Something I often see in my twitter feed are posts from other aspiring or novice authors about how to craft characters with depth and dimension, and as a tangent, how to write good dialogue. While the dialogue part can be considered a separate issue, for the most part, I do believe there’s a degree of interlinking.
Good dialogue can flow from good characters.
Or maybe it’s the other way around.
In either case, probably the biggest foible I see is when a character is given an elaborate backstory. From the time of their appearance in the novel to their birth, the author constructs a timeline of events for them. A long, elaborate chain of events that ought to shape the character. From the ‘tragic’ backstory (which is more often than not a dramatic backstory, not a tragic one) to the haughty rich character born into wealth, there’s pages of material to read over.
And yet, often times, these characters are little more than caricatures. An editor or beta reader will come back saying how the character was boring, one-dimensional, and so on. This can leave an author feeling frustrated, because, after all, how can their character be one-dimensional when they’re so fleshed out?
But that’s the problem.
It’s a backstory, a simple sequence of events that have happened. Rarely will one see their character making the choices, it’s all the world coming down around them. Without agency, how is a character going to become anything other than a trope? Agency might seem like a strange concept for a fictional being who lives in the head of someone like an imaginary friend, but it’s important.
Now, I’m going by what the (very) few folks who’ve read my novel and other bits of fiction have said: They like my characters and find them fleshed out and engaging. For the most part, anyways. Sometimes you just need a supporting bit character. Which is important in its own right and an aside here. It’s okay to have cardboard cut-outs when they’re a character who exists for a lone scene or delivers one or two pieces of dialogue and then they fade away.
Back to the main point. Here’s the answer to the question no one asked: How do I make my characters?
First, there are, in my opinion, two kinds of characters: Those to whom the story is crafted around, and to those who are used to fill a role in a story.
Let’s take Sejit from Vagabonds. She was definitely the first kind of character, a character who existed before the story. I had an idea for a large, powerful woman who could also be a lion. Or maybe a lioness who could also be a woman. So, I started with her physical characteristics and that was about it as I thought of what kind of story she could be used in.
A story about gods, neat. So she’s a goddess now. Establishes a nice, logical cause for her being able to shift around. It makes the lioness part work.
At this point, the skeleton of the story and the character herself develop in tandem. Rather than give her a backstory, my thoughts turn to… random situations and scenarios, all with a common theme of “What would Sejit do here?”
She’s stuck in traffic. What does she say, what does she do? From the answer here, she gains a bit of character and a little bit of the structure of the world falls into place and it sets up nice follow-up questions.
What’s the answer? She broods and has to really work to relax because she’s impatient. Why is she impatient? Because she’s used to getting her way. Why is she used to getting her way? Because she’s an immensely strong goddess.
To me, this sets up a lot of character and helps form the story without a whole lot of work. Next question!
She’s in line for coffee and someone coming away from the counter stumbles and spills their cup, splashing all over the bottoms of her… (A question within a question! What does she like to wear? Slacks!) slacks. How does she react?
Answer? She’s not there, because why would the great and power Sejit be in line for coffee? She has someone else do it for her.
Is this a cop-out? Not at all! In answering one tiny situation, she’s become prideful and important. In addition, who is the assistant? Enter Sophia.
Third question. Sejit is being hit on. How does she react?
Now this was a tough one for me and I think I spent almost a week pondering it. Ultimately I came up with the idea for a fairly core aspect of her personality. Sejit prefers being the hunter and finds easy prey no fun, and the prey that walks up to her is the easiest of them all. At this point I’d developed the notion that she’s rather willing to just kill off annoyances and here’s where it matured further. When she’s annoyed, she will, when it won’t get her in too much trouble, simply intimidate the problem away. When the annoyance won’t go away, because it’s stubborn—not stupid—it’s become prey that’s giving her a challenge.
Now, she’s interested.
The key to winning her heart, then, is to be principled and possess the courage to stand up for said principles, even when it means getting mauled a little.
Thus, in three questions, I have a pretty firm, developed idea of who Sejit is, all without touching on a single piece of backstory. In fact, the backstory was made to fit her personality, rather than her personality made to fit her backstory. Instead of things happening to her, it’s things she did. She has agency throughout her entire genesis.
The second kind of character, the one that fits into a story, can be evidenced in Sophia. Rather than free-from, abstract questions, I tend to come up with story-centric questions for them. Like the above, Sophia has been sent for coffee etc. My first thought was she’d just sigh and grumble something like “Figures,” but otherwise be unperturbed. So, a jaded, sarcastic sort. (At this point Sophia didn’t have a name, just this formless entity). With the question of what would a jaded, sarcastic sort look like… And you get the idea.
Characters are formed from a chain of questions that rely on their agency, never what has happened to them. Asking “Did their parents ever hit them?” Is a poor choice since it doesn’t involve their action. Instead, “What would they do if their parents hit them?” would be far better since no elements of their past are locked in and the author can probe out their personality.
This isn’t a comprehensive character creation manual and there will always be many exceptions, but I think it’s a good starting point to developing strong, dimensional characters. Hell, you can even use it for bit characters in 30 minutes of development to give their handful of lines some pizazz, or, at least, some nice internal consistency—which is something I’ll write about next.