Developing the Personalities of Characters

By Vincent van Gogh, Beach at Scheveningen / People Strolling on the Beach

What defines you as a person? Is it the one thing you want; your goal? Or, perhaps, the one thing you fear? Or your single weakness? Your gender? Your hair colour? We are all incredibly complex and wonderfully diverse individuals full of inconsistencies and contradictions who cannot be categorised or labelled, no matter how hard we try. Unfortunately, the current trend of projecting a character of your ideal-self via social media means people are trying to simplify who they are, and this could have a negative effect on character creation if it continues.

“I’m a millennial, so I don’t really like labels.”

Tomi Lahren, The Daily Show, 2017

Character creation is much more than picking a goal, a fear, a weakness, a gender, and a striking hair colour. Consider the flame-haired warrior princess with a fear of spiders who is driven to find the Sword of G’Taar and reclaim her birthright that she was denied, leading her to be too stubborn. You can almost guarantee that she will make a bad decision and then stick to it, to the detriment of her and others, and before she can get to the sword (which she inevitably will) she will have to fight a giant spider. She is flat—a cardboard cut-out—and whilst that may work as a template to build upon, some writers will stop there and that will be all she is.

To truly form characters that resonate with readers, the writer must treat them like real people. They must contradict themselves, be inconsistent, have triggers and issues and baggage and problems and love and hate and pain and joy and wonder and apathy and everything that makes us who we are. Instead of hollow shells based on labels they need to be synergetic: greater than the sum of their parts. They should expand beyond the page, outside of the framework they start with, and become alive within the mind of the writer.

A method that works for me when building a character, alongside working through a questionnaire, is to let them breathe. When a character is conceived I allow them space to gestate from an embryo to a fully-realised personality ready to be born on the page. In other words, I don’t write them straight away, but instead think about them for a while until they have developed from an idea into an actual character.

It is worth remembering that every single character is the protagonist of their own story, even if they are not the protagonist of yours. Just because one of them only appears in one scene, once, does not mean they should be some throwaway cliché that is shoehorned in to move the plot forward. Instead, they should be as much a real person as your main characters.

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.”

Lao Tzu

How would your character react when faced with certain death? What about an offer of a kiss? How would they feel finding an abandoned puppy? Or if they had to prepare a dinner party?

Understanding the answers to these kinds of questions should be instinctive. One character may be willing to risk everything to save a child, no matter how many people die in the process, whereas another might be prepared to sacrifice the life of that child for the greater good. Both could have families or be alone, they may be entirely focused on their goals or torn between conflicting loyalties. Characters need time to mature into cohesive individuals. As much as we need to know ourselves as writers, characters need to become enlightened as to who they truly are, even if who they are is unenlightened.

Creating characters is inviting people to come and live in your head. These personalities will mature and break away from your own psyche, making their own choices and developing independent free will and consciousness. Whilst you can listen to them and ask them questions, you shouldn’t be able to control them. You will always know when your character is real, as you will tell them to do something and they will refuse. They won’t let you make that decision on the page, as they wouldn’t do it. Then they are their own entity; then they are ready to be written.

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