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Developing Character Traits
by Tina Morgan


When creating a character, how in-depth do you delve into their motives for doing what they do? How far should you?

Every writer brings their own degree of understanding of the human psyche to their characters but do they convey that knowledge on paper?

There are three points to consider when creating an life-like character:

How far can you go?
How far should you go?
Are you successfully portraying your character's personality and motivations?

How far can you go is answered in part by your own personal experiences and understanding. If you have a difficult time understanding other people's motives then it will be more difficult for you to explore characters that feel or think differently than you do.

Consider: If you are in a monogamous relationship, would you have an affair for any reason? Why? Why not?

If infidelity is a concept you cannot imagine for yourself, can you empathize with your cheating character well enough to portray him/her accurately? Conversely, if you find having an affair to be second nature, can you write a faithful character without slipping into an uptight, narrow-minded stereotype?

This is only one scenario. The possibilities are endless for conflict between your own beliefs and your characters mores.

Can you:
steal?
kill?
cheat?
betray?

Have you?
(No, I'm not asking for personal accounts nor do I or the other editors condone or encourage criminal activity.)

If you've ever cheated on a test at school could you expand on your reasons and use them to understand why your character might feel the need to cheat on their business records or significant other? People cheat for a variety of reasons. Fear of failure, fear of disappointing a parent or mentor, fear of the trouble they might get into if they fail: ie: criminal prosecution should their company go bankrupt.

We all have needs that must be met for us to function in life. These can be as simple as food, shelter and clothing. The basics. Or they can be as complex as having our feelings validated by those we love or consider important. How our needs are met are different for each person and should be different for each character you create.

How far should you go is determined in part by your target audience and your own personal writing style. If you're writing an action packed thriller, then the antagonist's motives won't be as important as if you're exploring the inner workings of Hannibal Lechter's mind in Silence of the Lambs. Even within the same genre, in this case, thrillers, there is a wide range of character development.

However, while most genres allow for a broad variety in writing styles, the literary novel or short story relies heavily on exploring the characters' inner thoughts and motivations. External conflicts aren't as important as the internal conflicts within your character's mind. For the literary writer, understanding how and why your character is going to react (or not react) is crucial. While all genres depend on a well-told story with characters that make sense to the reader, other genre stories can be plot driven and still sell well and be critically acclaimed. Literary is limited in that characterization is the driving force behind the story.

So if you have difficulty in empathizing with other people and their struggles, does that mean you shouldn't write literary stories? No, but it does mean that it may be more difficult for you. What you hope to accomplish with your writing should help you decide if you want to pursue this challenge or not. If you enjoy reading stories that delve into the inner thoughts of the characters and that is the style you've always dreamed of emulating then don't let a lack of empathy deter you.

Like so many others before me, I am going to stress that it is very important to read the genre you hope to write. If you think you would enjoy writing fantasy, then read it. If you want to be the next literary giant, then read all the literary stories you can find the time to read. Why? Because if you want to be published then you need to have an idea if the story you're writing is going to fit into your target market. If not, then will it fit into another and has it been done before? Eventually you'll finish the story and if you're going to seek publishing, then you will need to know how to market your work. If you write simply for the pleasure of it and you don't intend to let anyone read your work, then write whatever you want and have fun with it. Genres are a marketing tool.

Are you successfully portraying your character's personality and motivations?

How do you know if you are or not? The only way to find out is to allow someone else to read your work and give their opinion of what they've read. (That's an entirely different article) Once you're allowed someone to do that and they've said your characters need work, you're going to have to take a close look at how you're portraying them.

Actions speak louder than words. You can say your character is nervous all you want but if you put them in the thick of the action and they successfully overcome their problems without breaking a sweat, then you haven't developed them well enough. This is where show vs tell becomes critical to your story telling.

How do you bring out your character's traits without telling the reader: Mary is a nervous person? Consider the people you know. How do they portray nervousness? Biting nails, fidgeting nervously with the strap on their purse, rattling change in a pocket, or running a hand over their head or through their hair? Some people will nervously shred a stem of grass or pluck leaves from a tree or shrub. Still others will tap their feet or clear their throat.

If you can't think of a way to portray your character's unique personality, do a little people watching. If you're looking for a way to show that your character is actively looking for a sexual partner, go to a local nightclub or if you need a more demure character, consider a religious social. (Watch the stereotypes, some people are blatant in any setting.) What do you see? Flipping hair, licking lips, lingering stares, standing closer than the social norm?

Showing a character's aggressive nature can be done in a lot of subtle ways too. Don't forget dialogue. Aggression can be shown in abusive or overly sophisticated language. Physical posturing is important as well. Does the character ask others to sit while he/she stands over the other person? Do they only confront others in an office, where they can sit behind a desk in a seat of power? Think back on the bosses you've had. There is often a wide range of power plays going on in the work force and this is an excellent place to start observing that dictator for your historical novel or futuristic science fiction battle scene.

Phobias are also an important part of how a person behaves. Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are so terrified of certain things that their fear becomes a phobia. Imagine your arachnophobic character reacting normally to the presence of a huge spider in the room. "Normally" in this instance would involve screaming, running from the room and being unable to continue a conversation until the thing that person fears is removed.

A character's deep-seated fears have the ability to expose a little of his or her history and emotional make-up. Introducing those fears into the plotline is also an excellent tool for creating further tension in your story.

Don't forget your own family, both immediate and extended. What sort of personalities do you see and what is it about their behavior that makes you feel the way you do about them?

Even an introverted person can watch and take mental notes of how other people act. As a shy teen lacking in social skills, I used to go watch other teens at my local mall. While I didn't talk to any of them, I observed the way they talked, walked and acted. I learned a lot about flirting even though I'm not the type of person to play many social games.

If you have a difficult sympathizing with other people then you might find doing a bit of role-playing makes it easier to write your characters. Put yourself in their situation. Be warned though that this can limit your characters to extended versions of yourself. You don't want every character to react the way you would. You want them to be as varied as the people you meet and talk to every day.

How far can you go?
Stretch your thinking power for this exercise. Examine your characters and note the way they move, the way they respond. Are there similarities between your characters? What are you doing to dispel those similarities? Are you using your abilities to portray their unique personalities?

How far should you go?
Examine the story you want to tell and how important it is to detail your character's little traits. Remember, everybody acts differently under stress, so not all of your characters will have the same reactions. Do a word-check on the amount of times you use the words 'grin' and 'frown' and 'smile'. You'll be surprised how often they show up. Break them down and give your character a unique attribute. Don't forget to look at the little things they do that can build suspense and tension to your story.

Are you successfully portraying your character's personality and motivations?
A person's history and upbringing play a large part in forming the person they will become. In fiction, however, it is not vital to give the background of every single character you introduce. Instead, you can give the reader hints about the character's history in small portions throughout the story. Sprinkle in the details, so the reader gradually becomes aware of why the character is behaving the way he is.

You may have to seek outside input to know if you are succeeding in showing. But before you do that, you can edit your work with the thought of how your characters act, speak and think.


Copyright 2002 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved

 

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