Creating authentic characters can be one of the best building blocks for a story. If you create the right characters with plenty of potential conflict, it can help you build events that will be meaningful to the world and the characters who live in it.
Below are three of my favorite techniques for developing complex characters. They are useful individually and powerful together. As a teacher I use them to help students pick apart characters in the books they read as well as create their own characters.
These activities are built on three beliefs about characters:
- Authentic characters have rich lives before they step into the story.
- Authentic characters have layers.
- Authentic characters are shaped by their relationships.
Authentic Characters have rich lives before they step into the story.
Backstory is what happens to a character before they step onto the page. It is sometimes hard to spend time on backstory because while it informs the story you tell and provides a foundation, it is like the iceberg below the water’s surface. You only see a fraction of it, but it is important that readers know it is there.
I use a activity called Steppingstones. It is a journaling activity from Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability by Dr. Ira Progoff. It was designed to help people find the true threads in their lives.
I altered it for my fictional characters. I create 12 Steppingstones – 12 moments that turned them into the person stepping onto page one. These are significant moments to the character. It is tempting to veer towards moments that the world sees as significant, but I try to stay focused on what is significant to my characters. The details of these moments evolve as I write the story, but I find that the truths stay the same.
Here is a steppingstone from Jade Moon in The Fire Horse Girl (written before I had written one word on the story, before I had even decided she was a Fire Horse Girl):
* * *
When I was 15, I decided that Chen was my true love. We spent all of our time together, and I got a warm feeling when we sat close under the trees, our heads bent over a book or a tablet. When I asked him who he might marry, he said that he hoped to marry Mei, a quiet girl whose eyes seemed permanently focused on the ground at her feet. She lived in a beautiful farm house with many servants, more than anyone else in the village. “Why would you marry her?” I demanded.
“She is quiet and obedient. She will make a good wife.”
“What about me?” I tried to hide my hurt feelings behind indignation.
Chen appraised me for a second. “You would make a good man.”
* * *
Chen never shows up in the story, but the core of this moment – a girl who can’t seem to fit in the outlines her society draws for her, is very present in the novel.
Authentic characters have layers.
Authentic characters have quirks and ticks on the surface and layers of meaning for those. My favorite structure for developing this comes from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It is also described on his website – http://storyfix.com/category/characterization-series.
Brooks describes three dimensions of characters. The boilerplate version –
1st dimension = what you see
I think of this as the things that anyone could find out about the character by observing them, at their job, at a party, with their family.
2nd dimension = why you see it
If a character wears a certain piece of jewelry or drives a certain car, there could be many reasons for that. Everything from the jewelry was a gift from their grandmother and it reminds them of where they came from to they like to show off their possessions to establish dominance in social situations. Much of the ‘why’ ties back to a character’s backstory.
3rd dimension = what you get
I think of this as a character’s default behavior. What do they do when their back is against a wall? Do they fight back? Run? Look our for themselves? Sacrifice for their family? Do they want justice? Safety? Or just to survive for another day?) Sometimes this lines up with the other dimensions. Sometimes the jewelry is worn to establish dominance because at their very core, the character feels insecure and seeks to control as much of their environment as they can. When things get tough, a character like that might hide, despite the strong front they put up externally.
Authentic characters are shaped by their relationships.
Characters don’t exist in isolation. To bring out all of these authentic character traits, authors design other characters who oppose or block the main character’s values and traits.
You can look at the dimensions of characters to design characters who will naturally push each other. Elizabeth Bennett is designed to question and antagonize Darcy. Their worldviews and backstory are very different. Their dimensions would reveal some of that. I also like to design three rules for the characters to live by.
If one character will win at any cost and another character thinks the whole is more important than the sum of it’s parts, those characters will natural conflict, bringing out the nuances of their world views as a story progresses.
Characters are the heart and soul of stories. We use them to show what the events mean and why they matters.
It can be fun to play with these ideas by looking at characters in movies, books, and television. Or playing with random characters using a character generator – http://writingexercises.co.uk/character.php
Or this one for YA characters – http://selfpublishingteam.com/chargen/ya/