Creating realistic, sympathetic characters is tough. It’s easy to create one- or two-dimensional caricatures and stereotypes, or go overboard and end up writing some Frankenstein’s monster of a character that has very little internal cohesion.
Your skills in observation and research will be crucial. You need a strong grasp of the complexity of human nature so that you can recognize and interpret behaviour in light of external circumstances (e.g., a person’s general social status, the relationship/power dynamics between two or more people, the social situations in which certain interactions take place) and internal traits (e.g., individual temperament, personal desires, and intentions — conscious or otherwise).
To develop fully rounded and unique characters, take time early on to develop a profile of them.
- Where did they grow up, and what social caste did they occupy?
- Did they come from a happy family or a dysfunctional/abusive family? Perhaps they didn’t really have a family and got bounced around through foster care or had to fend for themselves on the streets.
- What are their basic personality traits — are they bold, adventurous, inquisitive, and reckless, or are they quiet, thoughtful, shy, and cautious?
- What do they look like?
- How do they speak and move; do they have any peculiar mannerisms?
- How do they present themselves to the world? Does their demeanor reveal or disguise their true personality?
- What are their likes and dislikes, fears, desires, and aspirations?
- What are their flaws — are they indolent or smart-mouthed, or do they exhibit poor judgment?
- What are their political and religious affiliations?
The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a great resource for initial character development, as it lists various attributes and moral “alignments” as well as how these attributes can affect a character’s behaviour and make them more or less suitable for various tasks.
You would do well to create some kind of character sheet so you can keep track of key attributes, physical and otherwise, and maintain consistency throughout the story. Give your editor a copy of this sheet to help them check for consistency, and they will love you for it. They have to create a style sheet that will include these kinds of details anyway, so having this information up front will reduce the amount of time they have to spend on that task. Additionally, if you’re working with a freelance editor, saving them time can help save you money.
Characters Changing over Time
It can be very hard to predict how real people may react to adverse circumstances, and no one can really be sure how they will react in a crisis until they’re right in the middle of one. This is both a blessing and a curse for the author. You’ll certainly have lots of room to develop your characters in any way you like, but if you’re not careful, you may just end up collecting the rope you’ll use to hang yourself.
First thing you want to do is develop a general understanding of different personality types, their “light” and “dark” sides, and how they may respond to stress. Consider researching the Myers-Briggs personality types. I realize that not everyone agrees that this is the best way to categorize human personality traits, but the rubric can help you understand the way different people operate, what they value, what kinds of work suits their personality styles, and so on.
You’ll also want a solid grasp on the full range of stress responses. People typically talk about fight-or-flight, but there are actually four stress responses: fight, flee, freeze, and submit. Understanding these varied reactions and the factors that influence how someone responds to stressful situations will help you realistically represent your characters’ behaviours in a crisis.
Other behavioral issues you may want to research include the psychological effects of trauma, various psychological defense mechanisms (such as denial and cognitive dissonance), romantic attachment styles (secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized), and various personality disorders.
Regardless of where you start your character in the story, you need to consider how their past (pre-story) events have shaped them. You also need to show how these past events influence their behaviour over the course of the story and whether the characters cling to their established (and possibly maladaptive) coping mechanisms or whether they develop new ones.
For example, when something bad happens to a character, do they go into denial about the event or its effect on them? If so, they may make irrational decisions to avoid dealing with the trauma, and unless something jerks them out of it, they’ll just sink into psychological oblivion. On the other hand, denial and emotional dissociation can help someone plow through life simply because they’re not paralyzed by pain and fear. However, they might end up living a hollow existence because they never face and integrate the trauma into their life, so they twist themselves into knots to avoid anything that might force them to relive the event.
Sometimes we say a person just “snaps,” but that only captures the person’s outward appearance. Someone who appears to snap has been under serious pressure for some time but has hidden the signs that they are struggling. When trying to develop a character over the course of a story, make sure you show the signs of their internal struggle and whether/how they overcome it.
Show readers the changes in the character’s mental states, demeanor, and mannerisms that result from trauma. Be subtle but clear, and let the reader see the character’s victories and setbacks.
This thing we call “voice” is slippery and hard to pin down. It vaguely refers to those things that establish the uniqueness of a character and even the narrator, if they are not a character in the story. This is where your character sheet is going to come in very handy.
Owing to social norms, most of us will behave in rather similar ways in similar situations, so details will make the difference here. Body language, facial expressions, word choices and turns of phrase say a lot about someone. Maybe they swear a lot, or maybe they make snarky comments when they’re nervous.
Also consider how characters respond to the behaviours of others — are they kind and charitable (perhaps to a fault), or are they easily offended or judgmental? Perhaps they’re the sort of person who likes to rib people inappropriately to get them riled up, just for fun.
In first person or second person point of view, your narrator is clearly going to have lots of personality because they are already part of the story; however, in a third person point of view (whether limited or omniscient), the story will be told by an outside observer. However, depending on the type of work you are writing and the tone you want to set, you may still want to give an external narrator some personality.