Finding the Four B’s of Your Character:
Before your character had control of his or her own life, who controlled it?
When beginning a writing project, it can seem easy to imagine a handsome or heartwarming character with an endearing personality and a couple of flaws that have the potential to get them into trouble. But is that enough insight to cause you as the author to really know who that character is?
The problem with not knowing your characters well enough is you won’t know what they would say or do in certain situations. You may know what you would do or say or what your imagination can conjure up for the characters to say or do, but to understand how each one would react, you must know truly know who they are. When understanding any subject, it’s best to start at the beginning and build from there.
My characters’ lives begin long before they were born. Who were their parents as they were growing up? What was the relationship like for Mom and Dad before they were anyone’s mom and dad?
When your character was in his or her growing-up years, did Mom love to laugh or was she void of humor? Did Dad love coming home, or did he drag himself in near or past bedtime? Was Mom fulfilled in her life or did she pine her days away, remaining loyal to the family but never psychologically embracing them or herself?
The largest elements of parenting continue to make a difference in the heart, mind, and soul of an adult child. A drug-addicted, alcoholic, or absent parent certainly leaves a mark on his or her children. But are the easily labeled issues the only ones with enough power to show up on the written page?
Doesn’t a mom or dad, who loves her or his life, leave a totally different and equally powerful impression on a child than a parent who is dutiful and kind but miserable?
The subtleties of your character’s beginning are harder to show on the page, but if you know those nuances, that info will contribute to molding how your character thinks and what he or she does and doesn’t do. How this plays out in the action or point of view of your characters may be as gentle as restrained disrespect for anyone they see across a crowded room who is drinking too much or discreetly popping a pill. That will calibrate their response in a hundred possible scenarios that can arise in a novel.
It all matters.
How I felt about my parents’ choices and decisions when I was growing up still dictates my choices and decisions today—and I have two grown and married sons. If I liked something my parents did, I did and do that for my own children. If I disagreed or hated something they did, I do the opposite for my children. But when I do things differently, what effect is it having on my children? Do they agree or disagree with my decisions? Is it harmful or helpful?
For example, when I was a child, all food put on my plate had to be eaten before I could leave the table. I gagged my way through many a meal, but I also learned to eat foods I didn’t like. As a result of my own experiences, when my children hated something, I’d give them a choice of other items with similar nutritional value. I remember each night going through a list of acceptable substitutes for each child. One son hated cooked carrots, broccoli, and English peas, but he would eat raw carrots and broccoli. He’s twenty-five now and still won’t touch an English pea. Was my method helpful or did I teach him to always look for the easy way out? Did I give the subtle message that women are pushovers and that if you don’t like what their hard work has provided, they’ll find a solution for you? Hmmm.
Knowing the answer of cause and effect of your characters’ beginnings will determine many of their actions and responses when they’re adults.
Behind every human’s life are thousands of years of DNA that have been passed down. What natural gifts and struggles did your character’s DNA give him or her?
So, in many ways, “behind” has as much influence over your character’s behavior as the “before” mode does. Many people struggle to control their desires, urges, and personality. Let’s think about people with a Type A personality. Their patience is taxed before anyone around them has done anything wrong. A goldfish gets on their nerves, and its fish tank probably needs organizing and restructuring ASAP. People who are Type A are often labeled as difficult or jerks. But much concerning who they are—athletic ability, artistic ability, attention issues, etc.—was passed on to them from conception.
You don’t need to study your character’s genealogy, but you need to be aware of what traits are passed down and give some measure of weight to that when developing your character.
Some of the sweetest people we know were born with a disposition that is relaxed and warm and easy to get along with. I remember as a preteen wondering if those people were less sinful than those who were challenging and difficult. Was their sweetness a lack of sin? How could that be? They carried more social graces, but didn’t the sin nature claw at their hearts and minds too? We know it does. But how does that “sin” show itself when they are such “good” people?
When we can answer those questions, we’re ready to build any type of character from a gentle, truly sweet one to a Type A, easily-become-a-jerk one.
Between the conception and the start of your novel, what else molded your character? One of the interesting things about being a human is the same exact environment could be created for several beings and yet they’d each have a unique perspective because of a thing we call personality. If you have a set of identical twins, each one will react to his or her environment differently. A parade may excite one toddler and terrify the other.
This is where the author can choose more of who the character is. After plotting out the “before” and the “behind,” you’re ready to choose the personality of your characters. Do they accept all the popular-cultural thinking of their day, fight against it, or quietly disagree with it? If they lost a sibling in a war, did that make them want to protest wars or join the military? After the “before” and the “behind,” who did your character become?
Begin your novel armed with full knowledge of who your characters are—the before, the behind, and the between. Then ask yourself, “What would they do when all of who they are is caught in an emotional or physical destruction of all they’ve known? You don’t have to know the answer to how they’d react. The characters will tell you when you throw all your plots and subplots at them. They’ll be true to themselves because they know themselves—or at least you know them.
The characterization throughout your work won’t be about you, the author, deciding what each character should or shouldn’t say or do; it’s about you taking great notes as the characters speak.
I’d like to leave you with one last “b” word—believe. Believe in your characters. Believe in your skill to write a great novel. Believe that the work you put into the writing will bear fruit, even if, for now, that fruit is simply the faithfulness to keep on keeping on.