Character Series

A lot goes into character creation, this series will contain helpful articles on the subject.

Character Series: Fears and Phobias

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“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Everyone is afraid of something — heck, even Indiana Jones is. And you know what? That only makes us human. We all know what it is like to be afraid, whether it’s snakes, heights, confined spaces, fire, death, rodents, flying, aliens, dogs, drowning, etc. I personally have an almost debilitating fear of heights; I get to a certain point and my body starts shutting down any further steps up. Purdue’s Hicks Undergraduate Library was a personal hell with its stairs allowing me to see the ground below me, but for four years I was able to survive climbing up and down them by not looking down and grabbing onto the railing nearest the wall — and staying close to this beacon of stability until safely outside that underground library.

Monk is a character synonymously associated with fear because he is almost afraid of everything.

Monk is a character synonymous with phobia since he is practically afraid of everything to the point his fears affect his quality of life. Does your own character’s fear gravitate toward being a phobia?

Look at yourself. What are your fears? How do they affect your daily life? Now pause and reflect on your answers to those two questions. By considering your own fears and even those of friends and family members, you will be better equipped to shape a character’s fears and possible phobias, because your character has to have them, unless they are completely alien. Why is it so important for characters to have fear? Because it can really connect your readers to a character due to fear’s universal nature. Continue reading

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World and Character Series: Are your characters human?

Sometimes writers forget the basics while putting our vision to paper. And in this case I’m not talking about basics like grammar, plot or even character development. No, I’m talking about the basics of life: the need to eat. Often, times characters in books will go days without eating, making them more robot than human.

In my first book, which was completed in middle school, I don’t think my characters ate at all, except during one scene … needless to say, they should all be dead from starvation. Later characters in more recent writing endeavors have fared better in the food and drink department; they have also actually felt hungry when food is not readily available.

Food should appear in a character’s day-to-day life; it makes them more human, and food is something readers of all creeds can connect with. While food is a basic staple for life, it should not dominate any text, unless it is being intentional used to say something about a character. However, it should be sprinkled throughout a manuscript whether shown or mentioned in passing.

Beyond adding realism to your manuscript, the inclusion of food can have two other benefits: character building and world building. After all, food can say a lot about a person and a world/culture.

Characters

Is your character a picky eater or do they follow the see-food-eat-food method? Are there certain foods they do not eat, either through choice or because of cultural or religious reasons? Does your character have any food allergies? Hot and spicy or as bland as it comes? Would your character kill for chocolate, maybe even literally?

All these questions add depth to a character and can actually say a lot about them — not only that, they might make a good plot point. Perhaps, they don’t realize they are allergic to a type of fruit, leading them and associates on a hunt to find a doctor in a land where they don’t speak the language. As for depth, food choices tune an audience into a character. If they are vegetarian that will tell the audience something just like if your character follows all his/her cultural or religious eating norms or one that follows most but enjoys something that is not suppose to be on the menu.

Food choices can also affect how your character interacts with others, possibly adding conflict. Your vegan character visits a party full of personal taboo food items. How do they or the people around them react? In general some people, no matter whether they are meat eaters, vegan or so on, can be defensive about their eating habits.

Do not forget about the have-nots and have-plenties. They will each react differently to food. How has your character’s childhood of living off scraps affected them? If placed in a situation where they will have to do without food again, do they accept it and continue on or do they dive back to the past traumas? Does your wealthy, always well-fed nobleman cave after missing a lunch and dinner or persevere? There are many possibilities to explore.

Of course, a lot of your character’s eating habits will be influenced by the world and culture they inhabit.

World

Certain foods can’t grow everywhere. And while conducting world-building, this is a topic that needs delved into. What grows in the various regions of your world? Can certain regions sustain livestock? Or can certain ones only sustain smaller critters like chickens or sheep and goats? This will affect your characters and possibly have economical consequences in your crafted world.

Is one region the sole source for grapes? This might make the region exceptionally wealthy through trade, or perhaps it has attracted the attention of neighboring regions who have since conquered it, leaving the native populace poor and at the mercy of their overlords who benefit from the resource. One region might depend on hunting and gathering while another has established a strong agricultural society. A region with plenty will view its food very differently compared to a desert region where all food and drink is not to be wasted.

Don’t forget the politics that can revolve around food. Maybe one of your regions has forbidden the import of a delicacy that can only be found in a neighboring region. Or maybe they just place high levies on the delicacy, meaning only the wealthy can procure it. Governments can also place embargoes on other countries and regions, which might keep certain foods from reaching that country.

There is a lot to be considered when plotting your world’s food chain, as it were. And perhaps the best way to map it out is to explore your local agriculture scene in addition to those that can be found around our world. Research crops to see if they could exist in the environment you intend to place them. For example, you are not going to find rice paddies in a desert region or world, cherries require a temperate latitude to be grown and mangoes require tropical temperatures. Each plant has its own requirements.

Other research revolves around livestock. Certain livestock like cows require a lot of resources to raise, which is why it is important to make sure a region in your world can actually provide for them. Beyond integrating livestock into a world and its regions, don’t forget wild game — which will also require certain resources be available in order for them to feasible exist there.

While all this research might seem tedious, it will provide add realism to your novel and possible open doors to unique conflicts or character development.

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Character Series: Habits — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Habits — the good and the bad… and sometimes plain ugly — can add spice to any character, making them complex and flawed. Habits are routine behaviors that occur repeatedly and can happen on a subconscious level. So what habits do your characters have? Are they good or bad?

Some habits only appear when a person is put in situations that illicit certain emotions such a stress, nervousness, fear, anger, etc. Nail biting, stammering, snapping fingers, among others — these can all be habits displayed when a character is put in stressful situations. One of my characters bites his lips or interior mouth, often to the point he draws blood; however, these little ticks do not necessarily have to have painful side-effects. They will also enable you to show readers your characters’ emotions without resulting to: The avalanche frightened Sue Bob.

Beyond situational habits, some characters might develop good habits. Habits like always having to have things in place; however, perhaps, this habit leans more toward OCD, which can come into play during the story. Other good habits might include always putting money away in the bank each paycheck, having certain religious habits like praying everyday at a certain time of the day, exercising regularly, having a superstitious routine they complete before leaving the home, etc. While some of these might not be necessarily good, they are benign — they also add another side to a character. Characters with multiple habits that stem from things like superstitions can have layers.

Formed habits can also tell a story about your character’s past, especially if they were developed during hard times like during a war, famine or while bouncing from house to house in the foster system. Really think about any traumatic past experiences your character might have endured and consider if perhaps the experience has carried over in the form of habits — they can be small little things.

Of course, characters can also have bad habits that can make them their own worse enemies, such as with drug use, drinking too much alcohol, etc. However, it is important to note there is a line between bad habits and addictions/mental illnesses. With bad habits, the person has more willpower than with addictions; they are aware that their actions are bad but they just choose not to stop, while addictions/metal illness do not always have the willpower to stop on their own. Bad habits, while they can be extreme to the point they are life destroying, can also be small things like overspending occasionally, picking one’s nose or procrastinating.

You can have a character who for the most part has their life together, yet is constantly shooting themselves in the foot by gambling or overspending — it could get to the point that their life is in shambles. I find bad habits like these add great depth to characters, but then again, I’ve never been a fan of the perfect protagonist — sorry Superman, I’m a Batman fangirl.

So consider adding some habits, whether good or bad, to your characters — they will only add spice and depth, further shaping them so they feel more real to the reader.

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Character Series: Education

What was your characters’ education like? It is an aspect of your characters that you should know since education will be a deciding factor on what jobs your characters can have, their world views and how easily they can navigate through life.

Ask yourself what type of students your characters were. Did they engage in their education or shrink in their desk hoping the teacher would not call on them. Or perhaps they had a nontraditional learning experience, being home-schooled or born in a period of time when public schools, as we know them, did not exist. If they are from a different time period or world, it might be that rather than schooling, the young focus more on learning trades — some might never learn to read or write.

Other questions to ask when it comes to education include: What were your characters favorite subjects, their least favorite? Did they have any learning disabilities that made their education difficult? Was there a teacher that particularly impacted their life, that really helped shape who they are? Did external factors, like their home life, affect their education or lack of education? Did they leave early without completing their education? Was there a time they were a good student? How long did they study a skill or trade? What were the different levels of education they’ve completed?

Once you know a character’s level of education, you can begin to ascertain career or job paths that are open to them. You will know if they can become the police officer you envision them as or the teacher you want them to be. Or writers can research professionals or period trades to determine what education would be required to fit the job: Think how this tailored education might have affected your character’s life. If their education was very time consuming, they may not have had much time for friends or special activities. In period pieces, your character may even be required to leave family to pursue a particular trade.

Similarly, you will know that a character’s lack of formal training or education will place limitations on what they can do. Take time to reflect on all the challenges that will face a character who has no or very little education, especially if said character never learned to read or write.

Finally, consider educational bonuses or advantages your characters have received. Do you have a character that is multilingual? Have they specialized in certain fields or trades? Such little things might come in handy at some point during your story.

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Character Series: Clothes make the man or woman

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What do your character’s clothing say about them?

Clothes say a lot about a person, and it should be no different with characters. Albeit writers need to beware of info-dropping about clothing, or setting a character in front of a mirror just for said-character or narrator to go over ever inch of their appearance. However, little bits of description here and there about your character’s apparel can say a lot about your character, even if we are told not to judge a book by it’s cover: We do so frequently.

Clothing can give an idea of a character’s social standing or wealth. Velvet, satin, damask — these fabrics speak of wealth while wool and cotton are more common, less expensive. Throw in authentic gems and the reader knows the character is loaded. Make a character’s clothing patchy, threadbare, and the reader will know the character is poor. Of course, appearances can be very deceiving, which can lead to writerly fun when toying with readers’ perceptions and then standing them on end.

Colors can be just a telling. Perhaps your character favors certain colors or just one in particular — their favorite color. Certain colors or color palettes can also hint at personalities: yellow, a bright, warm person; pink, a bubbly person; blue, a calm person; and so on. Once again, it might be fun for a writer to play with these concepts, and have a character who by nature is a pessimist, or just plain gloomy, really enjoy the color pink and actively seek it out in clothing.

The types of clothes worn also speak volumes. A woman who wears form-fitting clothing or revealing clothing is most likely secure with her appearance or sexuality; of course, that is not always true. A woman who prefers to wear pants and t-shirts might just be a tomboy. There are also men who prefer to dress as women, and there are men for whom dressing up for special occasions is like a trip to the dentist.

Apparel can also bear sentimental values: a piece that belonged to a relative or lover, a piece found by your character, or purchased by your character on a special occasion or trip — the list goes on. Such pieces can hold character development or even plot, similar to the “Together in Paris” necklace worn by Anastasia in the Fox film. Do not discount the power mementos can hold.

Once you get a feel for what your character likes to wear and why, practice restraint — don’t go writing a paragraph of description, which will only bore your audience to tears. A sentence here or there, accompanied by character actions, will suffice.

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Character Series: Intro, plus family

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What secrets do your characters hold that are just waiting to be unlocked?

Well, here is the start of another series that will at least run every Friday during February and then periodically the rest of the year: The Character Series. This series will look at the different touches that make a character feel real and gives them depth.

Intro

A couple years back, I recall a major blow up in the fantasy section of the NaNoWriMo forum. The cause? A thread entitled: “Your Character’s Aren’t Real!” The thread starter tore apart writers who talked as if their characters were living breathing things, telling them to stop as well as suggesting something was wrong with them mentally.

The truth in this matter is the majority of the writers who do this know that their characters aren’t really alive; however, they also know to create believable characters you need to treat your characters as if they are real. It requires knowing where they have been, what has shaped them, their likes, their fears, their greatest dreams — the list is endless, or so at times it seems. Much of this knowledge — these insights into a character — will never make it past the writer’s notes, but it is still important for the author to know, even if the audience never will. These insights explain motivations, behaviors — what makes a character tick.

What the thread starter failed to see, is that if you treat something as two-dimensional, it will remain two-dimensional. This character series will look at characters and how to make them more three-dimensional. The posts will not occur in any order of importance, just randomly with the first being family.

Family And Childhood

Like it or not, family plays a major role in shaping who we are; it should be no different for your characters. Family shapes our outlooks, beliefs, and more, whether we adopt those of our family or rebel against them. And depending on our relationships with our family — whether strained, completely absent, or very loving — it affects how we connect with others.

Often times in fiction, particularly in fantasy I’ve noticed, a character’s family is absent. While family members don’t need to be main characters, secondary characters or even appear in the novel, they need a presence through your character. A character from a wealthy, but distant, family will conduct themselves in a different manner than a character who is from a big, loving family. A character who never knew their parents will often behave differently than one who has.

Parents, siblings are more likely to have presence, which makes sense as our parents and siblings have perhaps the greatest affect on our development. However, writers should not underestimate the power other familial ties might have on your characters: Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc., can all have powerful parts to play in your character’s life. As a side note to the above, do not forget individuals who are family in every way but blood; these people can also have profound effects on our lives.

When you make these connections, your characters feel more real, and readers can connect with them — after all, we all have family, good or bad, and for most of us, family is important. These connections can be made through characters thinking of a family member, carrying an item that holds sentimental value because of a certain family member, seeing something that reminds them of a family member, etc.

Writers should also not be afraid to look beyond their own definition of family: Different groups, cultures, countries and so on have different views on what a family is and how they behave. This is important to look at, especially if your characters are from a different country than you, the writer, or if you are world building when it is good to have variety.

Draw a family tree, at least back to your character’s grandparents or great-parents. Think up stories for each individual on the tree and their connections to the people surrounding them. Outline your character’s relationships with each of their family members even if they are non-existent. And most importantly of all, ask questions:

  • Did my character’s parents push them to excel in certain areas and not others? Or did they ignore my character’s development?
  • What beliefs were held by my character’s parents? How did these shape my character?
  • When was the last time my character has been home? If they have been gone a long time, is there a reason for their absence?
  • Do they keep in touch with their family? Only certain members? Why?
  • Who is their favorite relative? And why?
  • Were there problems in the family? Drugs, alcohol, money issues, abuse? How do they coop with these problems?
  • How does my character’s family handle tragedy?

There are hundreds of questions one could ask. These are just a few to get you started.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of getting to know your character’s family — their past, present and future.

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