It starts with a quirk.
Perhaps it’s the way my heroine will only drink her coffee if she’s stirred it with her left hand and how she’ll only lift the cup to her lips using her right hand. Maybe it’s the way my hero can’t go to sleep at night without first setting up the coffee pot for the morning, then checking all the doors and windows to ensure they are closed and locked and finally singing himself the lullaby his momma sang to him hen he was a child.
It could be anything, really – the point is that my process of creating a character starts with something which might be considered a flaw to some, or might be nothing more than an out-of-the-ordinary habit. I do this for several reasons:
- People are flawed. We have habits, rituals, superstitions and other things we do for no other reason than “we have to do them”. Characters in a story should have these traits as well.
- People have history. Whether it is due to an unsupportive parent while growing up or luck or bullies or something else good or bad, we are all a sum of our life experiences and these experiences shape who we are at any given moment and how we react to external stimuli. Characters in a story have a history, too, and as authors we need to know it.
- People are layered. I think back to a scene in the movie Shrek in which Shrek compares himself to an onion because onions have layers. It was certainly a funny scene, but it was (in my opinion) a very true-to-life scene. There is usually much more to a person than what you see on the surface. I might be conservative in 99% of my views, but perhaps I’m highly liberal in financial matters. Or I might be very quiet, subdued and anti-violence in all things, yet I absolutely love watching ultimate fighting and do not miss a fight (and you’d better not call when there is one on). These seemingly conflicting personality traits are part of what make us who we are, and our characters should have these conflicts as well.
Now, different authors will write in different ways and will certainly create characters in different ways. I take this approach of starting with a quirk or a flaw because for me it opens up plot possibilities. Characters feel more “real” to me if they have a weakness or a strength which can be exploited in the plot. What happens when my hero gets a phone call just before he goes to bed and is distracted from signing his lullaby? If he wakes up the next day and the world is falling apart, does he blame himself for not sticking to his ritual or does he shrug it off? Myself, I am a creature of habit and I do, in all honesty, jump to the conclusion that if I forget part of my evening ritual and then have a bad morning the next day, it was due at least in part to my failure to stick to my routine.
What happens in the plot when my characters beliefs are challenged by the universe or by another character? Does he or she change the belief or does the challenge help to solidify the trait within them? I learn a lot about my characters by challenging them to hold onto what they believe or to grow into new, revised beliefs. And, as a bonus, when the characters grow, the possibility to explore this new growth is yet another new avenue in the plot.
This is not to say that characters in a story should be all over the map, a random mix of insanely conflicted traits that make no sense and/or would damage the fabric of the space/time continuum. Certainly not. The key for me is to look at them and say to myself: “If I were wandering the streets of New York City (or Cairo or Tokyo or the village of T’elok Nor in the Great Battle Republic of G’narilous Prime in the distant Gamma Sector of the galaxy), might I meet someone like this?” If the answer is “no”, then I need to reconsider the character and perhaps tweak them to make them more realistic. If the answer is “yes”, then my decision becomes one of determining what would happen if the Village Elder from T’elok Nor in the Great Battle Republic of G’narilous Prime in the distant Gamma Sector of the galaxy suddenly woke up in New York on a chilly Thursday in March.
Ultimately, character building is something I love to do because it allows me to explore a lot of possibilities about the universe and if building the character involves researching other cultures or lifestyles it can help me understand other people in the real world. Building strong characters also helps me to build strong plots because the interaction of these flawed and/or complex characters can not only drive the plot but also open up new areas of the story’s universe to explore.
I know there are other ways to build characters for stories than how I go about it. So what is your method? How do you take a character from a one-dimensional name on a page and turn them into a multi-faceted, living and breathing being?