Thursday, August 9, 2012

Building Effective Characters - Part I: The Bio

Harry Dresden, Jack Torrence, Arthur Dent, The Doctor, Norman Bates...They are all iconic and memorable characters that have stood, and will stand, the test of time.  Theirs are the eyes through which we see the story, the ears through which we hear, the hearts through which we feel.  They are our proxy, our relation.  They are us, or they are so completely unlike us that they are fascinating.  The story is king, it is true, but one thing that every story needs is a good, memorable character or three.  For the next few weeks, we'll be discussing characters and how you as a writer can make them more than just words on a page.  You can make them breathe, jump, bow, cry, laugh and scream.  You can make them, for lack of a better term, real.  So let's jump in and start by discussing what I mean when I say characters.

First, you have the different types of characters:  Primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Some might call them stars, co-stars, and supporting players.  Bit parts, day players, and even walk-ons exist in the writing world.  It's up to you, as the writer, to figure out where each character belongs, what his or her role is, and weave the fabric of the scene in such a way that it become unnoticeable for your reader.  Here, then, are the types of characters we'll be dealing with. 
  • Primary  - This character is the star of the show, the "Dresden" in The Dresden Files, the "Stanley Cooper" in the Stanley Cooper Chronicles.  He is the person for whom the story happens.  To be clear, "primary" doesn't necessarily mean "only."  There is such a thing as an ensemble cast of several, all of whom are "primaries."  But for the purposes of this essay, let's concentrate on the model of one primary. 
  • Secondary - This is the "supporting player," the friend, the sidekick, the person who has significance in the life of the primary.  That significance could be that they hate each other with a burning passion, or they could love each other.  They could be drinking buddies.  But we, as the readers, don't see a whole lot of that.  We see the slices of life that the primary allows us to see.  The secondary is not the main focus of the story, though he will be affected by the goings on.  
  • Tertiary - These are the fellows that are window dressing, passers by on the street.  Which is not to say they are unimportant.  Their roles are as vital as anyone else's, but the focus isn't on them.  Their job is to continue to put the focus on the primary and, to a lesser extent, the secondaries.  While they may be played as one-dimensional, they should still be fully realized, at least in the author's mind.  
Now that we know with whom we are dealing, let's focus on our primary.  

When you think of people (not characters, mind you, people), you realize that you're dealing with the summation of all that person's experiences, neuroses, quirks, and warts and that big bundle of gobbeldy-gook is what we call a "person."  You, for example, are the summation of every experience you've ever had, good or bad.  Those experiences allow you to make choices, avoid high temperatures, choose the green jelly-beans over the black ones, and generally function in your life.  The same holds true for your character.  It is for this reason that I'm a big fan of creating a full background dossier for your character.  Don't worry, it's not something the whole world will see.  It's for your eyes only.  But it will help you figure out how your character will react in various situations.  And, let's face it, you're going to be putting them into some situations, otherwise you don't have a story, right?  

Biographical information is the ten-pound hammer in your tool box when it comes to characterization.  Think hard about your own life.  What made you into what you are?  What influenced how you react?  How you wear your hair?  What your favorite color is?  This is what we're talking about here.  What follows are a few things that you may want to consider when dealing with your character's biography:
  • Home Town - determines accent, political affiliation, attitudes toward other people, climate, etc.  Believe it or not, your home town never leaves you.  
  • Siblings? - There's a big difference in behavior between only children, middle children, oldest and youngest.  
  • Parents - Mom and dad?  Mom and mom?  Dad and other dad?  Divorced?  Dead parent?  
  • Religion - Do they have one?  What is it?  How devout are they?  
  • Education Level - A college grad and a grade-school dropout are not going to speak or even think in the same way.  
  • Traumatic Events - Think about it...Every traumatic event you've had (and, if you're reading this, you've lived through) has an effect on decisions you make now.  The same holds true for your character.  
  • Physical Information - Height, weight, gender, hair color, eye color, skin tone...They all influence how your character is treated by the rest of your world, and therefore how your character will react.  
  • Style - Does he have tattoos?  Piercings?  Is he a nerd or a hipster?  Does he have a handicap?  
  • Socio-Economic Situation - Does he have a job?  If so, doing what?  If not, what does he do for money?  Is he upper class?  Lower class?  Does he rent or own?  Does he have a car?  Does he have to take the bus? 
  • Quirks - Neuroses, phobias, fears, tics, you name it, these are things that make the character more human, more identifiable. 
There are hundreds of other little factors to consider, and the there is no way to create an exhaustive list.  Nor is there a need to.  As I said, the reader will, likely, not even see your huge dossier on your character, but they should be able to infer some of the information by the clues you give through the decisions your characters make.  "I don't like water," says the character.  Ah, says the reader.  I wonder what traumatic event caused that?  You don't have to answer, but it's enough to know there was such an event.  Everything about your character, from the cloth of his shirt to the type of music he likes, is a clue into his psyche, and a step toward making the character breathe and live for the reader.  Think about who your favorite characters are, and why they are your favorites.  And then see how you can make your own characters breathe and live. 

Next time:  DIALOGUE

1 comment:

  1. Love all of your character examples. I'm enjoying these posts. Keep 'em coming.