As I dip my toes into various hobbies and careers, I’ve made a life out of random self-identifications. Sometimes I’m an actor, sometimes I’m a director, sometimes I’m a manger, sometimes I’m a designer. And that’s just in my theatre life! Sometimes I tell people I’m a writer, sometimes I tell people I’m the manager of a lighting company, sometimes I tell people I’m just a hack who tries to be funny on panels. My point is, there are a lot of ways that we identify ourselves, and those self-identifiers vary depending on situation.
The same is true for our characters. Bubba the Monster Hunter behaves differently (believe it or not) when he’s in a strip club than when he’s in a church. Not much differently, but there’s generally less tipping in church. But it’s important for us as writers to keep a handle on how our characters identify themselves depending on the circumstances. Do they sometimes take the lead, and sometimes fall back? Do secondary characters take over when we move into “their” world? And that leads to a balancing act, of course, because while you have to keep a firm handle on which character is driving the story, sometimes a secondary character needs to be the focus for a little while.
Note to self – this doesn’t work so much when you write in first person. Try third-person POV when you want to play with this.
I recently finished reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, the four-book series that started with Eragon (fans of the book pretend there was never a movie with the same name, much like some fans of Star Wars insist that there really were only three movies). Inheritance, the fourth book, was very centered on the concept of a character’s “true name,” that name that embodied everything about a person, all their flaws, all their good qualities, all their experiences, hopes and dreams. A true name isn’t a new concept, of course, it’s also featured prominently in the musical CATS (and yes, I know it was based on T.S. Eliot). But the concept is important because as writers we need to keep a handle on the true name and nature of our characters, so that we know not just how we identify them in various settings, but how they identify themselves in various settings. And then we can use that understanding to see how the characters self-identify to explore what role they take in a scene.
And yeah, we kinda have to do this work for all of the characters. At least the non-cardboard ones. The ones that exist solely to fill out a trope you might be able to skip the work on, but most of the time you’re going to have to crawl inside the character, get to know their hopes, dreams, fears and failures before you can truly write them. Because before you can tell us anything about anyone, you must know what they see when they look in a mirror.