I struggled with creating fictional characters in that they all seemed two dimensional at best. For the most part, my characters seemed flat or like paper dolls.
I made a discovery recently that seems to help me create and develop characters that are more alive and meaningful. I quit creating them with names and physical attributes first, and I also dispensed with starting them off with nervous tics.
What I do now is answer a few questions about my character:
- What does my character want more than anything?
- What is my character willing to do to get what he/she wants
- What does my character fear more than anything?
- At what lengths will my character go to avoid those fears?
When I do answer these questions first, I make the process of character development so much easier by having a strong foundation to build upon. These four questions give my players instant depth. A box that readers can explore and feel.
The answers to these questions are just the keys to opening a door that leads to real depth. I can start to feel why they behave certain ways, or think various thoughts. When empathy I feel for a character, it’s like they have been on Dr. Frankenstein’s table and life is being injected into him/her.
Oh, not the way Andy Warhol portrayed the whole scene.
I have to feel empathy for even the monsters of my stories. I need to know those fears, I need to feel the haunting in their souls, otherwise they have no reason to be who they are, just like any other character.
This is what made Mary Shelley’s Monster so vivid alive. Shelly was empathetic with the being and she made us feel for him as well. She actually tormented us with her character, made us dance the uncomfortable line that divides pity and disgust.
And the monster didn’t have a name.
If I name or give my characters physical attributes before I ask those questions, I give into pre-conceived notions. I will probably give a character a bitter and domineering attitude to any that I name after my ex-wife. All characters with her name will be clones. Or, if any women have red hair, they will be fiery.
Even though I am creating fictional character bases now, they don’t always quite fit into the story, but this is fine because I can now bank those bases and have characters to pull out and develop for the future. My banking account is growing a lot quicker than ever before.
Let’s take a character base of mine and play with it for a minute or two:
1.) This character wants to rekindle relationship with ex.
2.) Will do anything the ex asks or requests, in an effort to prove continued loyalty.
3.) Fears death.
4.) Denies health issues.
The stress was killing him.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that Jenelle called every day since their luncheon date (okay, ONE party looked at it like a date, while the other just saw it as caving in to incessant badgering), which was three weeks ago, he would never have entertained the idea of seeing a doctor, let alone actually going, but Janelle pushed him and he wanted nothing more than to wear her chains again.
Of course, this didn’t mean he had to keep quiet. No, not the notable defense attorney with seventy-three straight court victories under his belt. He had to argue with someone, and the Doctor was the logical choice.
Especially after the physician said he wanted to have some tests run.
“Look, you’re fifty-three years old. I see signs that could lead to problems if we don’t get them in check.”
“Fuck that. All you doctors want to do is remind the rest of of us that we aren’t invincible. I feel fine and you have some aching desire to ruin that. Probably the desire to take off with the cute as hell nurse out front. Extra cash.
“Listen, I know that all you guys are tied in to some secret insurance scam. You all get a cut from jacking us, otherwise healthy, folks around. Well, my buck stops here.
“Labored breathing, my ass. I am breathing the same I always have. You see post fifty and that means a potential goldmine. You can dig somewhere else, because I ain’t sick and most likely will be doing a waltz years after you’re gone.”
The slight built lawyer grabbed his coat and marched out the front door of the clinic that was tucked neatly away in a wooded corner of suburbia.
Stopping ten steps from the door and within eyesight of his beemer, he took out a cigarette, lit it and then reached for his cellphone.
“Listen Janelle, I just left the doctor’s office. He said I seemed to be in good health, Fit as a fiddle were his words.” The cigarette was beginning to weave it’s magic spell against his soul.
Control was wafting back into his moment. Every moment was his, at least in his eyes, and in moments like these, he had the power to give control to anyone he wanted, but he only ever gave any power to one person.
“Tests? Yeah, he mentioned that I should consider tests, you know, for medical research. Seems I’m a fifty-three year old anomaly.” His laugh punctuated the thinly veiled stress.
I can take this character base and place it in a number of situations. Give it any attribute and name I want. What is important is that I have a foundation, not a pre-conceived notion.
This character base will never look the same in any two stories. Unless, of course, I write a series with this base as the character.
Maybe the best reason to create fictional character bases has to do with story plots. It is easier to construct a plot from a character than it is to fit a character into a plot.
By being empathetic towards my character, conflicts and resolutions become a matter of logical reasoning.
Take the character from the piece above for instance. There is no way I’d write him into a plot that had him living on a beach, watching life roll past through binoculars, and getting busted for smoking dope.
It just ain’t going to happen.
Digging past names and physical attributes by asking four simple questions about my fictional characters gives me the opportunity to become empathetic with my creations. By feeling for them, I can write them as closer to being 3D than I was able to in the past.
Once I have a character created, I can then tag them with a name and physical attributes that suit the conflict and resolution.
How do you go about fictional character development?