Techniques for Building Rounded Characters: Part Two

Sunday 7 September 2014 by

Characters are such a central part of any fiction. Without characters to relate to and root for, we can’t engage in the story.

But how do you go about creating the sort of character that someone can like and get behind? How do you draw a person out of thin air?

While the process, for me and I think a lot of people, is largely trial and error, there are a number of techniques you can use to get inside your characters head and start to get to know them better.

Writing Out of Order

When I start projects, I usually have a rough idea of the minor characters, a secure idea of the main characters, and usually a concrete idea of a relationship that will occur during the story. I’m a hopeless romantic and like to know who is going to end up together by the end.

For example, in the story I’m currently working on, there are three key relationships the main character is involved in. There is the relationship between her and her sister, a friendship that she starts with another woman at the start of the story, and the romantic relationship she has with her love interest.

Writing about these relationships once they’re underway, or when they’re in trouble is the interesting bit for me. I often jump ahead in the narrative to write these scenes when I’m suffering from a bit of writer’s block.

They will probably need altering by the time I get to them chronologically, but they are definitely useful for one thing – and that’s revealing things about the character. When you have people in an established relationship, you have to ask – why do these people get along? What do they have in common? By answering that in a later scene, I then have that information to feed back into earlier scenes, along with other titbits and ideas that I come up with.

Reverse Manufacturing

Some writers have a very clear idea of conflict and plot, but don’t get the characters so easily.

But once you have a good idea of plot, it can be used to select character traits that enhance conflict.

Take Jaws for example. (I’m talking movie, not book, sadly I’ve not read the book) Plot: Big shark EATING PEOPLE. Someone must stop this. Conflict: THERE’S A BIG SHARK EATING PEOPLE. It’s quite a simple story. But the thing that makes it interesting is the characters.

There are three main characters in Jaws, and all three of them have been made to raise the conflict and interest in the plot.

You have Brody, the island’s police chief. He has a young family, and a responsibility through his job to protect the island, so he’s definitely invested in killing the shark. But, he’s terrified of water, so there’s a personal conflict for him as well.

There’s Quint – a man who knows everything there is to know about hunting sharks. But he’s an unlikely ally – on the wrong side of the law, usually drunk and a bit crazy, he’s not the sort of person that anyone wants to rely on to save the day.

Then there’s Hooper, the young, flash marine scientist. He has the knowledge and the passion, but he struggles to be taken seriously by Quint – who has lived and breathed the ocean his whole life – because he’s young and rich.

I might be wrong, but I somewhat doubt Peter Benchley thought ‘I know, what would happen if a marine scientist desperate to be taken seriously went on a shark hunt with a grizzled old hunter and a police chief afraid of water?’ The character traits here have been reverse engineered to fit the story, to enhance the themes and conflict.

(Also, don’t you just love that scene where the woman whose kid got eaten slaps Chief Brody like it was his fault, while you know Brody asked the Mayor to close the beaches and he was like ‘ Nope, 4th of July.’? Talk about character motivation – Brody HAS to get the shark after that, or he won’t be able to show his face for something HE DIDN’T EVEN DO. Sorry, I love Jaws. If you haven’t seen it you totally should.)

Contradictions

Finally, a good way to build rounded characters is to give them contradictory traits, things within their make up that conflict. This builds tension into their characterisation straight away. A bit like Chief Brody living on an island and being terrified of water, making a character their own worst enemy will make them have a much harder time solving whatever plot problems are thrown at them, making us root for them more.

It’s a technique that’s a tad overdone with the ‘bad boy with a heart of gold’ routine. But there’s a reason it’s so popular – it works. A hardened criminal who makes sure he’s home to look after his sick mother is much more interesting than a nurse who does the same thing. Because it makes us ask the question: why? How does that work? How can that character reconcile these two conflicting sides of their nature?

And those are interesting questions that lead to well rounded characters.

Further Information

If you want to hear more about building characters, I highly recommend Writing Excuses’ Three Pronged Character Development. They raise some interesting ideas about how to maintain character sympathy and keep them rounded.

You can follow Loralei on Twitter: @LAHaylock

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