Characters in a Story

What is a character in a story?

A character is a person that is developed for a story.  Characters usually come together as a result of people that we know.  Characters can be developed in part from family members, our friends, acquaintances, strangers or they could simply be imaginary.  A character can also be developed from using your qualities; however that can limit your imagination and your objectivity.  To make your story plausible and inviting, your reader will want to connect and get invested with your characters.  They must seem real.

Developing a character for a story is not just simply giving him/her a body structure, balding or thinning hair, making them fat or thin but actually defining what and how that character acts and responds to certain situations.  In other words what are their motives?

Tools to Creating and Developing Characters The Look Series

When creating characters for your novel, it’s important that you design a template to keep information about all your characters.  It’s also important that you understand everything about how your character will interact in certain situations.  In addition, it’s equally important to fully understand how your character looks; his age, his structure, how he wears his clothes, where he was born, his accent, his language, his heritage, etc.

What a Character Does

For instance, if you attend a child’s birthday party and you see a child jumping on a sofa while all the other children are playing “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey,” you quickly come to some conclusions about that child.  If you disclose a personal health issue to a close friend and a week later you discover that other people now know about that personal health issue, you are now readjusting your feelings about that close friend.   Most times, showing what a character does is probably more telling to the reader than actually describing a person.

Strangers as Characters

Basing a book character on a stranger can work.  It can be about a person that you’ve heard or read.  The idea for a character can simply come from seeing an elderly person cross a street, a person you met at a supermarket or a client on the phone.  As a writer, it’s all about using those internal instincts to get those creative juices flowing as you develop your characters.

For example, if you notice an elderly person crossing the street you may begin to ask yourself a few questions as you take in that scene.  You may notice that they are wearing a heavy overcoat on a warm day and they seem to be unaware of their surroundings.  You may ask yourself why a person would wear an overcoat on such a day.  You could conclude that it’s due to a medical health issue or you could conclude that it’s a homeless person wearing every piece of clothing that they own.  If that person crossing the street is oblivious to honking cars passing them by, you may come to another conclusion; they are hard of hearing or maybe they simply don’t care if they live or die.  Then you may start to wonder why that elderly person is alone.  Is it because they don’t have anyone left in their life?  Did this elderly person just simply wander unto on-coming traffic by mistake?  Sometimes, the simple observance of watching a stranger cross a street can begin your process of developing your next character.

Family, Friends, Acquaintances as Characters

Basing a book character on a family member, friend or acquaintance is very easily done.  The trick, of course, is to disguise the person in your writing.  Not many people want to see themselves in a novel, and especially if they are depicted negatively.  Be cautious when using snapshots and splices of life of people you know.

Motives in Characterization

Why a person does something or reacts to a certain situation is important to deciphering what makes up a character.  For instance, if you are irritated that your next door neighbor always calls 911 for every little thing that happens in the neighborhood, would it make a difference if you knew that her brother’s family had been murdered in a house burglary 20 years ago.  If a co-worker appears frumpy and unclean at work and you don’t want to be near them, would it make a difference if you knew that they didn’t have a place to stay and they lived in a homeless shelter because they lost everything they owned in a house fire?

It is these motives that really give moral value to how a character acts in a story.  It is important to realize that what a character does is never morally absolute.

A Character’s Past

manuscript with stampUnderstanding a person’s past is essential to truly understanding who a person is.  The same applies to characters in a book.   If you are introduced to a character in a book and you know nothing about that person or their past, it’s very difficult to make accurate assumptions about him or her.  For instance, before meeting a new employee at work, your boss discloses to you that this new person survived the holocaust.  Would that make you think differently about this new hire?  Again, it depends on your frame of reference.  If you sympathize with the Jewish experience you will be empathetic.  If you are a person who supports the Nazi experience then you would most likely have a negative dislike for that person.  The same applies with characters.  It’s important to develop a character’s past to ensure your reader has the correct frame of reference for your character.

A Character’s Reputation

A person or character can easily be shaped by reputation.  People make an opinion about a person or a character by the reputation that precedes them.  That is why it’s important to clearly depict a character in the light that we want the reader to see.  We constantly mold and take part in shaping people’s reputations and most times it’s done informally and without even knowing.  Those things can be as simple as recommendation letters, evaluation performances or simply making comments about certain behaviors whether good or bad.  The same applies to characters in a book.  As writers we can use this technique to shape a character and move the story in a good direction.

Stereotyping a Character

Everyone makes assumptions about a particular group that a person belongs to.  The same thing applies with a character that we incorporate into a story.  We can shape or mold our reader towards or against our characters by putting them into certain group categories – A nationality, gender, jobs held, wealthy or poor, stature of a person, etc.  All these things play a particular part in how we all see the world.  As a writer it is our duty to help the reader move in the direction of our character by incorporating these barriers, or not, into our stories.

It is human nature to classify and stereotype people due to our external and internal developmental upbringing.  Knowing this, we can use this tool to further develop our characters.  We can work with these biases and stereotypes to put a certain character into a certain role.  In most situations if we find familiarity within a group we tend to classify those people “like us” and usually find them kind of “boring.”  On the other hand, if we find unfamiliarity in a group, we tend to be more interested and therefore tend to want to explore.  Knowing this, a writer should strive to create characters that will make the reader more interested and would want to explore further.

What is the Goal to creating a character for a story?

The goal of a writer is to develop a character that a reader can relate to in one way or another.  That character should draw in the reader and want him to continue reading the story.  It’s as simple as that.

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