ARTICLE #7 - Developing Believable Characters PART ONE
In fiction writing, it’s imperative that you create believable characters that your readers want to know more about. This is particularly true when developing your main character—the protagonist. A convincing personality compels the reader to continue through the story, and, as they do, connect and identify with the character, becoming concerned for his/her wellbeing. If this relationship between reader and character fails to develop, the story will fail to develop.
The central plot revolves around the main character. It is the sequence of events that makes situations develop within the story, and builds with conflicts arising, enveloping the protagonist who must then struggle to overcome it all. In a complex tale. You will most likely encounter supporting characters entering the arena where a tangent of subplots arises from counter problems. Subplots add pressure to the main conflict and propel the story to an even more powerful boiling point. We’ll discuss “boiling point,” which is the story’s climax, in a future article dealing with the subject of Story Development.
You may wonder at this point: How do I get the reader to develop a close relationship with my main character? The answer is: You, the writer, must first establish an intimate bonding with the persona you are creating; a bond that transcends through the words of your narrative and character dialogue. Remember to keep the character believable, even if s/he’s fantastically superhuman! In order for this transition of creation to occur, you, the writer, must know your protagonist, and all supporting characters, thoroughly—personally—which means knowing their likes, strong dislikes, quirks, habits, fears, attributes, secrets and, amongst all others, shortcomings. You can build a whole story just based on conflicts arising out of a character’s shortcomings, especially if you’re writing a comedy fiction.
I’m not suggesting that you must know your character totally and completely before you pour out your concept for a story. If you have a hot idea, then put your thoughts and pen to paper immediately, or as soon as possible. You may know nothing about the character from which your flash of ideas emerged. But, after that initial outpouring, and before the first rewrite, it’s time for you and your protagonist to get acquainted—intimately. Get inside your main character’s head. Find out what they did or what they were involved with that caused the story to materialize in your mind. What were you thinking, watching and doing that ignited the idea? Where were you?
Interrogate the protagonist. Don’t think that just because you’re the character’s creator you know what s/he would do in any given situation. In order for you to control your character, you must step out of yourself and into that character’s personality that may be completely, or even adversely, different from your own. This means, of course, that you’ve got to do your homework. While you’re questioning your character and getting inside their head, dig deep into their personality by asking some of the following questions and jotting down the answers:
Who are you, really? By what name do I call you?
Let me see you. What do you look like?
How old are you? Do you look your age?
I saw you as a man, but could/should you be a woman, or vice versa?
What is your ethnicity? Are you foreign or local? How well do you speak?
What is your educational level? Do you have a title or a degree?
What type of clothing do you usually wear around the house? How do you dress for work? Where do you work?
Are you rational, commonsensical, objective, analytical? Or are you intuitive, sensitive, perceptive, thoughtful, and subjective? Do you have any habits, talents, hobbies? If so, what are they?
Do you consider yourself excellent at what you do, or just “fair-to-middling”? Are you a conscientious worker—a white collar, blue collar, or manual laborer? Are you wealthy, middleclass, or poor? Do you work under contract?
Could you ever kill someone? Have you? Could you plot to murder another human being, a national figure, a leader of a terrorist group, or someone who has destroyed the life of a beloved? If you’ve killed someone or something was it on purpose, or accidental? Was it by military command or possibly under contract or by hire.
Tell me about your childhood. What was it like? Tell me about your lifestyle now. Describe yourself, and how you believe others perceive you.
I see you as single. Would you ever marry? Are you married? Children?
Do you consider yourself a happy person? Are you indifferent? Is life for you mundane, depressing? Are you a thrill seeker?
What are your fears: Heights? Spiders? Ghosts? The dark? Etc. …
Do you care about your fellowman, or are you only concerned about yourself. Has anyone ever called you a narcissist? What do others say about you?
Have you any emotional or psychological quirks? What are they? How emotionally stable would you say you are?
How well do you interact with others? What are your world views?
What are your views on marriage, sexual freedom, human sexuality?
What is your favorite color?
Do you know your attributes and shortcomings? What are they?
Have you any illegal indulgences? Are you ultra-straight and law-abiding, or do you flex under social pressures and influences? Do you drink alcohol? How much?
What foods do you like to eat, and what types of restaurants do you frequent?
Do you consider yourself passive, passive/aggressive, aggressive, or all-out controlling?
Do you seek power, or do you blend-in with the crowd?
So forth, and so on…
There will be many other questions your story idea will generate; therefore, be sure to ask them so that you know the answers.
After your interview, you may have more background material than you’ll use in your story. So what? At least you’ll know who you’re dealing with and what to expect from them. Remember, they are your creation. Therefore, the sky’s the limit!
C. R. Swainward