Protagonist and Antagonist are the basis of every story. No matter what genre you write, the way these figures are developed can make, or break, your manuscript.
Is your story a comedy, mystery, chick-lit, historical, paranormal, or sci-fi? Depending on the type of story you are telling, the amount of work needed to make these characters realistic is up to you. I write Contemporary Romance and Women’s Fiction. The subjects I tackle delve deep into character emotions and motivations. I also write in first person. So, the more work I put into getting to know my characters, the better I can bring my readers into their head and allow them to feel the emotions they feel. Understanding why a character makes the decisions they do – both good and bad – are best done when the author truly understands them.
As Shrek said, “Onions have layers…Ogres have layers.
We have layers to our personalities. Some of them are obvious, such as our temperament, external wants, desires, and needs. Are those the only things that define us? Not by a long shot. An internal layer defines us as individuals and makes us who we are. We pick and choose who is allowed to see that deep inside, beneath that extra ‘onion layer’.
The same is true of our characters. What are the layers that make them who they are? What experiences made them change their outlook on life? What plot in the story is going to shake their world, make them question their core beliefs, and push them to change, or send them on that quest to find happiness? Before that can be determined, we have to know what mindset the character has before life knocks them off balance. If we don’t know these things, then the reader will not know, and your character will be one-dimensional.
That’s a lot to think about isn’t it?
What exactly does having those layers mean?
No matter how great a storyline you weave, if your characters aren’t real, then the plot won’t matter. Readers should be able to relate to them and feel the love, hate, fear, and joy they experience. The characters are what drive a plot, pull the reader in, and make them want to know what happens next, even if the plot stinks. The way the character responds to the situations thrown at them are what define them and make them relatable. Your reader should be able to look at the situation they face and think, “I would have done the same thing,” or “Are they crazy?” Those types of reactions are what draw them into a story.
Think about your favorite book. What was it about the story that grabbed you the most? Was it the characters reaction to the plot? What about their strengths? Vulnerabilities? What part of the character did you relate to most that made you invest countless hours of late nights staying up to finish a chapter, or sneaking in a few minutes to read while in the bathroom? Was the characters quality a focal point of the storyline, or something in a backstory that explained why he or she choose to react the way they did?
A few months ago, I wrote about building real characters, and shared the steps I take when developing mine. This time I’m going to strip away a layer and delve deeper into that technique. One of the best books I’ve come across is, The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, 2nd Edition, by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph. D. This book helps writers distinguish personality types. The book is a hidden gem. It delves deep into the human psyche and breaks it down. The likes, dislikes, how they think, emotional responses, and so much more. The beauty of this book is that it is about real people. As you read the breakdown of each personality type, you will literally see yourself. Using this book as a base to develop your characters will make them more realistic.
I’m going to share with you a few of the character traits and descriptions listed. For more information regarding the external and internal facets of the personalities, I strongly urge you check out this book!
The Boss: They want to be in the limelight at home, work, or play. The theme in their lives is control of themselves and others around them.
The Conformist/Conventionalist: In favor of compliance to nearly everything around them.
The Creator: Life gets meaning from the ability to produce new ideas or products (very artistic)
The Dependent: Their world revolves around having their needs met by others.
The Loner: Life seems directionless. This person has little strong attachment to anyone.
The Man’s Man: This character is very one-dimensional.
The Passive/Aggressive: They try hard, but always feel misunderstood.
The Resilient: They have the remarkable ability to recover from life’s disappointments.
Do you see your character here? This is only a prototype of what your characters could be. Now you have to fill in those blanks. This is where the handy character outline comes in.
Are those creative juices flowing yet?
The key to all of this is time. Not everyone feels the need to delve this deep into character development in order to tell the story. That’s fine, because everyone writes in his or her own way. My intention is not to tell anyone how to write. I am not a master, nor am I a published author. My goal is to share what I’ve learned on my writing journey with anyone willing to listen. The method I use may not be for you. I hope that you will find something useful to guide you in developing your writing style, or at least give you the extra encouragement needed to get over that writing hump.
So, planners, pansters, what is your technique for stripping away those onion layers? Please share!