BETTER CHARACTERS: DRESSING FROM THE OUTSIDE IN By Shannah Biondine
Someone recently inquired about character development-specifically, how does a writer work through the process of character development to make flat characters into well rounded, believable people?
Assuming you’re a writer like me, of character-driven fiction, this is a very intriguing question. Your characters are more than puppets to be manipulated by your plot-your characters propel your plot, define and shape it. The outcome of the conflict and the story’s resolution depend entirely on the actions and decisions of these people.
So it stands to reason that the more interesting and engaging your characters are, the more interesting and riveting your story itself will be.
This can be a tough challenge, particularly in the romance genre, because so many times readers who like the genre formula also like certain “stock” characters. And all of us know these kinds almost too well. You can’t go terribly far afield from the rich, successful, handsome hero or the capable and attractive heroine. To break the mold completely is to court rejection. A novel where the dumpy housewife abandoned by her womanizing spouse falls for the balding carpet-cleaning tech is going to be hard to market. Remember, we are selling fantasies.
However, there’s a lot of latitude where your characters are concerned. Beyond physical attributes, you can use all kinds of resources to help you begin modeling personalities:
- Astrology profiles, numerology, tarot readings
- Psychology texts with personality profiles
- Reference texts like baby name guides, books on costumes or historical periods
- Amalgams of real-life people
- Meditation, visualization techniques
- Adaptations of other characters from books, films, television
Any one of those might give you a starting point. But to make your characters truly fresh and interesting, you’re going to have to dress them from the outside in.
Here’s what I mean by that. Say you’ve decided your hero wears a certain designer’s suits or prefers faded jeans even though he could buy out an entire men’s store. Why does he have that particular taste in clothing?
Does he have any scars, a singular white streak in otherwise dark hair, a front tooth that’s just a bit crooked? Why not? Even in real life, film stars and models have flaws that are disguised with make-up or photo retouching?
Maybe your heroine will notice the crooked tooth the first time he smiles. Maybe she won’t even discover it until she’s been around him several times. What does this say about her? And when she first becomes aware of a flaw in him, does she feel relieved? Find it endearing? Annoying? What mistaken assumptions will they make about one another, based on external factors like career trappings or physical appearance? What small points can you use to bolster the main conflict between them?
What does each key character want? What is he or she prepared to do to get it? What will this character not do? What are that character’s scruples, religious beliefs, social limitations? If later called upon to perform some unusual, heroic, or noble gesture, how likely is it the reader will believe this character is capable of standing up to the test, and how have you established that?
If your hero’s got a hidden fear of drowning due to a childhood incident, you will have to convince your readers that he’s very likely already in love with the heroine (whether he has inwardly admitted this or not) if he risks his own life pulling her out of raging floodwaters. Readers tend to expect inverse proportions. The more difficult or distasteful something is, the more powerful the character’s incentive must be. You can use these expectations to show rather than tell readers a great deal about your characters.
And if you start with something like an astrology or birth-order profile, remember there are always exceptions and room for interpretation. Start from the general and work inward, becoming more and more specific. Listen to how your characters speak, watch how they move. What do you learn from this? What will your reader expect?
Phobias, resentments, emotional baggage, social connections, physical and emotional flaws…these are the condiments and seasoning that flavor a “stock” fictional character into a unique individual. The more distinctive your characters are, the more you expand your plotline possibilities. Your story is a building collection of scenes, each enriching and building upon what you’ve already established. Every time one of your characters zigs when other characters might have zagged, you have several new directions you can pursue as a writer.
Let’s use the example of the hero with the crooked tooth. It’s a contemporary romance, and our hero and heroine met in the worst possible way-they got into a fender bender in a parking lot, at their local motor vehicles office. Here you have several possibilities for conflict right away. Strangers who literally run into one another become instant adversaries. The location of the accident makes both of them more likely to be contentious, snobbish, scornful. I haven’t yet told you anything about their careers, social or financial status. I haven’t mentioned what kind of cars they drive.
But if she has a brand new Lexus and he gets out of a faded pick-up, if as soon as he starts talking, she notices that slightly crooked front tooth, what image have you given the reader?
On the other hand, he could be the Lexus driver, look totally suave and be dressed very flamboyantly, inform her he’s an attorney by profession, and display that tooth while holding out his business card and grinning. What image do you have now?
As you can see from the example, how the scene develops and where the plotline would go depends very much upon the characters themselves here. You can take the same premise and tweak it any number of ways…each giving a different feel to the characters and suggesting a different outcome for the scene.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your characters, trying out traits, backstory, and quirks until everything “clicks.” Don’t be shy about exploiting what you imbue your people with, both positive and negative aspects. But do make sure every important character is a little of both.
The difference between fiction and real life isn’t that fictional people are perfect. They shouldn’t be. They should be as human and fallible as true humans are. Perfection is in the outcome of the story, in everything dropping neatly into place by the end of the story, in the feeling of equity or justice. The people must suffer, sweat and earn that outcome, very nearly failing somewhere along the way in their attempts. They must end up all the better for it, for remember that fiction is also about struggle. About a protagonist having to suffer to achieve, attain, reunite, surmount.
And next time someone tosses out that old saw about writing what you know, tell them you do. You suffered yourself in creating characters, in breathing life into them, twisting and turning them, dreaming up new worlds for them to conquer. You struggled, too.
Shannah Biondine has written several historical and paranormal romances for New Concepts Publishing, Bookmice, and LTDBooks. She has been an active member of RWA for 6 years and is a former chapter president. Her background includes many years as a professional non-fiction writer and serving as both freelance editor and book reviewer.
Copyright Shannah Biondine 2001