There are two major ways I think authors discover who their characters really are. This holds true whether you are a planner or whether you just write and see where the story and its players take you.
While we as writers tend to favor one method over another, they are by no means mutually exclusive and often work together. Each one of us uses them both.
Now, I could use term such as “deductive reasoning” or “inductive reasoning” here, but to be honest, I would have to look up which is which, I think using such terms can cause confusion, and I believe that terminology isn’t what’s important. Knowing what makes our writing come together is what matters. So I’m going to describe the two way we figure out who our characters are and what they’ll do without such terminology
- WE START WITH A ROLE THEY MUST FULFILL OR A TASK THEY NEED TO COMPLETE, AND WORK BACKWARD.
- WE START WITH PERSONALITY TRAITS, A PERSONAL HISTORY OR OTHER BACKGROUND INFORMATION, AND THEN DECIDE WHAT THEY WOULD DO.
My last post included 20 questions to get to know your characters, and such exercises can be useful. Lots of readers like to plan before writing and possibly even before editing. Such a questionnaire could help with method one (you’ll form logical answers based on the given task) or with method two (if you don’t know yet what your character will do but you want to get a feel for his or her personality, in order to figure out what choices the character would make).
Let’s start with the first method.
Maybe you need a character to be a journalist and investigator. Your overall idea for the plot involves certain information becoming public on a large scale, thus causing trouble in the personal lives of other characters, and the purpose of this character is to make that happen in a realistic way. So he’ll be a journalist.
Working from that role/task he needs to fulfill, you fill in gaps in a logical way. The kind of person who would be willing and able to be a reporter is intelligent and a good writer. Maybe he thinks a bit too highly of his skills in that department. He would have to be bold enough to go after stories and insert himself into awkward and painful situations to ask questions. His opinions about privacy might be a bit looser than other people.
Depending on how important a character this reporter becomes, you could go further. Maybe he’s a workaholic and has trouble at home. Or maybe he’s a bit idealistic about the world and the role of the news and what our news stories do, and the aftermath of publishing this story will cause him to do some soul-searching. If he still holds a false, idealistic notion about journalism, he’s probably young and at the start of his career. That, at least, would make sense.
Maybe he works for a corrupt or heartless boss. If he IS a bit idealistic and honestly seeking to do a public service, that would cause tension and make him uneasy, for sure. What action might he end up taking as a result? Resigning? Exposing the boss? There are lots of options here.
Now, let’s look at the second method.
This method comes in handy for writers like me, who tend to write without planning too much and develop the story as we go. You start with some basic ideas of your character’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, and history. And then you throw them into an interesting situation and ask, “given what I know, what would this person do?”
For example, maybe your character joins a resistance movement and you know that she’s lost a loved one or two, robbery victims who were murdered. And you know she’s not afraid to stand up for what she thinks to be just and for her loved ones, because she chewed out someone for being a coward earlier in the story. A bit holier and thou, sure, but not completely so and not (in this case) without some justification.
Based on that history, and the fact that she’s freaked out and now separated from most of her remaining friends and family, you know she’s going to have a tense relationship at first with the group’s resident stealth specialist, a former thief.
Maybe that relationship will grow past the initial disdain and distrust. But she’s naturally going to dislike this thief guy when she meets him. That’s obvious considering what we know about the protagonist’s past and her personality.
Hopefully those short examples demonstrate what I mean by saying that in character development, we can start with actions and work backwards, or we can start with personality and background and work forward. Often we do both, going back and forth to fill in gaps.
“I need character A to do such and such, and I know such and such about her. What would it take then to make her do this thing? Well, in this circumstance…. She wouldn’t be happy doing it, but she’d feel justified.”
“Character B just did such and such. Well, I want that to make character A angry. Why would that frustrate Character A, though? Well, if character A held this opinion, or this had happened to her last year…. Does that fit with what I already know about character A? Yes?”
Writing fiction means facing a constant series of such conundrums. And there are lots of ways to solve them (luckily for us). A classic problem is, “I need Character A to do such and such, but character A would never do such and such given the situation that exists.” One classic solution is, “If I can’t change the situation, maybe I can find a way to make Character A realistically unaware of the true circumstances. He can act in good faith on bad or incomplete information.”
We see this ALL the time on television, in movies, and in books. It’s just one of the ways we use methods 1 and 2 above to create believable characters who act in interesting ways to make an engaging story.