The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development (Continued)

So I have been pondering about how best to breach this elusive concept of creating a fictional character. There are tons of charts and questionnaires on the internet. Some of these questionnaires are quite detailed and ask you to create a full bio for each of your characters. These things are important for your character’s back story; you need to know each of your characters with great depth so you can write them well and keep them true to themselves. But is the backstory the first thing to consider? Maybe. Maybe. But perhaps we should consider something else.

Why do readers relate to fictional characters? You know you’ve read that book and that character was so real for you, so impactful, that they somehow affected you on some level. You know the character is not a real person, and yet your mind allowed you to suspend your disbelief so you interpreted the character as a real human being.

What was it about that character that so intrigues us?

Fictional characters are portrayed as masters of their own destinies. They take risks we are too afraid to take, they do the impossible, and they make crazy decisions that somehow work out for the best in the end. Fictional characters are the authors of their own lives. None of these things is realistic on the surface. We know this! And yet we believe in the character’s self-consciousness because we believe in the character’s convictions. We want to be the authors of our own lives, so we accept the above scenario as a kind of reality. We suspend our disbelief.

This is completely delusional, but it’s true.

So what is needed for each character to succeed as a character? What will help make the character real?

Each character needs a desire. They need their own unique individual desire. If the character is part of a group and the group has a goal, that goal may be part of the individual character’s desire, but on top of that, or underneath that is their own unique individual desire that drives them forward. Ordinary people are prompted to do extraordinary things because of deep desire. Desire breeds conviction and your character must have it. What are the character’s goals? What motivates the character? How does this desire create conflict both internally and externally? Make the desire so great that your character must be determined to succeed at any cost.

Goals, motivations, and conflicts are the driving force of  your story.

Every character needs fear and weakness. They need to have something to lose, and the loss or the potential loss creates a fear that can overwhelm them. Or perhaps some fear that immobilizes them. What is that fear that your character must overcome to succeed? What will happen if they don’t succeed? What is at Stake? Fear can be a great motivator to make your character more determined to achieve their goal. Your character must also move forward despite their weakness, whatever that weakness is. They press on regardless of how much it hurts, or how incompetent they feel, or impossible the task is for someone like them. Overcoming weakness makes them extraordinary.

Your character should have hope. The only thing that can really overcome overwhelming fear and weakness is hope. You character will despair, but there will be some tiny glimmer of hope to move them forward. They must have hope. Otherwise, what else is there? They believe that they are right, that they are doing the right thing (even your antagonists believe they are doing the right thing) and so they must press on in spite of everything. There is no other choice. And hopefully, maybe, they will succeed.

You character needs one unique strength which no one else has. It could be the ability to stay rational in a crazy situation, or the ability to resist temptation of something, or physical strength, or incredible intellect. It’s not a super power. Your character isn’t a super hero (unless you are writing that kind of story). Your character is just an average person with one special strength thrown into extraordinary circumstances to achieve the impossible. Your character will use that strength in the midst of conflict and it will be that special strength that will get your character through to the next conflict, the next problem, the next trial.

Remember that your characters are the masters of their own lives, and these things help them reach their destinies.

Next time: More on Character Development

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