A while back, I attended a writer’s conference session about character development. The speaker suggested using astrological signs as a means to create believable, consistent characters. My knowledge of astrology is scant, but I tried to apply it to the characters in my first novel, Winter is Past. The results weren’t what I’d hoped for.
When I worked in the area of nursing education, human resources and spirituality, I had the opportunity to delve into Myers-Briggs…a personality evaluation tool that assesses behavior based on four areas of response: Introversion versus extraversion, Intuitive versus Sensate, Thinking versus Feeling and Perceptive versus Judgmental. The latter may not be so self-explanatory but I use the example of my parents: my dad would be ready to go somewhere 20 minutes ahead of time, while my mother would change her mind a few more times about what she wanted to wear. Think: structured versus easy-going.
I returned to my draft manuscript, and applied the Myers-Briggs, using this tool to help me re-create the major characters with the result of more consistent, believable players. For my second novel The Sin of His Father, I wrote out character profiles before I even began to write, again using the Myers-Briggs. It has made it so much easier.
There is an old book called Please Understand Me that explains all the possible profile combinations and how they play out in real life. If you can find it, it’s been a godsend.
I’m addicted to The Learning Company‘s Great Courses, university level programs presented by the highest quality professors. One of the courses, The Art of Reading is taught by Professor Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. The lectures are well-organized, clearly presented and as applicable to writers as to readers.
An important point from the lecture on characters addresses developing round characters. The concept of a round character, as opposed to a flat one, was presented by E. M. Forster in his book, Aspects of the Novel. Simply put, a round character is one who will capture the reader’s interest because of his unpredictability, his complexity and the changes he undergoes during the course of the story. And this is key: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” (Forster)
While a protagonist needs to draw the sympathy of the reader, he should have some character flaws. Inversely, your antagonist should have something that makes him, if not attractive, at least capable of being understood. Just like us–no one is all good or all bad.
As you write, reflect upon your own reaction to the key characters in your manuscript. Are you able to identify with them to some degree? Are there things that, if you were that person, you might be ashamed of or want to change? Are there events or reactions which are surprising without being totally out-of-character (unconvincing)? Is your character someone you would want to know, or avoid?
One thing I find helpful when writing fiction is to base my characters on a composite of people I know or with whom I have been acquainted. You can even take someone who is in the public eye. I try not to use one person because I would never want anyone to say to me, “That’s me, isn’t it?” My mother once thought a character was her because I set a scene in a room in her house! And this secondary character was not, initially, a nice person.
I hope this brief reflection on characters will be helpful to those of you who have an interest in writing fiction. In a future post, I’ll share a character development worksheet that I prepared for a character in novel #2 to give you something to hang your words on!
Happy writing; enjoy the process!