I’ve been on a personal journey for the past few months, doing something that I’ve needed to do for a long time: therapy. Therapy includes a whole lot of introspection. It’s a journey of self-discovery that involves picking apart my own life to understand what was broken, as well as what makes me tick generally. Why do I do things the way that I do them? In the process, I’ve discovered that there is a great deal to be learned about creating realistic characters by looking into yourself, whether you’re broken or not.
Try this exercise: make a list of your own most extreme and noteworthy character traits. Be as honest as possible. Don’t worry, you aren’t required to share. Here’s my short list:
- I have successfully fooled people into thinking that I am outgoing.
- Left turns scare me. Social situations scare me. Making phone calls scares me.
- If you give me the chance to jump out of an airplane, I’m so there!
- The more upset I get, the less I can speak.
- I write and draw to tell the stories that I can’t tell verbally.
Now here’s the big question: What do all these traits have to do with each other?
If I were a neat and tidy character from a novel, all of my random-seeming traits would connect, right? No decent character is a bucket of unconnected traits. What could the traits in this disjointed list possibly have in common? But look again. Every trait in my list involves anxiety: having it, avoiding it, or compensating for it.
First insight: many traits spring from one source. A believable character will have one central trait, like the pole holding up a circus tent. Any number of positive and negative secondary traits can then populate that tent. Character traits are the circus performers; they are way more obvious and interesting than the pole, but they can only be there because of that central trait holding up the roof.
But where does that tentpole trait come from? For many characters, the central defining trait, such as anxiety, is there because Something Happened — otherwise known as backstory. And here’s my second insight: one traumatic backstory event is enough. If the event hit your character at a vulnerable point in her life, even if the event was just one small thing, that alone can generate enough complexity for a realistic character. (Sure, you can add more backstory events if you want, but you may be creating a web of motivations too complicated for you to keep straight, or for your readers to follow–especially younger readers.)
To understand a character in a more visual format, here’s another exercise: turn a character into a flowchart. You can use someone from an existing work of fiction, or your own character, or even yourself if you’ve made your list.* The character’s backstory should lead to the tentpole, and from there to the character’s most important habits and attitudes. At the downstream end are one or more traits, which reliably describe how the character will react to any situation.
Here is an example using the character Steven Universe, from the Cartoon Network show of the same name. Steven is half human and half alien “gem.” All of his character traits can be traced back to his non-human mother sacrificing her life for his.
Such a flowchart could be useful if you are having trouble deciding how your character would react to a situation, or if you need to know what you can cut from a manuscript that is sagging under the weight of a character.
Here is another a-ha moment that I got from making a flowchart: a character doesn’t need to understand his own tentpole. Steven Universe doesn’t ruminate on the fact that he is working so hard to love the conflicting halves of himself. He’s too busy protecting people from one another, even when doing so is inconvenient or downright dangerous.
As long as the writer understands the character’s tentpole, the character can remain realistically oblivious, frustrated, and angry at herself. She may surprise herself with feats of recklessness or bravery that, to her, seem to have come out of the blue, but through which she is unconsciously addressing some hidden need. She could find herself reacting to situations one way when she thinks she ought to be reacting in another.
And this brings up change. A good story often involves one or more characters changing, and getting a character to change involves changing their tentpole trait. Their identity is built around that central trait, so altering it will take a significant outside force or a massive internal struggle, or both.
As an example, if the writers of Steven Universe wanted to change his habit of protecting his enemies, they’d probably need to do it far upstream. If, say, Steven were to discover that his mother abandoned him instead of sacrificing herself for him, Steven’s tentpole trait might be altered in a rather ugly way, and as a result all of his downstream traits would change. Thankfully Steven Universe is a sweet and lighthearted show, and its writers are likely to keep it that way.
On an unrelated note, here’s another way to develop your characters: have your characters take a personality test. Some options include Personality Factors, Myers-Briggs, and DiSC. This exercise can help you iron out the differences between your characters, or to make sure that your main character is not a carbon copy of yourself.
Do your characters translate neatly into flowcharts? Do they come out with surprising results on personality tests? Or not so much? If you try any of these things, let me know in the comments below.
*You can see the flowchart I did of myself here, if you’re curious — but be forewarned, you may not want to share this one with your kids.