They are like icosahedrons. When we meet someone we may think we are seeing the entire person, but what we really get are those bits of the person that he or she decides (consciously or unconsciously) are relevant. The reason for this is that we are complex with many parts to us and who we are in one situation is not who we are in another. So, as well as being complex we are adaptable.
Here’s an exercise. Select one person you know and list all the things you can that describe this person. That list will probably cover things like marital status, estimated age, job, children, education, schools attended, hobbies, favourite restaurant, holiday places and what he or she looks like.
That will be the first layer of this person and most of us can do this with a close friend or family.
Now add another layer.
This will include favourite clothes, colours, reading, phrases, food, music, friends, leisure activities and favourite places to shop, mannerisms, things he or she hates/loves.
Does your person like to be alone? Why? Or does your person always need to be around people? Why? What kind of activities does he or she share or not share with others?
Can you think of an incident that has shaped this person? That is the beginning of creating the next layer. This is not so easy because many of us keep those things to ourselves.
Now apply the above exercise to a character you are working with in a story or novel. Keep building this person as the more you know about him or her the better you will be able to portray the character.
Give your character a philosophy of life, a religion/no religion, cultural background, political preferences, a back story, personality and define his or her features. Add specific mannerisms. They will make that character authentic. Authenticity is what you are seeking to achieve.
And the final layer will be at the heart of the person. This is the part of most people we never see. In that core lies values, beliefs, what the person will die to defend, aspirations and dreams. When a character is being true to him or herself actions will spring from this core element.
You can test this by putting your character into a life threatening situation and see how he or she reacts. If the character does something that is not consistent with that inner self the reader will spot it.
For example, how would this person behave if they get stuck in an isolated area with three others with only enough food for two days? A self-focused person will behave quite differently to one who has a core value of putting others first.
If you have created a character that you can imagine in a situation like the one I have outlined, you have a well-rounded character . . . one the reader will recognise and relate to.
This is the value of preparing a character profile for main characters. Some of the information may never be used but the reader will sense there is more and that will make the character believable.
I encourage writers to prepare at least a one page profile for main characters and a shorter one for minor characters.
Below is a list I made up last year for a writer. I was prompted to do it after reading a chapter which featured a one dimensional character. This character was almost translucent. This is often something new writers who like to write plot driven stories do.
Here are the questions:
1. How old?
2. Appearance? Overweight? Thin? Has hair/no hair and so on. Describing hands is always very fruitful. Chubby hands….chubby person, long fingers, sensitive and so on…
3.Wears what kind of clothes?
4. What era?
5. Married? Divorced? Single? In a relationship? Seeking a relationship?
6. Work? Self-employed? Paid employment? Other? Not working? Why?
7. Has he or she worked? If so doing what?
8. Children? How many? Names? Ages?
9. How does he or she feel about the children? Regrets having them or lives for them?
10. Lives where?
11. Friends? Lots or one or two? Who are they? What do they do?
12. Food preferences. Eats out? Eats in?
13. Favourite places – mall? Bush?
14. Sport? Team? Solo?
15. Favourite food?
Mannerisms/personality. These are harder:
16. Eye that twitches when he or she is nervous
17. Betrays nothing
18. Chews nails, bites bottom lip, shades eyes, rocks back on heels, sinks hands into the back pocket of trousers, runs hands through hair
19. Throws things at people
20. Stamps feet, claps hands
21. Shoves people about
22. Laughs/doesn’t laugh
23. Values – steals at a whim, cannot steal anything, not even a pen from the stationery cupboard
24. Attitude to pets – kind or awful
25. Beliefs – that people are always kind/not kind. Other beliefs; anything is possible/not possible and so on
26. Religious/not religious
27. Loyal, not loyal. How does this express itself?
28. Attitude to growing old/youth etc
29. The person’s history
Attitudes in general
30. Where does this person come from?
33. How does the character feel about where he or she came from? Angry? Content?
34. What is the character’s dream?
35. What does he or she aspire to?
36. What does he or she feel about the environment?
Life changing event
37. Is this the event the novel is about? Or is it part of the character’s back story?
It is important to understand that real character is revealed when he or she is under immense stress. Up until that moment the character can tell the reader whatever he or she wants the reader to believe.
This kind of character development is as important for plot driven stories as character driven ones. Usually plot is driven by what a character does so the character has to be believable in order for the reader to believe the events he or she becomes engaged in.