Monday, January 21, 2008

Defining Characters

Besides appearance and personality, what makes us who we are? Is it our career? Our interests? Our philosophy and values? Our goals? Is it a combination of these things? When writing fiction, motivation, needs and goals are primary to creating our characters. You may have vague notions as to the kinds of characterization you want, but until you have a general idea of plot—what drives the character forward to reach goals—then you’re character can be only two-dimensional. It’s understanding what moves the character forward that allows you to dig more deeply and to create three-dimensional characters that are believable and compelling.

How Do You Do This?
Ask yourself what makes you who you are today. What defines your needs and motivation? What created your fears and interests? I think if you roll it all into a ball, it’s your past. What happened to you from day one—your experiences, the goods and bads of your life, the exposure to various events, your upbringing—all of these things create who you are do day.

This means that authors need to create a past for each significant character in their novels. In a women’s fiction, this can be multiple characters. In suspense and thrillers, it can be multiple characters including the villain. In romance it’s the hero and heroine who need defining and to create deep characterization. Paranormal fiction and science fiction, all genre needs to go back in time to define the hows and whys of the most significant characters in the book. Let’s call this past the backstory–all the action and events that happened before the novel opens.

How Do You Create Backstory?
Creating backstory is making decisions. With plot ideas in mind, you must decide what particular issues your character struggles with. Why is this an issue? What happened in the past to cause this to be a focus of your character. Since this is fictitious, you can create the situations from very serious to only incidental but each has made some kind of impact on your character.

Let’s say in your novel, a young woman will need to climb a long ladder to escape from someone or to rescue herself. Now take her back to childhood, perhaps, playing in Grandpa’s barn. She’s in a hayloft and finds a rat or mouse or dead pet or a sleeping stranger or whatever your imagination creates. The child wants to escape. She’s filled with fear and as she grasps for the ladder, it slips from her fingers and falls to the ground far below. She’s stranded with this person or thing which has frightened her. This can be the beginning of her fear of heights or fear of climbing.

These are the kinds of situations that you need to create and ponder how it will define part of your characters motivations and needs. Among the things you can consider are the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, his traits and attitudes (and what caused them), his flaws, fears, talents, challenges, idiosyncrasies, education background and career choices. Also important are his family relationships and discipline-style, his upbringing, family and character’s health/illnesses, and family dysfunctions. All of these factors will help to establish his goals and motivation which is vital to creating conflict, the key to a good novel.

Learning about family birth order is significant when it comes to personalities and also birth order in relationship to dysfunctional families. You can find information on the Internet and numerous links are included in my book Writing the Christian Romance. A couple of these links found on Google would be:

Click here: Birth Order
Click here: Effects of birth order
Click here: Birth Order Dynamics and Response to Stress

This is only a few of the options if you google, but they will provide you with some excellent information on understanding how birth order can affect a characters personality and dynamics with others, as well as create conflicts and motivation for specific goals.

How to use backstory effectively will be my next blog.

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