Anonymous asked: My problem is character. I have spent all this time developing the world and having fun imagining how it works (I am writing a YA science fiction novel), but now when I sit down to try and figure out my characters, I feel stuck and frustrated. People are complicated, and I don’t want to oversimplify them. I try to describe their personalities, but all I can come up with is, well, sometimes they are this way…but sometimes they are not. How do I define them without making them too 1-dimensional?
This is a great question! You’re very right: characters, like real people, can be complicated. Since all writers are different, there’s really no right or wrong way to go about character construction. With that in mind, this article will be aimed at suggesting things you can do to sort out all the people living in your head.
Let’s start with the character itself, and what a character is, exactly.
Character (n): The aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
Literature also recognizes different kinds of characters. You can have a static character, or one who does not undergo major change throughout a story; or you can have a dynamic character, who does see major growth and change throughout a story. An interesting character is most often dynamic, because character growth is a good way to create and support strong themes, but this is not always the case. Well-developed, complex characters are referred to as round, whereas one-dimensional characters are known as flat or “stock” characters. Most main characters in literature are round because the reader gets to know them very well by the end of the story, and most minor characters are flat because it is not important for the reader to know much about them.
Whether static or dynamic, flat or round, characters are individuals with distinct thoughts, feelings, histories, and motives. The latter two are especially important in developing round characters because they (again, like real people) have rich, complex pasts and are driven to get what they want. The more you know about your character, the more believable they will appear to your audience.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when a character is proving difficult to develop:
- What does my character want? As I said before, motive drives a character more than any other internal force. Figuring out what your character hopes to get out of his or her journey is useful because the goal itself can imply a lot of other things about the character that you can then use to build further. If your protagonist wants to save the city, for instance, you can ask yourself why she wants to do that. Does she have a hero complex? Is she driven by guilt because she’s lost a loved one? Does she want to save anyone at all, or is she interested solely in eliminating the antagonist? Your character always wants something, even if it is something as temporary and mundane as a glass of water. A character can have many varied motives and those motives can intersect, conflict, and change throughout the story!
- Where has my character been? A character’s past informs their motive and core parts of their personality—their hopes and fears, their strengths and weaknesses, their loves and prejudices—so it is important that you, the writer, know your characters’ histories. What’s your character’s family like? What are his or her ties to the world’s politics? Has your character literally been a lot of places? Consider key formative events, like prominent triumphs and losses. A character’s history also informs their sense of morality, which is so complicated that we’ve covered it in its own article!
- What kind of person is my character? Human personality is complicated, but, thankfully, there are plenty of resources available online to help people understand and identify personality types. Writers can use these resources to learn about their characters! For example, there is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, which assigns people one of sixteen personality types that break down the frameworks of their behavior. If you understand your character pretty well, you can fill out an MBTI questionnaire and read about the resulting type. Alternatively, you can start by reading about the various types and use that information to help you form a believable character. Once you have assigned a personality framework to a character, you can use it to make sure your character’s behavior remains consistent and believable throughout their story.
- Whom does my character know? It’s important to remember that characters have influences on each other and that these influences can range from minor to formative. Explore the relationships between characters and you’ll find yourself thinking about motive and history and personality, and how these things will guide the characters’ behavior going forward. Also keep in mind that romantic relationships, while interesting, are not the only way to tie characters together! All relationship types can be compelling to your reader and teach you, the writer, about your characters.
Once you’ve got at least partial answers to some of these questions, you might feel you know enough about your characters to start developing them in writing. Just write and see what comes of it!
This writing does not necessarily need to relate to the main plot of your work as long as you are writing something that illustrates what you know about the characters. Retell that time that your protagonist got tea and gelato with his father; talk about sleepovers, about super secret cave explorations. about times of sadness. If yours is a story that deals with people of varied dialects and nationalities, consider the dynamics of those as you explore. If you’re feeling adventurous, pluck your characters up out of the comfort of their own settings and place them somewhere else.
What-ifs and alternate universe scenarios are a wonderful way to make sure you know who a character is, and hen you’re confident you could write the character reacting to any situation, you can be sure you are on the right track.
As you’re writing your story, remember to show, rather than tell the audience the things you know to be true about your character. Gene Wolf said:
“You do not characterize by telling the reader about the character. You do it by showing the character thinking, speaking and acting in a characteristic way. You simply show it and shut up.”
If your character likes coffee, illustrate that by having having her buy coffee! Do whatever you can to let your characters just be. The things they reveal about themselves might surprise you.
Some other useful references:
Thank you for your question! If you have any concerns or suggestions about this article or writing in general, hit up our ask box!