Well, here is the start of another series that will at least run every Friday during February and then periodically the rest of the year: The Character Series. This series will look at the different touches that make a character feel real and gives them depth.
A couple years back, I recall a major blow up in the fantasy section of the NaNoWriMo forum. The cause? A thread entitled: “Your Character’s Aren’t Real!” The thread starter tore apart writers who talked as if their characters were living breathing things, telling them to stop as well as suggesting something was wrong with them mentally.
The truth in this matter is the majority of the writers who do this know that their characters aren’t really alive; however, they also know to create believable characters you need to treat your characters as if they are real. It requires knowing where they have been, what has shaped them, their likes, their fears, their greatest dreams — the list is endless, or so at times it seems. Much of this knowledge — these insights into a character — will never make it past the writer’s notes, but it is still important for the author to know, even if the audience never will. These insights explain motivations, behaviors — what makes a character tick.
What the thread starter failed to see, is that if you treat something as two-dimensional, it will remain two-dimensional. This character series will look at characters and how to make them more three-dimensional. The posts will not occur in any order of importance, just randomly with the first being family.
Family And Childhood
Like it or not, family plays a major role in shaping who we are; it should be no different for your characters. Family shapes our outlooks, beliefs, and more, whether we adopt those of our family or rebel against them. And depending on our relationships with our family — whether strained, completely absent, or very loving — it affects how we connect with others.
Often times in fiction, particularly in fantasy I’ve noticed, a character’s family is absent. While family members don’t need to be main characters, secondary characters or even appear in the novel, they need a presence through your character. A character from a wealthy, but distant, family will conduct themselves in a different manner than a character who is from a big, loving family. A character who never knew their parents will often behave differently than one who has.
Parents, siblings are more likely to have presence, which makes sense as our parents and siblings have perhaps the greatest affect on our development. However, writers should not underestimate the power other familial ties might have on your characters: Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc., can all have powerful parts to play in your character’s life. As a side note to the above, do not forget individuals who are family in every way but blood; these people can also have profound effects on our lives.
When you make these connections, your characters feel more real, and readers can connect with them — after all, we all have family, good or bad, and for most of us, family is important. These connections can be made through characters thinking of a family member, carrying an item that holds sentimental value because of a certain family member, seeing something that reminds them of a family member, etc.
Writers should also not be afraid to look beyond their own definition of family: Different groups, cultures, countries and so on have different views on what a family is and how they behave. This is important to look at, especially if your characters are from a different country than you, the writer, or if you are world building when it is good to have variety.
Draw a family tree, at least back to your character’s grandparents or great-parents. Think up stories for each individual on the tree and their connections to the people surrounding them. Outline your character’s relationships with each of their family members even if they are non-existent. And most importantly of all, ask questions:
- Did my character’s parents push them to excel in certain areas and not others? Or did they ignore my character’s development?
- What beliefs were held by my character’s parents? How did these shape my character?
- When was the last time my character has been home? If they have been gone a long time, is there a reason for their absence?
- Do they keep in touch with their family? Only certain members? Why?
- Who is their favorite relative? And why?
- Were there problems in the family? Drugs, alcohol, money issues, abuse? How do they coop with these problems?
- How does my character’s family handle tragedy?
There are hundreds of questions one could ask. These are just a few to get you started.