Characters Beneath the Skin
By Lazette Gifford
A character is more than a series of brush
strokes that paint in the color of his hair and eyes, the tilt of his head
when he's glaring, and the meticulous way he dresses. Those are all the
outer signs of his personality. A person is more than how he looks, and if
you want your characters to be more than painted pictures, then you need to
delve more deeply into their being and look at not only their personalities,
but what created those personalities. Some people do this automatically,
but others may need a few pointers to create a character with more
dimensions than just his painted exterior.
Below are twelve points to consider when
creating your characters. These are motivation and background areas that
you may have considered subconsciously, but you can still benefit from
looking more closely at the different aspects and see if there's something
more you can do -- some quirk that will make your character stand out.
(Extrovert, Introvert, etc.)
Is your character outgoing, ready to take
on any challenge? Or is he quiet, thoughtful, and helping in ways that may
not put him in the limelight? There are a number of websites where you can
study the various types of personality characteristics associated with these
two extremes. Fine-tuning this aspect can add subtlety to your
characterization, but take care that you don't overdo it.
Even in fantasy it's rare for the hero to
have been born to the role he takes in the story -- or if he was, he usually
lost for a few years working as something else. People are trained to do
certain jobs in life, whether that's(in the case of fantasy) to follow in a
parent's footsteps or apprentice to a guild. Science fiction may have a
slightly wider range of possibilities, but a person still needs to learn
some craft in order to survive. If you are working in a science fiction
world, what different work would you expect? What work would you expect to
stay the same?
In real world stories the work a person
does is even more important, of course, because we look for flaws in the
logic of her job. A kid stocking shelves at WalMart is not going to have a
three-day weekend over a holiday. A woman working as an assistant to a
lawyer might well have come across some important information about the firm
she works for.
Think about how your character lives from
day to day and what help that job might be in other areas.
3. Status (Current
Position in Society)
The present position in society not only
affects how and when the character might deal with others, but often also
brings with it a certain relationship with authority. Someone high up in
society is expected to have a better relationship with police (though this
may not always be the case) than someone born in a slum.
How your character is treated by others
because of his status can have an important impact on the story.
If your character came from a large family,
chances are she'll be fairly good at handling larger groups, both in
personal relationships and in feeding and caring for them.
If she comes from a large family she might
even have a number of relatives scattered around to whom she can turn. On
the other hand, the orphaned character may create a family out of strangers
more readily and not bring the baggage of expectations.
At any rate, how a person grew up is
another key to his personality.
5. Family Wealth
Born to the purple? Born in a shack? Has
your character fallen from former glory, or worked her way up from squalor
People who came of age during, say, an
economic depression will sometimes swing to extremes with their possessions.
Some will shed everything they can to stay forever unencumbered -- but in
truth, quite often that is a fear that if they get possessions, they will
lose them. Having nothing means they have nothing to lose.
Others in the same situation might have
trouble parting with anything they own, not out of a fear they will need it,
but out of a fear of diminishing their holdings in some way, and having less
than they will need if another depression hits.
The economic conditions under which the
character grew up will often affect his expectations of even minor things,
like clothing, food, places to stay, etc.
6. Major Changes
Did your character never have a care in the
world until the world suddenly crumbled around her for this story? That can
make an interesting enough tale... or you may want a character who has
survived some hardships and heart-wrenching loses already.
Or was your character someone in a lot of
trouble -- who created the trouble for himself and didn't really give a damn
until something unfortunate happened? Trouble is a part of everyone's life
to one degree or another. Examine the kinds of trouble that changed your
character's life, and how those changes now affect the new trouble.
7. Fears and Phobias
Quite often phobias are confined to the
villain of the story, who has a fear of contamination, or cats, or any other
dozen things. Why does the hero rarely have a fear he can't control? Or
Phobias are the far end of the fear
spectrum, but there are levels before that line from distaste to dislike and
to fear. A person need not become manic at the sight of a thundercloud to
fear storms, but might have a slightly irrational reaction to them. We
generally dislike what we fear and fear what we dislike. That can be played
on many different levels in a story.
Here are two links to lists of several
phobias. You might want to do an in-depth study of any you choose,
especially if you want a full-blown phobia and not just something that
creates an occasional moment of distress.
For anyone who has read the fifth Harry
Potter novel (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), a certain
'phrase' immediately indicates trouble. 'Hem hem' is a sound made by one of
the more annoying and troublesome characters in the book. The use of this
little tag -- indicative of clearing one's throat -- was a perfect way to
alert the reader to upcoming trouble.
C.J. Cherryh used a similar method in her
two book set, Heavy Time and Hellburner. In these books a
character had gone through a traumatic accident, and when he's found a
question he continually asks is "What time is it?" That line plays an
important role in the first book, and when he utters it again in the second,
it is a sure sign that something is wrong.
Traits can also be physical -- running
fingers through the hair when upset, tapping the foot when anxious, or any
other little quirk. Like other things, though, don't overdo it.
Everyone has a weakness. Weaknesses are
sometimes not flaws, but rather something you like too well. In real life
some of us might say that chocolate or kittens are our weaknesses. In a
novel, except for a little comic relief, you might want to look for
something a little more serious.
Is a mother's weakness her wayward son, for
whom she will do just about anything? Is a coworker's weakness his pride,
which he lets get in the way of his better judgment?
(Friends, Lovers, Coworkers, Neighbors)
How well does your character get along with
others? Does she have natural charisma, so that everyone follows her lead?
Does she have lots of friends, and is she a shining light to her family?
Is he the type of neighbor that the others
in the apartment building don't even notice? The 'He seemed like such a
nice, normal guy' sort of neighbor who turns up on the news when you least
Does he have sworn enemies? Friends who
will stand with him when everyone else in the world has turned against him?
If so... why? Why does he have sworn enemies and steadfast friends? What is
it in his personality that inspires that sort of fanaticism?
This is the character's bottom line
motivation within the novel. What does this character want by the end of
the story? What keeps the main character, and the main character's
companions, moving forward against the odds when it might be easer to run in
the opposite direction and never have to deal with this trouble again?
Sometimes there is no logic in doing the
'right' thing. It becomes altruistic. It will help if the character, at
least on some previous occasion, works in some selfless way to help others
even when it does nothing for him.
12. The Hard Question
What could the villain of your story offer
the hero that might actually tempt him to give up the good fight? Is it the
lives of his friends, whom he fears he might lose? In a romance it might be
the offer of a better life for the heroine and her family. Would your
fantasy heroine be tempted by her village left unharmed? The return of a
There are other questions you might come up
with as you look these over. Make a list and keep it some place so that you
can go over it with your next novel. Just be careful of 'laundry list'
characters who have all the 'fill in the blanks' characteristics, but none
of the depth to go with them.