Plausible, complex characters are crucial to successful storytelling. You can develop them in several ways.
They have specific homes, possessions, medical histories, tastes in furniture, political opinions. Apart from creating verisimilitude (that is, they sound real), these concrete aspects of the characters should convey information about the story: does the hero smoke Marlboros because he’s a rugged outdoorsman, or because that’s the brand smoked by men of his social background, or just because you do?
2. Symbolic association.
You can express a character’s nature metaphorically through objects or settings (a rusty sword, an apple orchard in bloom, a violent thunderstorm). These may not be perfectly understandable to the reader at first (or to the writer!), but they seem subconsciously right. Symbolic associations can be consciously “archetypal” (see Northrop Frye), linking the character to similar characters in literature. Or you may use symbols in some private system which the reader may or may not consciously grasp. Characters’ names can form symbolic associations, though this practice has become less popular in modern fiction except in comic or ironic writing.
The character’s speech (both content and manner) helps to evoke personality: shy and reticent, aggressive and frank, coy, humorous. Both content and manner of speech should accurately reflect the character’s social and ethnic background without stereotyping. If a character “speaks prose,” his or her background should justify that rather artificial manner. If a character is inarticulate, that in itself should convey something.
From table manners to performance in hand-to-hand combat, each new example of behavior should be consistent with what we already know of the character, yet it should reveal some new aspect of personality. Behavior under different forms of stress should be especially revealing.
The characters should have good and sufficient reasons for their actions, and should carry those actions out with plausible skills. If we don’t believe characters would do what the author tells us they do, the story fails.
Characters should respond to their experiences by changing—or by working hard to avoid changing. As they seek to carry out their agendas, run into conflicts, fail or succeed, and confront new problems, they will not stay the same people. If a character seems the same at the end of a story as at the beginning, the reader at least should be changed and be aware of whatever factors kept the character from growing and developing.
The Character Résumé
One useful way to learn more about your characters is to fill out a “résumé” for them—at least for the more important ones. Such a résumé might include the following information:
Address & Phone Number:
Date & Place of Birth:
Parents’ Names & Occupations:
Other Family Members:
Spouse or Lover:
Friends’ Names & Occupations:
Personal Qualities (imagination, taste, etc.):
Sense of Humor:
Most Painful Setback/Disappointment:
Most Instructive/Meaningful Experience:
Health/Physical Condition/Distinguishing Marks/Disabilities:
Tastes in food, drink, art, music, literature, decor, clothing:
Attitude toward Life:
Attitude toward Death:
Philosophy of Life (in a phrase):
You may not use all this information, and you may want to add categories of your own, but a résumé certainly helps make your character come alive in your own mind.
The résumé can also give you helpful ideas on everything from explaining the character's motivation to conceiving dramatic incidents that demonstrates the character’'s personal traits. The résumé serves a useful purpose in your project bible, reminding you of the countless details you need to keep straight.
Make Your Characters Insecure!
Scarlett O ’Hara swore she’d never go hungry again. Jay Gatsby bought beautiful shirts to impress his rich ex-girlfriend. Winston Smith’s fear of rats drove him to betray his lover to Big Brother.
As a young writer, I ignored the lessons of those memorable characters. “Your heroes are always too cool,” my brother said, and I had to admit he was right. My heroes were me— only poised, confident with women, unruffled by conflict, and good with their fists. But even Superman needs Kryptonite, and your characters need something at least as menacing: some inner insecurity that drives them to do amazing things.
This is the critical difference between drama and melodrama. In melodrama, people do amazing things for stupid or trivial reasons. They do them not because they must, but because the author can't think of any other way to give his readers a thrill.
In drama, people do amazing things for absolutely compelling reasons. We may not feel quite the same emotions as the characters, but we can understand why they have those emotions.
We wouldn’t buy tailor-made shirts to impress a rich ex-girlfriend, but we can understand Jay Gatsby’s feelings; we all have a lost love somewhere in our past. We just don’t act out our deepest emotions, which makes us interested in people who do—people like your characters.
Your characters may appear calm, competent, and ready for anything, but underneath they should be shuddering with anxiety, aching with love, weeping for irretrievable losses. Their role in your story is to re-enact the story of humanity—exiled from Eden, battling a hostile world, and seeking redemption and a paradise regained.
Somewhere in your character’s past, life was pretty good. Then something awful happened: a brother died, a father went bankrupt or insane, a lover vanished, a war swept through. A stable world fell apart, and your character has been trying ever since to restore that stability.
This is why Scott Fitzgerald said “Character is plot.” And plot is an effort, systematic or improvised, to regain paradise: to avenge the dead brother, repay the father’s debts, find the lover, win the war.
Sometimes the event is simply understanding reality: one’s family is poor, or conceals a shameful secret, or one is somehow not like other people. Whatever it is, it makes your character both deeply insecure and deeply determined to regain security.
It shouldn’t be just any insecurity, however. The insecurity should reflect the theme of your story. Gatsby is a poor boy who believes in the American dream of self-improvement and social mobility. When Daisy rejects him for rich Tom Buchanan, Gatsby tries to regain her love by becoming rich through bootlegging and other criminal activities. He becomes a parody of the American dream.
One good way to find out about your characters’ inner insecurity is the résumé discussed above. As you put these résumés together, and you have to imagine not just your hero but his grandmother, important details will emerge. Maybe the grandmother’s slow death from cancer has given your hero a horror of such a death, and a readiness to risk sudden death instead. Maybe your heroine’s yearning for unattainable men reflects a teenage crush on an older boy... who now, at 35, is an all-too-attainable drunk.
Your characters’ insecurity, in other words, should lead them into endless trouble. Your story is a kind of exploration of the grief that can result from misguided love, or overweening ambition, or vengeful hatred—from insecurity in all its forms. Maybe your characters will learn from their experience, and change into better, more secure people; maybe they won’t. Either way, your readers should understand what helped your characters to succeed, or doomed them to failure.
What’s true of your hero and heroine is doubly true of your villains. If they’re just psychopaths, or pointlessly evil, they’re just melodramatic. If they’re driven too—so driven they don’t understand or care about the way they abuse their power—they’ll have real reasons to oppose your hero and heroine. And that will make them much more frightening than any mustache-twirling bad guy.
By contrast, an ironic story will give us characters whose motivations really are melodramatically trivial— a cheerleader who plots to murder her rival, a presidential assassin trying to impress a movie star. Ironic characters are critically unaware of their real situation, and we understand them better than they understand themselves.
One final bit of advice: Don’t just tell us your heroine yearns for unattainable men. Show us her secret scrapbook of photos and clippings of such men, follow her on her walks past their homes and offices, eavesdrop on her conversations with girlfriends. Let us, your readers, decide that this person has a problem, and then we’ll really agonize when she runs into the guy who started it all twenty years ago.
We won’t just agonize—we’ll turn the page to see what happens next.