Living, Breathing Conduits of Vicarious Emotions
When you set out to make a character, you’re creating a person. Congratulations, you now have something in common with Doctor Frankenstein. In order to transcend a two dimensional construct, there are many factors to consider. Many of these concepts will not even make it into your story just as elements of your own person don’t make it into every conversation or situation in your life.
There are many schools of thought on how you should go about the act of creating the characters. Some have it down to a defined art where you fill out a dozen or more questions. Others believe you can do it with a few notes and a couple paragraphs to define the person. It all depends on what stimulates your creativity and helps you tell a great story. Do you need to get finite? Go crazy. It can be a lot of fun, like making a character for a video game or table top role playing game. Are you fast and loose? As long as your character lives and breathes, you’re good.
How do you make them come alive on the page? That’s what we’re really here to discuss. Think about them as the guy sitting next to you on the bus or the person you see at the bank. They’re not just special effects in the saga of your life. They have goals, dreams, problems, and traumas, experiences which change and alter them, making them wholly unique from you or me. Those are the things we need to focus on and build into the people populating our fictional landscape.
I often think of a character then craft a story around them. In my book Star Power, I thought of Chris one afternoon driving home. The A list actor down on his luck and now, he’s got the added irritation of having to attend an anger management seminar. This very basic concept led me to asking a lot of questions about him, questions and answers I’ll post here as an example.
Christopher Tam, born in California to Delores and Chen Tam. His father was second generation America and joined the military. He taught his son martial arts from a young age and instilled in him a great passion for the ‘American dream’, the concept of anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it and work hard. Though he didn’t follow his father’s footsteps for the military life, Chris retained his family’s support as he indulged his passion for theater and drama.
Chris dealt with some cultural difficulties as a child. Half Chinese/Half American gave him a little trouble in High School but not so much to make him bitter. For the most part, he’s a happy go lucky sort who can shrug off most negativity. This trait shaped him throughout his early life and allowed him to be calm in the face of all sorts of adversity from the stress of auditioning for a part to setting foot on stage in his first college production to blatant prejudice attitudes, most things rolled off his back.
This calm came from the way his father taught him, the tenets of their martial arts and overall belief that people are mostly good. However, this is not to say he came away unscathed from his experiences. Like most artists, he’s a sensitive guy and regardless of how easy going he can be, eventually rejection due to cultural appearance began to wear on him. Luckily, it didn’t deter him though and he did eventually get his big break.
After a number of secondary roles, someone gave him a chance to be in a big budget film, a huge action franchise. Here, he showed off his various skills and developed a fan base which led to other opportunities and quickly, he became a ‘big name’. Not really a superstar but his films grossed high and he was able to significantly elevate his lifestyle.
Money did change him. He became a lot fancier and indulged a mostly urban lifestyle. He lost touch with people who had less than him in many ways so when a friend would say ‘I can’t afford that’, he didn’t understand why. This attitude often led to conflict, especially since his tastes became expensive and ended up ostracizing those close to him, as with many situations where a person transcends their social class.
Chris found himself in a lonely situation. He lost friends from his past but wasn’t quite as extravagant as those who might’ve been his peers. Working provided him much needed social interaction and he chummed it up with cast and crew, thriving in the crowded environment. As an actor, he needs time with others and desperately craves attention. This fuels his ambition and the fear of being alone pushes to continually improve.
He also has a profound desire to be needed. This is especially dangerous in the volatile world of Hollywood movies and when his movie franchise becomes a TV show, he finds himself cast adrift. Few opportunities floated by his door and when one finally did, he attended it only to encounter some of the prejudice that peripherally hounded him throughout his life only this time, he didn’t let it go.
A combination of frustration from no work, losing his franchise, loneliness and desperation made him blow and he threatened the man. Later, he drove like a maniac and ended up being arrested. This low really hit him hard because on one hand, he showed up in the media again but only because he was another celebrity gone wild, a wealthy jerk who took advantage of his wealth and status to do something wrong…and get away with it.
Now, with that good summary of his life, we can delve into some nitty gritty details. What small things have happened to Chris to shape him?
- His father died while overseas. Losing his parent changed his home dynamic. His mother became withdrawn and packed up anything to do with her husband’s Chinese heritage. All these things have passed to Chris and he displays them proudly at home. He also harbors some anger with his father for putting his country above his family. He vows for this to never happen to him and though that sounds like an easy promise to make as an actor, it becomes a touch point in the story as he enters the world of the Savants.
- Chris is a bit of a daredevil. He’s never been seriously hurt but he’s definitely pushed the limits as a child and an adult. It made him ideal for the action roles. You can see this in his high speed race through the city after dealing with the casting director but this is not a new trend. He’s learned combat driving for roles and employed his skills and earlier, prior to college, he loved skateboarding. He’s matured somewhat but there’s definitely enough of the wild man in him to where he makes some questionable decisions about safety.
- Chris made a terrible romantic comedy. It was panned by critics and loved by a select few and it’s plagued him ever since. Those who loved it, are rabid fans and while they tend to be quite complimentary, the project has become an embarrassment. Especially when the fans of his action films always seem to ask him why the hell he got involved in such a schmaltzy pile of crap. He’s been groaning whenever he hears the title of the film since the first terrible reviews trashed it.
- He’s never had a meaningful relationship. Chris has been with people but never in long term relationships. His schedule and work has kept him from anything resembling long term romance. His fear of loneliness has definitely made him think about it but no one’s caught his eye and he has a deeper concern: he’s afraid someone might not be with him FOR him but rather, the media created version of him. This has kept him distant despite himself and he has no idea of how to overcome it.
You can continue on and on, throwing more and more events on your character until they feel as real as they need to. Think about your own life. If you start writing down only the events which shaped you, I guarantee you’d have more than four. How many? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? Again, you can go as crazy as you want.
Backstory may or may not be revealed in your story but let me give you an example from a TV show about revealing a character’s history and incorporating it into the narrative. In Crossing Lines, Sebastian is introduced as a handsome computer genius. He’s level headed and incredibly good at his job, to the point that he’s developed technology to assist with forensic investigations.
Later, we learn he may have a child with a fling from his past. She didn’t tell him but his friends notice the resemblance. This tidbit fleshes him out and we understand a lot more about him. He’s not just the cold nerd that we generally associate with computer guys in shows. He’s a man who’s been in a relationship and though it may not have been serious enough to call love, it resulted in a child. This helps us further understand and associate with him.
Sebastian seems like a responsible guy but in yet a later episode, we discover that he’s got a gambling problem and we’re not talking ten or twenty bucks but to the tune of thirty-thousand! This is a major flaw, one which can lead to all sorts of issues professionally, financially, legally and psychologically. Did the writer come up with all this prior to the show or was it thrown in as they went?
Most of the time, you can tell when something is thrown in after the fact. If a fact is totally out of left field, that tends to be a construction added long after the character’s normal back story was established. If it develops organically, then you’re good. Twists aren’t overly realistic unless the other characters don’t know the person well at all. Then, we as authors can practically do anything but jarring events should be carefully blended. Lead up to revealing them. Your viewers/readers will be forgiving of much but stuff that slaps them in the face can be hard to swallow.
This example from Dusk Till Dawn the Series can be seen as a difficult to believe customer change. Arguably, what the character went through might lead to some psychological or substance abuse but I don’t buy it.
We establish Seth as a tough, professional thief in Season 1. Throughout, he treats the dangers with respect and as a result, comes out alive. The jarring change comes in Season 2 when we discover he’s decided it’s a good idea to take up heroine. Not only is that an expensive habit but it’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d do when you’re on the run and aware of a world of vampires.
There was no indication he had a drug problem or even an addictive personality in the first season. Frankly, we establish that his brother has the type of problems which would lead to drug use, not him. It feels like a tossed on flaw serving no purpose other than to generate drama. It’s not organic. It doesn’t work.
Let’s take a look at a more defined approach to character design, focusing on Chris again.
Name: Christopher Tam
Favorite Food: Italian (Lasagna specifically)
Favorite Color: Green
Favorite Film: Mutiny on the Bounty (Brando version)
Favorite Music: Modern/Alternative
Favorite Vacation: New Zealand
Afraid of being alone
Internally sensitive about heritage
Mother: Delores Tam
Father: Chen Tam
Profession: Lieutenant in the Army
Combat Driving (Learned for Movie)
Guns and Combat (Learned from Father)
Various skills learned for roles in films
Bachelor’s Degree in Drama
Financials: Well off.
As you can see, you can keep going down the rabbit hole and add more and more tidbits about the person until you’ve got a firm and incredibly defined method to look them up and work with them throughout your story. This also allows you to easily add new traits as they come up, further defining their history. A regimented approach above is fantastic if that’s how your brain works and it also appeals to those who make characters in role playing games. Having boxes to fill out definitely helps.
Regardless of how you do it, you want to have a detailed character. This isn’t just for your hero either. Villains benefit from this in a major way. A sympathetic villain is always more memorable than the two dimensional ‘evil’ guy doing bad stuff ‘just cause’. The degree to which you attack this process is entirely up to you. Grab a few details for background characters, tons for those in the forefront, or treat them all equally. You never know when a secondary character will steal the limelight.
I’m not sure how much she thought about it in advance but Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series has a number of characters who come and go throughout the series, starting out as peripheral folks and ending up the stars of their own novels. The more you build your palette, the more tools you’ll have at your disposal. Living, breathing characters filling your world will make it last all that much longer.
I hope you’ve found this useful and interesting. I’m including some reading below as my concepts written above come from my time studying these masters. If you want to take a deep dive into believable characters, you cannot go wrong with the books below. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my second blog coming soon—delivering plot.
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri
Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood
Write Great Fiction - Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes by Raymond Obstfeld
The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier