Nothing tells the reader the author is an amateur quicker than reading about a make-believe, cardboard character, one that isn’t a ‘real’ person.
In this article we’ll cover the mental or inner workings of characters. These are the attributes that turn a character into a ‘real’ person. There are a number of areas involved and it will require creativity and hard work to complete the character development. These areas include the character’s personality, his dreams, his aspirations and any mirages that affect him. The character’s inner philosophy is also an important element.
Let’s briefly address each area.
• Personality: Here is a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: The pattern of feelings, thoughts, and activities that distinguishes one person from another. If you scan the web, you’ll find a bewildering array of web sites about personality including some heavy-duty stuff from doctors. Basically, it seems to break down into two areas: personality types and personality traits.
According to one theory, there are sixteen types of personality. There are four types in each of four categories: analysts, diplomats, sentinels and explorers. Your character has to be one of sixteen. For more information see http://www.16personalities.com/personality-types.
Within these categories, there are many personality traits. You need to define your character by giving him or her a personality trait or two. Is your character affable, charming, pompous, unfriendly? There are many personality traits that can be used. Once you select one or two, do a web search on that trait to ensure you can write convincingly about that type of personality. There is more information about personality traits here: http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-personality-traits.html
• Dreams (aspirations): What does your character want out of life? What does he want to do when he grows up? What does she want to achieve? This attribute can influence how the character acts and can provide a measure of conflict. What if she wants to become an engineer, but has to decide whether to stay in college or drop out to help her sick mother? This situation will provide inner conflict.
• Memories: These are influencers that characters have. Memories can also be used for foreshadowing and to build up internal conflict. How? Consider this example: as a five-year-old, the character almost drowned. Ever since, she has had a healthy fear of open water. At some point in the story, she sees a man drowning in the middle of a lake. What does your character do? Does her fear of water cause her to ignore the man and walk away? Does she search for a boat to use in the rescue? Does she suppress her fear and dive into the lake?
This inner conflict can provide a memorable scene in the story. Remember though, a heroine has to do heroic stuff. It would be acceptable for a villainess to let the guy drown, but a heroine will have to try to save him, or she won’t be believable.
Another example will concern a man who was punished as a child by being locked in a dark closet. Now he fears dark basements, caves, alleys and any unlit place. You can see how this memory and foreshadowing can lead to exciting scenes and gripping internal conflict.
• Mirages: These are fantasies the character tricks herself into believing. Want an example? Most politicians thinking they have the slightest chance of getting elected President. Another example: your character pursues a goal that he can’t possible achieve because it is a mirage.
• Descriptor (or voice): This item isn’t the same as the way the character speaks, it’s a brief description or summary of the character and the way he thinks and acts. This isn’t easy to develop but I believe it’s essential to have one for the major and main characters. Once you have the descriptor, it will help you write accurately about the character and his thoughts, his actions, his reactions.
Examples may be the best way to explain the descriptor. A banker can be the voice of greed and will endlessly talk about money and financial concerns. A psychopath is the voice of rage, always ready for an argument or fight. A warrior could be described as the voice of chaos. An accountant can be the voice of precision.
• Philosophy: Everyone has a personal philosophy. You have one whether you realize it or not, whether you want one or not. I don’t know if a personal philosophy comes with your birth package or is a product of your environment and your upbringing. To me, how it happened isn’t as important as recognizing that it did happen. My personal philosophy is skepticism with a healthy dose of cynicism. Since all people have a personal philosophy, it follows that your main and major characters should also have a personal philosophy.
Once you assign a philosophy to a character, limitations instantly follow. For instance, if your character’s philosophy is individualism, you can’t have him acting hesitant or asking other characters for help and answers. An individualist character tends to do stuff by himself. He’s decisive, not wishy-washy. Similarly, if the character is an optimist, you can’t have her bad-mouthing everybody’s ideas and suggestions. That’s the way a pessimist will act.
As you can see from this discussion of inner attributes, building a memorable character requires a lot of creativity and work. However, the effort is worth it and your readers will appreciate it.
The material in this article is based on my book Creating Stories.
© Hank Quense 2017