How do we make our characters work? What is the secret to creating believable, compelling characters who will capture our readers’ hearts and make our stories more than a set of plot points? I’m of the opinion that good characters are the single most important element of effective storytelling. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this; lots of people would agree with me on that. But while most of us might agree on the things that make for good characters, we would probably have a harder time explaining how one goes about creating them. How do you teach character development? (I’ve been teaching writing this summer, serving as mentor for a talented graduate student in a master’s program, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how one explains the various components of good writing.)
I’ve written before about the background work I do on my major characters. I try to establish a history for each of them, much as I would for a world I create: Upbringing, family life, major events from childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood (assuming the character is an adult). I gather as much detail as I can on the circumstances of his/her current life: profession, friendships, romantic relationships, etc. And I establish personality traits: easygoing or prickly, even tempered or moody, social adept or awkward, gregarious or a loner; confident or insecure. Naturally, the choices are not always as clear-cut as that list implies; there are gradations. But you get the idea. I do everything I can to get to know my characters, so that when I start writing about them or narrating from their point of view, I can get the voice right and make each character something more than a list of attributes. Ideally, I want my characters to come alive, to begin to carry the story and even change the story to fit his/her needs.
But there is more to character than developing this portrait and then animating it in prose. I believe that ultimately the creation and development of an effective character is an act of empathy. I begin by gauging what my own emotional responses would be to the situations I throw at my characters, and drawing on my own emotional experiences, the good and the bad. We all carry this stuff within us. At one point or another in our lives we’ve felt a tremendous range of emotions. When I was a younger man, I was prove to terrible bouts of jealousy — not admirable, and not conducive to healthy relationships. But though I’ve learned to tame my inner green-eyed beast, I haven’t forgotten what it felt like. And thank goodness! I can write jealousy quite well now, thank you very much. Many years back, I lost both my parents within a year of each other. It was a difficult time, but one that has made me a stronger person, and that has given me insights into emotional pain that have served me well as a writer in the years since.
So we draw upon our own emotional responses, and impart them to our characters. But first we also have to blend those personal emotional responses with our understanding of the character him- or herself. We all respond to things differently depending on our temperament, our experiences, our upbringing, our moods at a given time, etc — all that stuff we learned about our characters when doing that background work. Good character work takes all of these things into account.
Let me put this another way. In my mind, my characters are real people. They have distinct voices. They have needs and desires and impulses. I write them, but I don’t control them. They surprise me all the time, doing things as I write about them that I don’t expect, sometimes taking my stories places I didn’t foresee. Now, you can argue that they are part of my subconscious and that on some level I AM controlling them. But that’s not how it feels. When my creative juices are flowing, they feel like independent beings and I listen to them and give them consideration the way I would my real world friends. And that’s what this comes down to. When we deal with our friends, we don’t deal with them in exactly the way we would want to be dealt with ourselves, because we understand that each friend is different. We try to put ourselves in their shoes, to see the world from their perspective, so that we can help them with a problem or share their outrage or their joy or excitement. That’s where the empathy comes in, and that’s what all need to learn to do with our characters.
I have lots of insecurities, but there are a few things I feel confident about. I believe that I’m a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. I listen well, and I’m good at anticipating the emotional needs of the people I love. I also write good characters. There are others things that writers do better than I do, but I feel that my character work is pretty strong. And I believe that the things that make me a good dad and husband and friend and the same things that make me a good writer. I listen to my characters. I step out of myself and into their minds and hearts, and I feel what they feel.
Befriend your characters; treat them as you would the people in your life who mean the most to you. It will make you a better writer. And — this has certainly been the case for me — it might also make you a better friend.