When people learn that I write fiction, I’m often asked to describe my main characters and, specifically, they ask how I develop the concepts for those characters. The answer is simple: from observing people in their everyday lives. The long answer, however, is much more complex.
While it’s true that a character is often based on real life experiences, transforming a mental image of someone into a fictional character is an intricate process. It’s comparable to applying multiple layers of varnish onto a raw piece of furniture. You apply, buff, reapply and buff some more before the grains of finish develop depth and beauty.
In a similar way, character development layers all the components of a person (or several different people) in order to build a multi-dimensional being that the reader can connect with in the two-dimensional world of literature.
In the process of developing a character, I follow something I call my 3P Model. I structure a character physiologically, psychologically and philosophically.
The Physical Aspects of a Character: You should have a good idea what your character looks like before conveying that to a reader. Physical appearance is the first to lock down in your own mind. Even if you never describe that character’s anatomical features, you should visualize a definite physical image. Appearances often influence how others act around a person and, although we need not specifically state what a person looks like, hints at physical attributes give the reader much needed information to arrive at an accurate mental image, how the character acts and how others may react in their presence.
Keep in mind, however, that only rookie writers actually go into detail describing a character. Instead of saying, “She’s five foot eleven, has red hair and weighs 110-lbs”, you might say, “Her legs went on forever, her waistline the envy of most women, her flaming hair a perfect complement to her peaches and cream complexion,” or some other subtle, more pictorial description. Be creative, not biological, when describing characters.
The Psychology of the Character: A character’s mental state – their feelings and their perceptions of the world around them – drive their actions. This is where background development becomes so important. Create a virtual life for your main characters, a pedigree that makes them who they are and which determines their actions. For example, a person raised in a loving family with close siblings would react differently in a given situation than a person who grew up in foster care or reform school.
It’s said that we are the product of our life experiences. For readers to be able to connect with the characters we create, we have to construct full lives for those characters we write about. That means where and how they were raised and educated and what sacrifices they endured to reach their present state of being. Most of what you envision (preferably in a brief outline) will never actually be stated in your book unless it’s important for the story’s progress, but it provides valuable information to direct your character and the story.
Knowing how a character would feel in a scene provides important visual clues that you can use to indicate what a character is thinking and feeling without wasting dialogue. For instance, a character fidgeting indicates nervousness and putting a hand over the mouth could express disbelief.
The reader should be satisfied that a character is acting appropriately in any given scene. Your job as a writer is not only to write the scene but also to direct your characters to act accordingly. A reader should never say, “Hmm, he would never have done that!” It takes the reader out of the story and you lose the reader’s emotional connection to the character.
The Character’s Philosophy: Each of us has opinions and beliefs about most any given subject. Our characters should also to be definitive, and those distinct beliefs and philosophies are what drive the story one way or the other. An indifferent character doesn’t make for good storytelling.
A character can be indecisive initially and that can create important dramatic tension, but then their inner principles must take over. Without a character with strong viewpoints, there’s no reason for the character to take action and the story doesn’t progress. Action moves a story forward and motivates our protagonists and antagonists to do what they should do to entertain the reader.
Characters should be good or evil, but rarely neutral. Good and evil characters create and drive a story. A villain’s selfishness and greed make good fiction as well as the altruistic concerns of a hero, but neutral characters don’t. They may be necessary to create a realistic background, but they don’t propel the story to any formidable conclusion and are always secondary.
Finally, success is in the details. A well-conceived character has likes, dislikes, and specific needs – just as real people do. Everyone has merits, flaws and quirks. Your dialogue and narrative should be peppered with those of your main characters. The more these individual traits are exposed, the more emotional connection the reader has with a character. Make your characters real and believable by first making them real to you.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
James J. Murray