for white. So I Googled “mixed-race women” and found a website with hundreds of photographs. When I found one I could relate to for my character, I printed it. It provides inspiration when I’m trying to get into the character’s head. (I think the photo I chose may have been taken twenty or so years ago and is of a well-known celebrity – but don’t tell anyone.) You can also browse through magazines and catalogues for pictures of your characters. Does your protagonist like to ski? Pick up an issue of Freeskier. I bet you’ll find a picture of him in there.
Remember, no one is perfect. Everyone, even your most beloved character, has secrets, something they’re not proud of. Don’t be afraid to include that. It won’t take away from their virtues – it will just make them human.
If the character isn’t a different person at the end of the story than the beginning, it’s not very interesting or compelling. The crises he faces needs to change his life or his outlook on life, but not because something happened to him. The change needs to come from a choice he’s made by himself. And the change can go in one of two directions. The protagonist may emerge a better person (like in a love story), or he may plummet into a worse place than where he started (as in a horror story).
Readers frequently remember characters more often than plots, so keep that in mind when you’re developing yours.