What makes you who you are?
The simple answer: your experiences. Every little thing you’ve done or been through shaped you into who you are. The complicated answer…well, that’s a story full of chemicals, synaptic transmissions, and science.
Why is this important? Authentic characters create believable plot. Well-rounded characters keeps the plot moving in a direction true to the actions and reactions of those characters. Your characters, even your antagonist, must be relatable. We don’t have to like them, but we do need to have empathy for them.
We, as readers, want to get lost in your work. We want to forget that these people don’t exist.
To do this, your characters can’t be mechanical. They have to make mistakes. They must be contradictive in their beliefs and actions. They must have flaws, and goals.
Real life is crazy. We want to read about that crazy. We want to know that we are not alone is our unpredictable reactions to unpredictable circumstances.
So, the big question then is: how do we create authentic characters?
To get to the core of your character’s personality, you need to go back to the beginning. Sometimes this means going back generations, especially when we’re looking at core values and story goals.
What are core values? Some examples are:
- Religious views
- Family views
- Gender roles (or lack of)
What are story goals? We have our major story goal, which is the main plot. What do your characters want and why do they want it? Your characters are going to want different things throughout the story, and many of them cause conflicts with other characters (hint: subplots).
Every upbringing is going to influence your characters traits and personality. No upbringing is the same, not even to siblings. Even if parents treat their children the same, no two people are alike. Even identical twins will have different experiences with the same event because they have different perspectives.
According to Vanessa Van Edwards (who is an idol to me) everyone has five core personality traits. Depending on which end of the spectrum you end up at depends on your personality. She even has a personality test you can take here for yourself or for your characters.
Let’s take a look at her five core personality traits.
- Openness- how easily a person adapts to change, how someone takes in experiences, and how someone reacts to new ideas.
- Agreeableness- how easily a person cooperates with others and gets along with them.
- Conscientiousness- how well a person desires to complete tasks and whether or not they focus on the big picture rather than smaller details.
- Neuroticism- how emotionally stable someone is.
- Extroversion- how people react emotionally around others. Do they get energy around others or are they drained?
Your character’s upbringing, again, will influence each of these traits. These are the positive sides of the traits but negatives can certainly be instilled. This is not to say that new experiences after childhood and their teenage years won’t influence a change in their personality, but the early years of your character’s life is going to be the foundation for the building blocks of their core beliefs.
Changing their personality is going to take emotional work on their part, so don’t have your characters start off one way and change to another without showing the work they put in. Chances are, you’re going to have to dig deep into their childhoods to explain their beliefs.
For instance, my personality has changed since I started therapy. Simple things such as making phone calls give me anxiety because my mind would go to the worst possible outcome in ten seconds.
I had to call the IRS for a copy of my tax return. My fear of asking for my copy of my tax return turned into fear that I could end up in jail. So, yeah, that escalated quickly and quite illogically. I eventually got the nerve up to make the call. I’d never been more happy for an automated machine to answer or felt sillier because it was so easy to get a copy.
But my work with facing my fear of asking for things for myself led me to getting a job I’ve wanted for a long time. My therapist and I made a small goal after the tax situation for me to go into my local bookstore and ask for an application. Turns out I can do stuff like that when I don’t think too hard about it and just go for it. I start working at the bookstore next week.
The point is, without making that call (which made me almost throw up due to panic), I would have never had the confidence to seek that job application. I would have never realized the key to face my fear was to not think too hard. If I’d never identified that core belief (that I expected the worst to happen) I could never have recognized when my thoughts were leading me astray.
I had to go back to the beginning to understand that belief. My dad gave me up for adoption when I was 10. I had no control over the circumstance, and there my need to take outcomes to extremes was born.
Awareness was the answer.
Hanan Parvez says on his site that, “Because of the experiences that people go through in life, they develop certain deep-seated beliefs, needs and ways of thinking. In order to fulfill their needs, they develop certain personality traits. They might not be aware of the reason why they have certain personality traits, but their mind is working in the background continually seeking ways to satisfy its needs.”
Understanding is key
I mentioned my current WIP, a novel called Kit. I wrote draft upon draft trying to figure out who she was. I couldn’t seem to get her personality quite right. I couldn’t make her pop on the page. Looking back at it, I see that while I knew her, I didn’t understand her.
I went back to the beginning. I knew a few things already, such as where Kit spent the last 15 years, including some early childhood. But I didn’t know how she spent it. How she was raised. I knew her life wasn’t easy. She was abused and terrorized by a man who kidnapped her when she was 4.
That kidnapper is the antagonist. In order to understand how Kit was raised, I had to understand how he “parented”. That meant going back to see how he was raised. I knew his story goal, so I had to figure out what led him to that story goal.
Though Kit is science fiction, it’s also an urban fantasy. Werewolves, shape-shifters, magic, and the like. The antag, an old werewolf, wants children, and Kit is his ticket, being a shape-shifter. He was born in a time where women were viewed as property, so even though it’s the 21st century now, that’s how he treated Kit. That’s how he was raised.
Though I dug deeper into his past to understand both him and Kit, his need for children who would not die in a human life span makes him relatable. Everyone wants a family. Old, crazy werewolves are no different.
I have many ways to get to know my characters. One is the simple backstory file or questionnaire. But I don’t feel as if that makes me know my characters. I know about them, but they are still just words on a page. Two dimensional.
My three favorite ways to get to know them are free writing scenes to see how they act in odd situations, journal entries, and interviewing them.
Free writing scenes entails putting my characters into situations to see how they react. I don’t force them to react the way I would, but instead I just let them be. If something doesn’t feel right, it means that I influenced them. I learn a lot about my characters by letting them react in free writing scenes.
I plan to include some varying journal entries in the beginning of each chapter (that relates to the chapter) in my novel Kit. Writing them helped me understand why Kit later reacts the way she does to events.
For instance, she hates parties. They make her anxious because the antag would throw her a party every year in celebration of her captivity. He’d lace the cake with drugs as a way to terrify her more when he forced her to eat it. She’d wake later with no recollection of what had taken place. She uses a party as a way to draw him out later in the novel, but a willing party is one of the hardest things she’s ever done.
Interviews are probably my favorite. I clear my mind and then envision I’m sitting across from my character. This is helpful especially when I feel stuck. I literally ask them what happened and they (mostly) fill in the blanks for me. I ask multiple characters the same questions, getting it from different perspectives, and come up with some great plot that way.
Stay tuned for part two.
What are some ways you get to know your characters? Comment below to share any tips or odd ways you dig deep to get into their heads.