Building Character(s)

May 30th, 2008

You’ve read the reviews, you’ve heard the slams, you’ve witnessed the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. You’ve heard that such-and-such author has “flat,” “paper-thin,” or “two-dimensional” characters that are “weak,” “anemic,” and “stereotyped.” And now you, as an aspiring writer, want to know:

How can I avoid that? How can I create fully-fledged, rich, three-dimensional, fat, happy characters with plenty of iron in their blood?

Brian Moneypenny ScultpingIt’s not as easy as it sounds. Problem is, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much time and effort you spend, what you’re really doing when you create fictional characters is pure illusion. It’s mimicry. Writers in college who have just discovered Plato get hooked on the idea that characters already exist out there in some nebulous Elysian Fields of the mind, and all you have to do is channel them. But that’s simply not true, and it’s not a particularly helpful metaphor.

I think it’s more useful to think of the art of characterization as something akin to the art of additive sculpture. When you build a character, you’re not describing an existing personality so much as building one from the ground up. (Additive sculpture, my Art History major wife informs me, is the type where you pile up stuff to build your object, whereas subtractive sculpture is where you start with an existing hunk of something and chisel away the stuff you don’t need.) Just like with sculpture, when building characters you’ll often throw in materials that you’ve got lying around the shop. And just like with sculpture, your characters don’t have anything that you don’t explicitly put there yourself.

So okay, you’re asking yourself, if building characters is like creating sculpture, what ingredients do I need to add to the mix? Glad you asked. Here’s my list of things that good, full characters need. (And keep in mind that these are the ingredients for major characters in your story; minor characters don’t necessarily need such attention.)

  1. Motivation. What do your characters want? Even the surly innkeeper who pops up for two paragraphs to serve the villain a plate of waffles has something on his mind. Whether spoken or unspoken, expressed or implied, characters should have plausible reasons for the actions they take. People shouldn’t just show up in your story and randomly do things that suit the plot you’re trying to construct. Every time your characters reach a decision point, don’t think about what you want your character to do in order to fulfill your expectations for the story; you should be asking yourself what your character would do at that point, based on what you know about them. If the action you want the character to take doesn’t suit the character, you’ve got two main options: a) figure out something else for the character to do that suits your plot, or b) backfill details earlier in your story to make the action suit the character.
  2. Attitudes. A related but subtly different concept than motivation. If you’ve got a group of four main characters, how do all of the main characters relate to each one of the others? How does each character feel about the town they’re in, the situation they’ve ended up in, the object of their quest? Do they all agree about the urgency of what they’re doing? Is the tall guy with the scar always so quiet because he’s bored stiff, or fed up? The attitudes your characters have about their surroundings and their situation don’t need to be bold and dramatic on every page. Sometimes people just have an amiable indifference to what’s going on around them. But you as storyteller need to know and decide when your characters have that amiable indifference.
  3. A character arc. In real life, people often go through life without changing. We make the same mistakes we made twenty years ago, and we curse ourselves for failing to learn from them. But the subject of story is change. You can’t have a story without something happening, and you make things happen in stories largely to show how your characters react. So if you’re going to spend any time focusing on a character, generally you’re going to want that character to grow or change in some way through the course of your story. This doesn’t mean you need to tie up every story with an Important Life Lesson™, and it doesn’t mean that every character needs to experience a life-changing epiphany by the time you hit the back cover. But if your characters don’t change in some fashion, your readers are going to wonder what the point of your story is.
  4. A thematic purpose. Why did you decide to put this character in the story? You should have a reason for every character you’re going to put on paper. If you take the classic Star Wars trilogy, you’ll see that every major character serves a purpose vis-a-vis our protagonist, Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader represents what will happen to Luke if he continues down the path of anger and impetuosity; Leia stands for the home, family, and society he’s trying to defend; Han Solo represents the temptation to abandon community and responsibility; and so on. Often you don’t know the purpose of a character when they first leap through your fingers onto the keyboard, and you don’t necessarily need to map their utility on a Campbellian grid to know their purpose. A character’s purpose isn’t always a grand one either — after all, why do C-3PO and R2-D2 exist, except to provide comic relief and POV characters for certain crucial plot elements?
  5. A sense of history. I would argue that people behave how they behave because of three main things: (a) genetics, (b) environment, and (c) experience. Han Solo didn’t spring into existence the moment Luke and Obi-Wan walked into the cantina. You could hear from that flinty Lucas dialogue that the man had been scarred from experience, that he’d had a few run-ins with the law, that this wasn’t the first time some old man had hired him to hustle his kid out of town in a hurry. You as the author should have some idea of the general contours of your characters’ lives, even if the bulk of it gets left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
  6. Quirks and mannerisms. Everyone has quirks, every single person who ever lived. Sprinkling some quasi-random idiosyncrasies on your characters helps readers build a unique-yet-consistent picture of them. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to fit absolutely everything about your character into some thematic template. Your heroine might have a nervous habit of scratching her ear, and that doesn’t have to tie in her deep-rooted ambivalence about the father who abandoned her thirty years ago. She might just have itchy ears.

There’s my list. Of course, you’ll want to take all of the above with a fist-sized hunk of salt, given that my two books to date have been accused of having characters that are two-dimensional, stereotyped — oh, all of the things listed in the first paragraph. I vigorously disagree, of course, but in the end that’s for you, the readers, to decide.

So what’s missing from the list?

* * *

(Photo of a sculptor named Brian Moneypenny taken from the website of Moneypenny Fine Arts.)

16 Responses to “Building Character(s)”

  1. […] the group blog DeepGenre today, I tackle the question of building characters. Specifically, how do you build three-dimensional, believable characters in your stories? I compare […]

  2. Sherwoodon 30 May 2008 at 3:22 pm

    This is an excellent list, David. I think it’s a good idea to remember that to some readers, every book is two-dimensional, yadda yadda. For a multitude of reasons, some of which have zipporino to do with your text.

    That said, a couple more possible additions to your list:

    1) Character emotional range. If the character is always gloomy, always sarcastic, always with the wise-ass quip, or always nasty, even if he or she has all the motivation in the universe, that character is going to read one-dimensional because we all know we’re a bundle of (usually contradictory) emotional reactions. The hard-assed villain at a light or even tender moment, the hero being off-balance, the side-kick having the cool head, you get the idea, giving characters range helps because:

    2) The perception of lack of dimension (I think) comes through readers’ expectations being fulfilled. If the reader can guess ahead of time how a character will react, even if there is every logical reason for the character to do or say that thing, then there’s no growth or guesswork. When the character takes the reader by surprise, I think it ups the ante, the possible interest. (Of course how to gauge that within the demands of story…is still something I’m trying to learn.)

    There is one very popular author whose characters I could not only predict but even a lot of their speech I could foresee, as the author seemed unconcsiously to have modeled themself on another popular author. I’d read that popular author as a kid, so I knew all that author’s particular quirks. When I saw character-exchange setups that reminded me of the author, and payoffs as expected, though many said the new author was marvelous at character, I just couldn’t get interested. So sometimes the reader is bringing a lot of experience to the table that the author can’t trump.

  3. Stacyon 30 May 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Sherwood – you have detailed one of my worst fears – the unconscious, nearly unidentifiable plagarism from favorite authors. I too have read books that sound just like other books where I’ve wondered “Is this on purpose?” and am terrified my work is derivative despite my best efforts.

    Would it make sense to add realistic relationships with other characters to the list? How “thick” do two characters with totally conflicting motives have to be to be friends?

  4. Kate Elliotton 30 May 2008 at 5:12 pm

    an excellent list. Especially numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

    I would add (although I think this is implicit in what you’ve already said): when writing in third person limited, what any given character notices will tell the reader lots about that character. Forex, Character A might love clothes and therefore notice what other people are wearing; Character B might love cars, and therefore . . . etc; while Character C might be so wrapped up in him/her self that s/he doesn’t notice anything in the external environment unless or until it whaps him/her upside the head or gets in her/his way.

    Stacy, you raise an important point I was just thinking of at the gym today: how character can be explicated and revealed through relationships with other characters. Hmm. I might write a follow-up post to Dave’s on that.

  5. Carol Bergon 30 May 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Ah, a subject dear to my heart… Lots of good points. Lots of good additions.

    I find it useful to distinguish between a character’s Goal (what he wants) and Motivation (why he wants it.) Also to think about his

    – immediate goals (a bed for the night)
    – grander goals (to rescue the damsel)
    – overarching goal (to prove that his family was wrong that he was a no -good wuss or whatever)

    Some of these goals characters cannot articulate about themselves. Some they must learn along the way. Sometimes even the overarching goal shifts. All of which sets up nice conflict, which is the cornerstone of story.

    Every person has doubts, fears, anxieties, things that give them joy, ideas, beliefs, opinions, attitudes… These are the things that feed reactions and create what Sherwood calls the character’s emotional range. All these things make up a person’s inner life. As Sherwood says, no one is angry all the time. No one is snarky or spiteful or sweet all the time. I think this substitution of “attitude” for “complexity” is often what impresses us as one-dimensional characterization. Giving thought to the character’s inner life allows you to create a unique voice that sounds real. Constantly asking “why would she do/say that” allows you to explore areas of character you might overlook.

    As for the relationship question: I definitely believe that character can be explored and revealed through relationship – the transforming power of relationship is a major premise of my novel “Transformation”!


  6. Sherwoodon 30 May 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Relationships, and what can be learned through them, the pressure of expected tropes versus what we might do with relationships, realism versus standard relationship shorthand….and how personal relationships can color subsequent events, hoo yeah, awesome topic.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 30 May 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Some great additions. I think Sherwood’s point about characters needing a range of emotions is especially important. Going back to Star Wars, I think one of the reasons people failed to glom on to Anakin Skywalker as a protagonist for that prequel trilogy was that he only had two emotional states: sullen and whiny, or sullen and mischievous.

    (Okay, one of the many reasons…)

  8. Maryon 30 May 2008 at 8:41 pm

    The best way to I’ve found to add dimension to a character is to consider the motivations.

    First off, let us distinguish between purposes and motives.

    Jane Nimblefingers is off to steal the ruby from the idol in the temple of the monkeys. That’s her purpose.

    Her motivation is why: to live in the lap of luxury for the rest of her life, to avenge herself on the god who killed her husband and child, to prove she’s good enough to join the Thieves’ Guild, without which she will starve.

    Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help there.

    Then, after you have decided what the character wants most, you can then consider:

    Why doesn’t he want it?

    Or, to be less coy, what does he want that he will have to sacrifice to get what he wants? Does Jane not want to succeed because her arrogant SOB of a father will puff himself up like he did it himself? Will she lose the love of her life if she joins the Thieves’ Guild?

  9. Madeleine Robinson 01 Jun 2008 at 4:53 pm

    It may be important to remember that, while you’re compiling all this stuff, most of it may (and perhaps should) be left in the drawer in the back of your head while you’re writing. I just finished reading a book where each character was introduced with more or less all the points you’ve mentioned–but in an info dump that read like a dossier. Rather than fleshing out the characters, it made me dread each new person who walked on stage. If you know all these things about your character, it becomes easier to demonstrate them without explicitly stating them, and the reader believes in them because you do.

  10. fritz » Friday link dumpon 06 Jun 2008 at 1:38 pm

    […] Building Character(s) (DeepGenre) […]

  11. Tony Gloveron 16 Jun 2008 at 9:20 am

    Well said Madeleine. I was always told to apply K.I.S.S. to whatever you do. Yes all of the above suggestions make for brilliant points to consider and as I read through each of David’s ‘must consider list’ I thought ‘Wow’, I actually do this without thinking.

    However, at the end of the day are you writing a story for your own amusement or are you writing to a particular market. In which case if your story is of a lighter reading style, heavy character discriptions would be akin to walking into a brick as you got half way across a road. Let the style of the story dictate the characters, after all, how many writers out there have found that a) the story writes itself and b) some characters invent themselves as they walk through your story.

  12. […] some advice on character-building from David Louis Edelman: … think of the art of characterization as something akin to the art of additive sculpture. […]

  13. […] DeepGenre’s David Louis Edelman provides 6 basic building blocks for creating characters. It’s a fairly quick read, and will help if you’re looking to make one of those character creation spreadsheets. Or if you just want to double-check that your characters are truly 6-dimensional. […]

  14. Ira Naymanon 04 Jul 2009 at 1:25 am

    All of the different ideas and approaches in this thread show how difficult it is to create realistic (as opposed to real, which, given the complexity of human beings is impossible) fictional characters. At the risk of overcomplicating, I would like to add a couple more things to think about.

    I have long maintained that good writers create believably consistent characters; great writers create believably inconsistent characters. Real people are unpredictable; even in similar circumstances, they may react in different ways. Different circumstances also give the writer the opportunity to show us different aspects of a character’s personality. The real challenge is to create characters in whom (apparently) contradictory behaviours make sense.

    One way to do this is in the character’s arc, a subject I would like to expand upon. We can all cite examples (Hollywood is rife with them) of films in which the change in the character at the end of a film seems like something the writer read in a screenwriting book and felt she had to do rather than something integral to the character. The solution is to give the character a conflict with two reasonable positions, and have the character move from one to the other over the course of the work.

    An example might help clarify this. Consider a character who is a pacifist who is also a patriot. At the beginning of the work, they may be against a war. The things that happen in the course of the story may slowly bring the person around to the belief that enlisting in the army to fight in the war is necessary. The character’s arc, revolving around two of the character’s core beliefs, will be credible for the audience. (How this inner conflict is related to the more obvious exterior conflicts of the plot can be quite complex.) Of course, depending upon where the writer’s sympathies lie, a different story could be created in which the character’s arc moves in the opposite direction.

  15. M. gordonon 07 Aug 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Look at James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure chapter 9. But this isn’t complete either.

    The idea is that a character change (arc) can be accomplished by chaning core beliefs. Bell uses a target illustration that goes from the center:

    core beliefs
    dominant attitudes

    He uses a good example of Scrooge getting his opinions and attitudes changed, through external conflict with the 3 ghosts, so that enough beating down of the outer rings of opinions and dominant attitudes (internal conflict), under stress, will eventually change the core beliefs and self-image. What I find difficult about plotting this out is that the names of each of the target rings listed above overlap. If you are doing a character arc on grief, there is a definite psychological step-by-step process a person goes through from denial to acceptance. However, for other character changes, I have not found a psychological model that is so clear-cut.

    How do you differentiate between opinions, dominant attitudes, values, core beliefs and self-image?

  16. […] Building Character(s) – Deep Genre […]

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