There is a huge debate among authors, editors, and other personalities in and out of the fiction publishing industry about whether the best stories are either character driven or plot driven. I personally hate this debate because it usually rages on either side of the literary classroom door. Most of the “great literary works” that I read in school were mind-numbingly boring. The main reason why is because these works were written by authors who spent more attention to intricate plots (the sequence of events in a story) and purple prose (the specific use of advanced vocabulary to strengthen a story’s overall language) than they did actually making their characters feel like real people. This is a mistake.
If you treat your characters as anything less than real people, then your readers will, too. Why should I or you or any other reader spend time in a book where the characters are plain, boring, and don’t feel like real people at all? Fiction writing is a very human-based career choice. It is also the epitome of a sells position. If you want to actually build a career out of your fiction writing skills, it will require you to create products (short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels) that allow readers to meet authentic dynamic characters and join them on their adventures.
Just like you, me, and all other “real” people, dynamic characters are well-rounded. They have strengths, weaknesses, faults, flaws, moments of nobility, and, most importantly, the abilities to learn, grow, and change. Whether I am writing a short story or a novel, I always make sure that my characters are different in the ending than they were at the story’s start. The change can be something as simple as a character being afraid of water and then learning to swim by the story’s end or it can be something much more complex.
Getting to know your characters takes time just like getting to know real people. The best way that you can start is by finding out some of the basic information about each character. You need to know facts like the characters: gender, birth date and age, family background, home life, current living arrangements and conditions, major and minor personality traits, physical appearance, religious and philosophical beliefs, closest friends, past and current romantic relationships, past and present occupations, hobbies, personal dreams, goals, other aspirations, fears (rational dislikes such as the fear of failure), phobias (irrational/primal dislikes such as the fear of spiders), skills, strengths, quirks, weaknesses, and disabilities. It is quite a large list when you first start, but knowing these details will really help you understand your character in the long run.
Does your character live in a penthouse or the slums? Does he have a caring or abusive father? Is he raised by a single-mother? Was he raised by his grandparents or other family relations? Does he have any siblings? What are their ages? How old is he? Is he himself a parent or single parent to any children? Is there anything significant about his birth date, like his being born on Independence Day or on the same day as his favorite uncle? Who are your main character’s closest friends? Is he a Christian, Buddhist, or atheist? Does he dress in a business suit, a suit of armor, or merely a bathrobe? Does he aspire to play at Carnegie Hall or become the world’s best underwater basket-weaver? Is he the first one to start a fight or the first one to run?
To help answer all of these crazy character questions, I suggest taking basic counseling, psychology, and sociology courses. Understanding the four basic human personalities (i.e. sanguines, cholerics, melancholies, and phlegmatics) is key to understanding how and why people and characters interact the way they do. Another possible way to help understand a character is to use real people as a basis for fictional characters. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach as long as you understand that the character is not, in fact that real-life person and allow the fictional character to grow and change into his or her own person. Also, if you want to use real-life inspirations, do not make the mistake of telling the real inspirations that they have indeed inspired certain fictional characters. I have learned the hard way that such an admission can sometimes cause strains in real life relationships when the character does something that the real life inspiration does not like.
You may think that some of the character questions are extraneous, but I promise the more you know about your character, the easier it will be to know how he or she will react in any given situation. This intimate knowledge means fewer moments of writer’s block and more effective story crafting. The length of your story can determine how much personal information you must know about each character. For example, when I wrote “Chosen Sacrifice”, I needed to understand my protagonist Miya’s basic personality, family dynamics, and cultural background. Since the story was only about 4000 words long, it wasn’t important for me to know Miya’s favorite color or her full life’s story because I spent relatively little time with her. In contrast with her, I know my novel series characters very well because I have spent so much time writing them. I can tell you personally that after almost ten years of living with Katja and the rest of my Sylvaeleth characters, I have come to know and love each of them like extended members of my own family. They are that real to me.
When getting to know a character, I suggest that you find your own balance. Only you can determine how much information is too much or too little when it comes to understanding your character. By all means, please use my suggestions as a place to start, but don’t be afraid to change them and make them your own. A friend of mine actually conducts a pretend interview with her new characters and asks each her own round of questions. However you do it, have fun with the information gathering. After all you just might end up with a new imaginary best friend out of the process.
Until our next meeting, may we each rewrite our world for the better!
The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the desk of Alycia C. Cooke and/or Alycia Christine Sears with love, fiction books, and virtual baked goods for all. Please let me know your thoughts about this particular post and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!