Character development: turning a cardboard character into a ‘real’ person
A writer must develop the background of his character to understand what makes the character tick. This understanding is essential to developing the correct responses to the situations in the story. For example, a character who dropped out of high school will be amazing if he uses quantum mechanics to explain how aliens transported money out of a closed bank vault. A sickly protagonist cannot use physical violence to subdue the antagonist. However, a character raised in France can use French words and phrases without sounding snobbish to the reader.
How much background is required? This is an open question. I use more than one background page to define a main character in a short story and a paragraph or two for a minor character. As a general rule of thumb, the more important the character is to your story, the more background you will need. The deeper you plan to delve into the character’s psyche during the story, the more details you’ll need about the character’s mental makeup. On the contrary, the more you know about the character’s mindset, the easier it will be for your story to probe deeply.
An important non-physical characteristic of my characters is their philosophical perspective. This element is one of the first that I give to my new character since it influences other aspects. For example, a reader will not believe in a cheerful character who is supposed to be pessimistic. Similarly, a taciturn character will make a poor optimist (that is, amazing).
This attribute also influences the character’s way of thinking and defines the character’s reaction to some stimuli in the story. Suppose, for example, a protagonist with a pessimistic philosophy faced with a monumental plot problem. When her partner makes a suggestion, she responds, “Yes! That’s it! Let’s do it.” Now we have a protagonist who is reacting inappropriately. She reacted optimistically. A pessimist would respond with, “What a silly idea. That will never work.”
Besides pessimism (reality is bad) and optimism (reality is good), I use other philosophies for my characters. These include individualism (personal freedom and autonomy), materialism (reality consists solely of matter), mysticism (dependence and belief in creeds or beliefs), nihilism (the social and economic order is corrupt), and pragmatism (emphasizes practical consequences and results. shares of one). Definitions of all of these can be found in various books, including dictionaries.
When building a group of characters for a story, I make sure that the characters have a variety of philosophies. Much conflict and humor can be achieved by giving the protagonist and partner conflicting philosophies such as pessimism and optimism or mysticism and materialism. The latter pair pit a character with a strong belief in faith against another who does not believe that faith has anything to do with events or outcomes.
Readers must empathize with the protagonist of your story, otherwise they won’t care what happens to him. For empathy with a character to occur, the reader must conclude that the character shares some human values with the reader.
Empathy (understanding) should not be confused with sympathy (pity). The reader should say to himself: “This girl is like me. I want her to solve her problem.” A protagonist who kicks puppies and fools the blind newsstand worker won’t gain much empathy from readers unless he has other traits that balance out these negatives. If this puppy-kicking character has a conscience and regrets his actions as soon as he does so, he may have a slim chance of winning the reader’s empathy. If this character kicks puppies because a brain tumor has damaged his personality, then the reader might excuse such unpleasant acts, knowing that they are unintentional. Another problem with a pup-kicking protagonist is trying to develop an antagonist that is even more obnoxious. With an unpleasant protagonist, the reader can establish an empathic bond with the antagonist. This results in a reversal of the reader’s usual loyalty to the reader who now expects the bad guy to win. If the protagonist wins, as he usually does, the reader is left with the feeling that something is wrong with the story and that it was a waste of time to read it.
On the other hand, a character who constantly moans, “woe is me,” may gain sympathy, but the reader will not develop empathy with this whiny guy. For example, suppose your protagonist faces a series of difficulties that he has not chosen himself. You may struggle to keep your head above water and gain empathy, or you may blame others for your misery and possibly gain sympathy. The first is the stuff of good stories, the second is not.
For the reader to like and like the protagonist, you must display traits that are admired by the reader. These include courage, virtue, competence, and kindness. Of course, the lead may lack one or more of these characteristics at the beginning of the story and find or develop the attribute at the end of the story. For example, a character, faced with the resolution of a dangerous plot problem, may agonize over his lack of courage. At the end of the story, he overcomes his fears and finds the courage to face danger.
For me, these are little bits of action that make the characters more human. Under certain emotional or stressful conditions, characters will resort to these habits. A character can curl his hair when he is deep in thought or concentrated. Another character may drum his fingertips on a table when he is upset or angry. Once you’ve identified the idiosyncrasy for the reader, it can become a cue about the character’s state of mind. When you show this woman sitting at a table and making a face because she curled her hair too much, you don’t have to tell the reader that you are pondering a problem; the reader knows. Similarly, the furious tapping of the guy’s fingers tells the reader that he is angry and that the author does not have to tell the reader.
But don’t mistake these idiosyncrasies for normal habits. A character who is always adjusting his glasses is not showing an idiosyncrasy, he is showing a habit and he does it without thinking.
Linking an idiosyncrasy to a physical attribute is a powerful way to build a reader’s identity with a character. Suppose you have a leading man with a visible facial scar. Whenever he touches the scar, the reader knows that he is thinking of the aggressor who wields the knife and that he hopes to take revenge. Another example is a pronounced limp. If the injury was caused by the character frozen in fear at a crucial moment, every time the character sends a message to his knee, he remembers his failure and his fears. Perhaps history may depend on him facing these fears in another trial. These links can be used with both the protagonist and the antagonist.
Like ordinary people, the characters in the story must be complex. The more complex these characters are, the more attractive the readers will find them. While this certainly applies to the protagonist, don’t forget to build a multi-faceted antagonist. A complex protagonist fighting a cardboard antagonist will leave the reader feeling that something is missing.