Building Character

A story is about people before it’s about anything else.

How do we bring to life on the page the multi-dimensional, colorful characters who will star in our stories? The same way we connect with and support the real people we encounter in life: through empathy. We tap the imagination to put ourselves in the same boat as another, to find out how it feels. Here are four tips to further that process.

*Define and respect each character’s backstory. Write a one-page biography about each important character, being as specific as possible about the forces that shaped his personality and motivations. When was the last time he cried, or lied? Why?

*Find the part of yourself that resonates with each of your characters to help in their development. The do-gooder who can’t say no, the party animal, the political activist, the neurotic agoraphobic, or someone quite despicable and villainous—we all have such mini-selves hiding within, which we can draw on to add depth and diversity to our lineup of characters. Investing a piece of ourselves in each one will prevent any from becoming wooden pawns. It will help us discover that the good guys have flaws, the bad guys have dreams, and both have motivations for their actions.

*Seek out points of tension between characters and turn up the volume on them. In fact, narrative propulsion will come more easily if you conceive of your story in terms of a pair of characters in some sort of conflict, as opposed to an individual “main character.” Classically, the protagonist and antagonist were enemies. But friends, spouses, kids and parents—all can embody different perspectives, value systems, and personalities that will keep the action moving and the sparks flying.

*Trust your characters once you feel you know them well enough. Let them determine the course of the action, rather than putting them through the paces of a preconceived plot. Most important: allow them to speak out. Give them the room to grow through scenes. (See Muze Taps: Dialogue, Parts 1 and 2.)

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