For example, in many mystery series characters may or may not be well-developed but they seldom change over the course of a book and sometimes not even over the course of the series. The use of stock characters in science fiction and fantasy are not limited to red-shirts doomed to die at the end of the first act. And romance novels seem to revel in the use of stereotypes and clichés. And really, as a reader or viewer, you can enjoy a piece of fiction enormously even if the characters are little more than cartoons (witness the recent success of Avatar). Nor does the lack character development and transformation limit a work from taking a major place in the history of literature. Sherlock Holmes is essentially unchanged from the first story to the last and yet is viewed as the quintessential detective character. I would argue it is his lack of change, his solidity of character, you might say, that makes him so appealing over the decades.
In my view though, a story, and particularly a novel is not complete if there is not a character we can get inside of, can follow through his journey, and at some level can care about. This is not about likable characters – indeed some of the most memorable characters in literature are not particularly likable. Yet they all face real human dilemmas and how they solve them (or don’t) not only reveal something about their character, it reveals something about ours.
So how do you begin to give life to the characters in your novels? I think the first rule to remember is that character is not unchanging. Every human being is a work in progress. At least I like to think so. We are impacted by the events of our lives and changed by the choices we make. No doubt our experiences are mediated by our genetic make-up and our up-bringing but nature and nurture in themselves only take us so far. There is that spark, that essential “I,” which in the end helps use find out not only who we are but why we are who we are? And that is the interesting part.
If you don’t care about the character, it hardly matters what happens to them; if nothing happens to the characters it is hard to care about them at all. So this is the task of the writer, to present people who seem real, that other people can care about and then over the course of the novel, show how they change in the face of the events they experience.
Let’s start with the first part: creating real people. When I used to act and direct, one of the ways in which we were able to flesh out characters was to create back story. Ideally, this was completely grounded in the text; at the very least, not contradicted by it. Back story may be details of education or family background implied by the way a character speaks or the kind of stories they tell. Some actors would develop lists of favourite foods, music, clothes and so on. My job as the director was to make sure that this supported the performance and didn’t get in the way of it. As a writer, my job is pretty much the same – develop sufficient character details to create a sense of verisimilitude without letting the exercise get in the way of the story.
As soon as I have an idea of the broad plot outline and who the main characters are, I begin developing character bios. Starting with a name and an age, I then outline the characters early life, their education, work history and life, their physical characteristics and social life and then move on to their internal life and values. I finish with three brief writing exercises – a 250-word obituary, a 500-word typical day in the life of the character and the response in as many words as it requires to the question: What happened a week, a day and an hour before the story starts?
So what might that look like? Here is an excerpt from the character of Grace Patterson from my play, “The Infallible Laws of Love.”
NAME: GRACE PATTERSON
AGE: 25 BIRTHDAY: FEBRUARY 29, 1892
WHERE WAS HE/SHE BORN? Maccan, Nova Scotia
WHAT SOCIAL CLASS? Working
FATHER'S NAME: Robert James Patterson
FATHER'S OCCUPATION: Various, Coal miner, carpenter and, in his later years, gardener.
MOTHER'S NAME: Sarah Anne (McLeod) Patterson
MOTHER'S OCCUPATION: Seamstress
BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Seven brothers, all older (David, James, Robert Jr., Andrew, Douglas, Michael, Steven)
Six children died in infancy - four sisters, two brothers.
EDUCATIONAL LEVEL: Four years of formal education (age 7 to 11), but she can read and write quite proficiently and has a solid grasp of basic mathematics. She reads widely.
SUCCESS AT SCHOOL: Did very well in her four years - actually completing at an informal level the first eight years of instruction. Being in a one room school house helped this process. Her eldest brother, David (6 years older than James and eighteen older than Grace) grew up when the family was more prosperous and actually went to school for seven years. He works as an accounts clerk in Amherst and helped Grace with her studies.
DID SHE SOCIALIZE? Grace was very tomboyish and big for her age. She gathered quite a following of children, including for a few years Winnie who attended the same elementary school for two years. Though two years younger than Grace, Winnie was in the same age cohort. This early experience as a leader and organizer was an important factor in her present activism. The two years with Winnie is the first building block in their present day relationship.
DESCRIBE FIRST DATE: Grace went to a church social with a cousin when she was fourteen. He raped her on the way home. She never told anyone but several years later had an opportunity for revenge that left the cousin permanently lame but unable to assign blame to her. Since then she has been wary of men - though she doesn't hate them. She sees her cousin as a bad sort - representing only a certain type. Her "fraternal" relations with union members has shown her both the possibilities and limitations of equality.
If you want to see the full list of questions, you can find it here.
Once I know the starting point of my character, the next step is to figure out how they will be changed by the actions of the plot. These changes cover the gamut from physical to financial as well as changes to their emotional life and value system. This is called the character arc and I’ll talk more about that in my next post.