Building a main character in a story requires a bit of creativity and a lot of work. Let’s talk about two topics on character development that don’t get much attention: limitations and biographies.
As you build the characters, you may notice that limitations crop up. Perhaps, a character can’t do what you want him to do because he is too old. An elderly person, for instance, can’t do many things a younger person can do. You are becoming limited in what you, the author, can do and what your characters can do or can not do. These limitations or restrictions will also occur with plotting and motivation. The more the story design develops, the less freedom you and your characters have. As an example, if you build a character’s physical aspects so that he has a serious limp, you can’t have him outrunning the bad guy. Similarly, if your character dropped out of high school, he can’t use the laws of thermodynamics to develop the solution to the plot problem. This is one huge advantage to building a complete biography; it gives you a better understanding of what the character is capable of doing. The biography will expose the limitations the character will have to deal with.
A biography for the character serves a dual purpose. Besides providing background information, it allows the author to understand the character and that understanding is vital when dealing with the character in stressful situations.
For a short-story character, I write a few paragraphs of bio material. For the main character in a novel, the bio may run to more than a page. Other novel characters will get less of a bio. The less important the character, the smaller the bio I create.
The strange thing to many new story writers is this: most of the biographical material won’t show up in the story so why bother developing it? The answer is that the bio allows the writer to understand the character and what makes him or her tick. The better the writer knows and understands the character, the better the writer will be able to predict how the character will respond to situations and stimuli.
For instance, suppose someone walks up to your character and punches him in the mouth, or a beautiful woman unexpectedly kisses him. How does your character react to the punch? Does he punch back? Does he walk away? How does the character react to the kiss? Does he get red in the face? Does he kiss her back? Does he develop a stammer? Your detailed biography will guide you in writing the character’s response. If you don’t have the bio material, the character’s response is really a guess. In addition, the writer will have difficulty keeping the character’s response consistent when other situations occur. Your second guess may be different from your first guess. Believe me, the readers will pick up on it.
There are a number of biographical elements the writer should address.
Family: Are his parents alive? Does the character have any siblings? What is everyone’s age? Are any siblings married? Where did the character grow up? Did the character have any unusual childhood experiences? What were they? Do these experiences affect the character? Is the character’s family stable? Or is it chaotic? How does this affect him?
Education: Schools, degrees, favorite subject?
Career: Jobs, military experience?
Adult experiences: Married? Divorced? Children?
It’s the author’s job to come up with events that affected the character’s life and outlook. After that, the author must incorporate this information into the story.
This article is based on material in my book Creating Stories.
© Hank Quense 2017