When I was first writing stories at the age of eleven, my characters were two-dimensional beings, mere skeletons with stereotypical cores. Fast forward. Now I’m thirty-one, and I’ve learned that characters can’t be two-dimensional and bring a story to life. It’s not possible. A character is a living, breathing person/ life form, just in another world. So just like any other living being, they have a history, they have attributes and qualities that make them good, bad or in between. They even have weaknesses and strengths, love interests, goals and purpose.
I think it’s for that reason alone – that characters are living, breathing life forms- that most of us who write fiction sometimes find it hard to control the very characters we have created. I’ve heard funny stories from other authors before about their character’s unruly behavior. We want to kill a character off, but they walk right on through our little death scene unscathed. On the flip side, we try to save our favorite character from death, and they manage to incur unspeakable horrors that bring them to the end of their existence on the page. Time and again, characters will live out their destinies the way they are meant to.
And that’s the beauty of these ‘imaginary’ beings, I think. They do what they want. I guess our job as writers is simply to tell their story – a story that has already been created, but hasn’t been recorded yet. Our characters sometimes give us the opportunity to guide them, to add our own little details about where they came from, the past they are fleeing or the future they are pursuing, but really, they have already decided most of that. It is more an act of discovery than creation on our part.
When I became wiser to character creation years ago, I found the act of discovering and shaping my characters to be one of the most enjoyable elements of writing. Now, when one visits my humble apartment, they see the bookshelf I have in my office, adorned with binders that hold my character’s files. Inside each binder is a character profile, complete with the character’s birth date, history and family tree. The fun part is inputting the additional details, the little things that really round your characters out.
I think it’s important, especially in character driven fiction, to sit back and ask your character questions as if you were interviewing them: What is your favorite dish? What music do you listen to, and what is your favorite band? Do you have a hobby? Who do you absolutely hate? Who do you secretly have a crush on? Do you have any tattoos or scars? What are your vices? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? It’s like going to coffee with an acquaintance to get to know them better, to build the friendship between you. We don’t get to know other people without asking questions, so how can we hope to get to know our characters better without doing the same? By asking these – and many other – questions of my characters, I get the answers that help me understand who they are, even if I don’t necessarily use the answers directly in my writing.
The creative process is a neverending plethora of elements that can be added to enhance your plot and your character’s lives, but sometimes you have dig for them, dig into the character of your…um…characters. Only then will you see what shapes them and gives them motivation to do what they do.