I am teaching a short course at my daughters’ school this month. Three sessions of about 90 minutes each, all of them focused on issues relating to character (character development; point of view and voice; dialog and plot). We had our first class meeting this past Friday evening and had a terrific discussion. And it made me realize that it had been some time since I had posted on character issues.
When I begin work on my characters — not just my main character and her/his antagonist, but also major secondary characters — I tend to gather a great deal of information on them. Over the years I have found a convenient way of thinking of the various categories of detail that I like to have for each character, and that’s where the ABCs come in. It’s not just the basics, it’s also a helpful mnemonic. Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance — ABC.
Let’s start with Attributes. These are fairly straightforward and self-explanatory. What is your character’s name? What does your character look like? What race? Gender? Religion? What does she do for a living? Is she married? In a relationship? Looking for someone new? Does she have kids? Where does she live? How does she move and speak and interact with people? What does she do with her spare time? What music does she like? What are her favorite foods? Obviously, a lot of this information is unnecessary. I don’t necessarily have a list of hobbies, favorite foods, and musical preferences for all of my characters. But I might have a favorite food for one, an interesting hobby for another, a musical preference for a third. The point is to come up with details about your characters that begin to make them come alive, that make them more than just names and physical descriptions on a page. I don’t necessarily share all of these details with my reader. Some of it is stuff I need to know so that I have a clear sense of each character as a person. But some of it is necessary. Attributes are more than just collections of information. They are the markers our readers use to distinguish our characters from each other. How many of you have read books with a lot of characters only to find that the names of these characters begin to blur after a while. Attributes — markers — help with this. If Sally is merely another woman in the story, we might not remember her. If Sally is the tall redhead who loves sushi and repairs vintage cars in her spare time . . . well, now we have something to remember.
Backstory is also pretty much self-explanatory. Where does your character come from? What was her childhood like? What events from her past have shaped her personality, her world view, her ability to get along with other people she encounters in your book? When she smells leaves burning in the fall, or hears strains of “Love Me Do” coming from a car radio, what memories stir inside of her? Again, we don’t need to catalog every memory. But, like Attributes, Backstory is more than just something to put on an index card. This is where the secrets are. This is where we find the seeds of plot, of conflict. This is where we find the weaknesses and strengths that will shape our character’s ability to respond to all the crap we’re going to throw in her path over the next 400 pages. Because now we know that Sally is not only the tall redhead who loves sushi and repairs antique cars. As a child, she was also the sole witness to the murder of her father, who was an auto mechanic in Wilkes Barre. Early on, she turned to repairing cars rather than putting on make-up and trying to meet boys because she had a terrible stammer — a souvenir of that horrific night at her father’s shop.
Circumstance is what ties your character to your narrative. What is happening to your character right now that will change the trajectory of her life, that will bring together her Attributes and her Backstory, and force her to deal with the other characters you place in her path? In other words, Circumstance is what propels your plot forward. Circumstance is the discovery Sally makes while rummaging through the boxes of papers from her father’s shop — papers she hasn’t looked at in years. She has always assumed that her father’s killer was the husband of a woman with whom he had been having an affair. But while looking for the invoice for that old ’63 Thunderbird that’s been sitting out back forever, she finds a cryptic note that seems to tie her father to the local crime boss. The crime boss is old now — a shell of what he was. But his son is running for mayor, and the son’s car is sitting in her lot, waiting for a brake job.
And suddenly, we have a story.
I don’t go into this much detail for every character. Doing so would take way too much time, and would leave me with a lot of superfluous information. But for the Thieftaker books, for instance, I have this kind of detail not only for Ethan and his nemesis, Sephira Pryce. I also have it for Ethan’s love, for his best friend, for the villain of each book (Ethan usually has two villains to deal with — Sephira, and a second foe who is particular to each stand alone mystery), for his ex-fiancee, for a young minister who has become his friend and confidant, and for a second sorcerer who sometimes helps him with his investigations. I don’t use every detail in every book, and in fact, I don’t use every character in each volume. Trevor Pell, the minister, plays a major role in book I, but a much smaller role in the second book.
But because I have all of this information at my disposal — I keep track of it all in Scrivener — I can draw upon episodes from one character’s past for one volume, and then use a different character’s backstory for the next. I might never use all the information I’ve gathered, but I feel comfortable knowing that I have lots to draw upon if I choose to continue the series for several more books.
Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance — as with anything else, this mnemonic might not work for you. There is, after all, no right way to do any of this. But these ABCs have proven helpful for me over the years. And maybe they will for you, too.David B. Coe