Every story needs strong characters with depth and scope for navigating the twisting, rapid waters of the plot. In many of the best instances of literature, great characters transcend the story itself and become more memorable for who they are rather than what they do. ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be a good example, the brooding hero Heathcliffe having great resonance with the reader. Sometimes it is not the hero who shines above the story; my memories of reading “Oliver Twist” keep drawing back to the character of Fagin (Dickens in particular was an early exponent of complex characters in classic literature).
Writers and novelists of today can leverage multimedia opportunities to add depth to their work including video promos and even employing actors and models to represent the characters they have created. But the basics of storytelling still start with the written word. So how do we find the words to give strength and depth to our characters? How do we build a whole character into something real before we have the story take them on an adventure?
There are three layers to consider when building deep, interesting characters for your story (I’ve used a medical analogy to bring to life the complexity of characters):
The Skeleton – the deepest level that provides the core for your character.
The Organs – the internal elements of the character that centres around the core
The Body – the external elements of the character and the most visible aspects
One of the first tricks is Character Profiling. A great deal of work exists that provide a framework for different personalities and archetypes so you can start designing the “skeleton” of your character. Theories from the likes of Aristotle, Satre and Jung give good models of human characteristics. Personality archetypes are very common across genres and storytelling platforms. I personally like using Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) profiles to shape the cores of my characters – I think I will write another blog specifically about that…
I sense some of you thinking “that sounds like a lot of work but I don’t want to constrain my character or follow a template, I want to design him or her from scratch – they are unique”. Fair enough. However, your character needs a core that readers can relate to easily. The considerable research and effort that has gone into designing and testing these theories and models is grounded in the real world and therefore, building your characters around these pre-existing profiles will give them a solid and believable foundation. Stray from the formula and people may not recognise your character and become associated with them.
After your “skeleton” is structured, you need to build some internal workings for your character; let’s call these your “organs” shall we? These are the vital yet invisible aspects of the character, in other words their inner voice. Again, you have a lot of great material that already exists if you have familiarity with psychology theories and you can probably find plenty of examples of how people feel emotions all around you (from family members to celebrities to the daily news).
If you need to think of the association between the skeleton and the organs, try to imagine your character in a certain situation and consider their subconscious and conscious responses. For example, if you have a pacifist suddenly thrust into a conflict scenario, how do they respond. At their core is a fight or flight choice that is deeply rooted in their subconscious but do they respond by laughing? Crying? Running? Bargaining? The emotions on the surface should be dictated by their deeper personality preferences.
At this point, it is important to remain true to the core of your character, your “skeleton” which holds everything in place. There needs to be some rational consistency between the personality and the emotions. For example, a character who is empathetic at their core should not respond in a callous or blasé manner when faced with a human tragedy. I am all for characters who provide contradictions or even surprise themselves but they are usually contradictions between the inner and outer character elements (i.e. what the character does or displays to others), not a contradiction between their deep personality and their emotions.
Speaking of the “outer character”, this is where words can be really powerful in defining who our characters are based on their actions and appearance (the third layer of our character). Many writers put a great deal of effort into carefully planning these details, from the texture of their hair to their specific dimensions to the minute blemishes on their clothes. For me, this effort can be vital to painting a vivid picture for the reader about the character but the real depth comes from the effort you put into defining the “skeleton” and the “organs”.
A couple of examples might help. Remember that pacifist we stuck into a conflict? Picture him in your mind and think about what he looks like at this moment in time. Is he sweating? Are his fingers twitching? Do his pupils narrow or does his heartbeat quicken? Maybe he chooses this moment to make a joke or a cold remark? The inner workings have calculated a very unique response which you can display in a way that tells the reader what that internal blend of emotions, principles, behaviours and thoughts actually looks like.
And what would our empathetic character look like? To give an extreme example, would they be more likely to wear real fur or all-natural wicker sandals? Maybe a t-shirt that says “I love all people” is going a bit too far but you get the idea. What would an empathetic person do about their hairstyle, vocabulary or accessories? Give careful consideration as to what the appearance of your character tells the reader about their inner character.
So you have created a character and literally designed the very DNA of an individual that is ready to play a role in the story you are writing. With detailed character design and a depth of character built in from the beginning of your writing journey, you should know exactly how they will react before you have even designed the path ahead of them.
Character development is one of my favourite topics and I plan to spend a bit more time going into this topic in future blogs. For now, here are a few tips which I have previously found useful in building a strong core to a character:
Test their responses to a range of different scenarios (i.e. things that may not appear in your story but may provide insight into how they would react to the triggers in your plot). How would you character respond if they won the lottery? Or walked into a bar and spotted their soulmate having a drink? Or being forced to watch a young child die of a horrible disease?
Map out more of their backstory than you plan to tell. Just because your audience does not need to know where your character went to school or what happened when their grandmother passed away, that does not mean you would not benefit from the insight. Each experience gives greater depth to your character so having extra experiences to draw from will give you a deeper understanding of the character.
Keep records! I know many writers wants to write and not be bothered by planning or preparations but keeping details about your character will help you get over those writers blocks and keep your character consistent (which in turn makes editing much easier in the longer term).
Go over the top “off page” to get a better result “on page”. That means that you can go to town on descriptions and details in your notes and records about your character if it means that you can narrow it down easier when it comes to what you put into your story. For example, you could use twenty words to describe the colour of your hero’s eyes if it means you can pull out that one perfect word that covers all twenty (it can be done).