A character in a story is a work of art. They are clearer than a real human being. Therefore, you can understand characters better than real people. This makes them superior to use for the purposes of fiction.
Real people are confused messes. We alternate our personas due to a mishmash of upbringing, attitude, world view, and neuro-chemical fluctuations. You may think you know someone and then they’ll turn around and completely destroy your expectations in a second. Often in ways you’d rather not discover. This is why characters are much more appealing than real people. You can rely on them to be who they’re supposed to be. And if they aren’t you know it’s the writer’s fault.
If only real people were that solid.
But to make good characters you need to understand the principles that make us what we are. Your goal isn’t to imitate life. It’s to refine it. To improve on it. A character is a distillation of human traits. You can either distill 100 proof hard liquor, or some watery crap no one will want to swallow. It’s up to you.
Characters in a story are not independent of the plot just as we are not independent of reality. We can’t just snap our fingers and stop time, or decide that the sky will be green today, or decide that we don’t like the existing government so everything changes the second we feel it should be different. We all have to deal with reality as it comes to us. Characters in a fictional reality are no different. This does not mean that characters should just go with the flow. People have the power to change the course of events, and your hero in particular, must affect change in some way. Otherwise there’s no point to the story. If everything would proceed the same way without your hero, he’s redundant.
The same holds true for the Villain. If the Villain has no impact on the events of the story, he isn’t a real antagonist. He is unimportant and thus, disposable. As we discussed earlier, conflict is the crux of every story. And conflict is transformed by dynamic will of the characters. When the will of the hero is pitted against the will of the villain it serves three purposes.
1. The conflict heats up and makes the story more exciting.
2. The characters are more thoroughly defined by their choices.
3. The premise is tested via its conflict with the counter premise.
But there is much more to characterization than the mere actions of the players. In order to make a character believable, you have to understand the principles of character dimension.
You’ve heard the term “two dimensional character”, which is often used to describe a person without any depth, or a clichéd character in a story. None of us want our characters to come off as two dimensional, so there are certain criteria we need to understand. Let’s explore the meaning of the term “character dimension” here.
A one dimensional character is a single minded individual with one noticeable personality trait. A hero, who is good. A villain, who is evil. Their personality is the same in any given situation. They just want to do what they were created for. That’s their only purpose in life. You could call them plot robots. The Golden Age super-heroes and villains were essentially one dimensional.
Two dimensional characters have one contradiction that makes them more complex than the one dimensional character. They are heroic, but are afraid of the dark. They are evil, but have some guilt. There isn’t much more to them than that. But they have the illusion of depth because of their additional side. The Silver Age super-heroes and villains were essentially two dimensional.
Three dimensional characters, or more appropriately, believable characters have many contradictions. Example: A dictator out to conquer the world, who cares deeply about the preservation of his culture, but seeks to destroy others. He’s a vegetarian, an artist, but has books burned he doesn’t approve of. He’s heavily for the advancement of science, but dabbles in mysticism and the occult. (There was a real person like that. His name was Adolf Hitler).
But it takes more than a list of contradictions and characteristics to make a realistic character. The character’s choices need to reflect their personal world view, their usual behavior and beliefs. There’s also the matter of relational characterization which we’ll discuss shortly. When writing three dimensional characters, choose your actions carefully at first. Once you get to know them, they will write themselves. It’s important to understand that every character in a story can’t be three dimensional. Some character’s roles are incidental, and making them too memorable could steal thunder from your main characters. So these walk on characters should be two dimensional in a non-cartoony way. Unless you are going for a cartoon quality in your work.
The Power of Choice
Imagine a restaurant full of people. A gunman bursts in and starts shooting. Most will dive under the tables or hit the floor. Some will just cower there until they are killed. Some will try to escape. Some may even try to fight the gunman. Some will scream to God. Some will lose control of their bladders. Some will laugh hysterically. Some will cry uncontrollably. There are all kinds of possible reactions to this situation. What your character does, or chooses to do, will define what your character is like at that moment in the story. We are all defined by the choices we make in life. People form impressions based on how they see other people act, dress, and live. You choose what kind of clothes to wear. You choose your hair style. You choose to either be fit or fat. You choose to be lazy or industrious. You choose to be friendly or obnoxious. You choose to be honest or lie to yourself and others. You choose to be good or bad. This defines your character.
Many people act a certain way because of programming they’ve done to themselves over the course of their life, which was influenced by their environment, culture, family, friends and experiences. So much of their behavior is instinctive, rather than conscious. Even so, it is a clue to who they are and where their head is at. At some point, we chose to make ourselves the way we are. People may choose to be lazy or mean, unconsciously, but it’s still a powerful indicator of their psyche. Because it’s saying they don’t care enough to change. Or they lack the will. Or they are unable to see themselves in an objective light. And this can be very instructive and useful in a scene. When you construct a character, you need to take these things into consideration.
But to make your job easy, remember to think of the choices your character would make in the course of the story. Choices in clothes, choices in appropriate behavior, choices in verbal and emotional response. Many writers mistakenly write their characters from the hip, basing the character’s choices on their own idea of how to act. Or on clichés that this character is “supposed” to be like. This leads to one dimensional characters, and thus, to unmemorable fiction. It’s important to think about the character’s choices when you have him respond to another character’s action or dialog. When you have him walk into the room and announce themselves. When you have him choose something to eat in a restaurant. But more importantly, there will be times where they will have to make critical choices that will have a major impact on the story. It will become very important to understand the nature of these critical choices.
REMEMBER: Choice is one of the most powerful tools of characterization.
The Rules of Choice
Choice behaves by certain rules. If you ignore these rules, you run the risk of offending your audience. Characters must be given logical choices which are not absolute. In other words, choices like: “Eat a bowl of ice cream or shoot your mother!” are not choices anyone is going to take seriously. That’s an insane choice. A choice between right and wrong, good and evil isn’t a worthwhile decision in fictional terms. If a hero makes an obviously wrong choice, the audience will lose their empathy for them and that is fatal to your story. Therefore you need to create a third choice. And each choice should have attendant risks and benefits attached. They should be hard to choose between.
Example: Let’s say you are forced to do a favor for a mobster or your best friend will be killed. The Choices are: A: Take an unmarked package onboard a plane. B. Steal secrets from your employer that will help the mobster rob him. C: Refuse.
Choice A seems the safest, but the risks are obvious. Packages are scanned by detectors before being allowed on planes, dogs are used to sniff for drugs. You may be arrested if it’s contraband. And if you aren’t arrested, you’re still probably smuggling something bad. Then again, it could be innocent contents. This choice is morally ambiguous.
Choice B seems like a bad choice because it means stealing, and helping the mobster get more powerful. But it would also keep your friend alive. It also has less risks attached. But it’s also morally inferior to the first choice. This one seems immoral.
Choice C: The morally correct thing to do, but it would mean your friend’s death and maybe your own. The audience would hate you, because no one likes a morally inflexible person. But you may want to say you refuse first, just to see if the mobster really means what he says. Then you could change your mind. Maybe.
You need to create choices with inherent risks, but they should also have benefits attached, otherwise, there is no motivation to do them. The benefit of A and B is that they will buy some time for your friend. The benefit of C is you remain a morally correct person. Choosing A or B is more selfless and heroic. Choosing C would make you look like a person who cares about your morals more than other people’s lives. It’s not an sympathetic position to take. Most people would choose A as the most intelligent (unless they hated their boss, then they might gleefully choose B).
Your audience will be choosing alongside your hero. They will hope he makes their choice. This will increase their empathy for your character. They will find your character smart if he chooses what they thought was the right answer. But you then have to show them what the risk was in taking it. It can’t just be that easy.
For choice A, let’s call the hero Bob. Bob goes to the airport with the package the gangster handed him, sweating blood as he passes through security. Every cop seems to look at him with distrust. As the package goes through the X-ray scanner, Bob watches as the cops look at the video screen, then stop the conveyor belt so they can examine something that catches their eye. They turn to look at Bob, coldly. Or so he thinks. Bob frets, but tries to hide it. Suddenly, they let the package go on through. As Bob walks to the plane, some DEA agents are coming toward him with a big dog on a leash. The dog looks at Bob and starts to make noises. But the DEA men don’t notice. They’re too busy talking about last night’s football game. Bob hero gets on the plane, fastens his seat belt and lets out a sigh of relief. He made it. The package must be okay. But, as the plane gets ready for take off, Bob notices a man two seats up on the left. He’s a bitter rival of the gangster who made Bob take the package.
Suddenly, he realizes the package could be a bomb! The gangster sent him on a suicide mission to kill an enemy. Oh, no! The plane starts to take off. It’s too late to leave. Now what? This is how you keep the story moving. Choice opens doors and allows your audience to participate in the story with the main character. But you don’t stop with one choice being made. You create problems that force the character to make other choices as a result of their first choice.
If you do one of those stories where a character has to choose between three doors, one of which means freedom and the other two mean certain death. You’re giving the audience a blind choice, where anything can happen. This tends to be unsatisfying because it feels random. This is why writers usually leave clues as to which door is the correct one, so the Hero can make an informed choice. It’s not just a blind decision. As we discussed earlier, people like a sense of order in their stories. They don’t like randomness unless it’s shown to have been part of a causal chain of events.
For now, remember that characters must be given hard choices. Not obvious ones. And every choice must have repercussions. If there are no stakes involved, the audience has no reason to get excited. No reason to care. This is why gambling is so popular. Every game involves making choices, each with risks and potential pay offs. People love the excitement and the promise choices can offer them.
When we’re feeling emotional about something we may behave out of character for the moment. A normally thoughtful person might make snap judgments when they’re angry. A reckless person may be cautious when they’re scared. It’s important to think about the emotion of the character in a scene before you decide what they choose to do. Remember the rules of choice, but also remember that audiences respond to emotions very strongly. Emotion has more resonance than logic. Logic is cold. Logic is somewhat impersonal. Emotion is very personal. But you can’t expect emotional empathy from the audience unless you’ve led them to feel that way.
Showing a person crying doesn’t make the audience cry unless we’ve first been made to empathize with their struggle and pain. You have to do that carefully, building up to those moments where you have emotional payoffs. An audience will understand a stupid choice if the character was in an emotional frame of mind where they’d be reckless. But you have to first convince the audience that this emotional state was arrived at realistically. People who suddenly change emotions at the drop of the hat are usually nuts. The term “Wacko” is applied to such people. Wackos don’t create empathy in an audience. We can laugh at them, or disapprove of them, but don’t expect too much sympathy.
REMEMBER: Make sure your characters have reasons to be emotional when they make emotional choices.
As we’ve discussed, choices help define a character. But so do their contradictions. None of us are one dimensional beings. Even the most boring people you know are multi-dimensional personalities. We all have secrets, fetishes, fears, hatreds, illusions, beliefs, dreams, nightmares, needs and desires. Sometimes our traits don’t quite seem to match. But that’s normal. Human beings don’t make sense. If they did, the world would be a much better place.
When you look at the contradictions that exist in a person, you get a sense of their inner conflicts. From their contradictions you see their true dimensions. And thus you see the complexity of their persona.
In a story, you need to show only that which is relevant to your tale. It’s not a good idea to make your characters too convoluted unless it serves a purpose.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character is one complicated dude. But that’s exactly what he needs to be for the purposes of the story. You don’t want to write one dimensional heroes and villains, even two dimensional, but make sure you stick to the relevant issues that bolster your premise. It’ll make for a stronger story.
Aside from the choices a character makes, and their contradictions, we have a third technique for defining them. I call it Relational Characterization. Characters are also defined by the people they associate with. Who they choose as friends and lovers, who they make their enemies, can tell you a lot about a person. But more importantly, the manner in which people inter-relate defines their relationships with each other and reveals some of their sides.
We all react to different people in a different way. Some people turn us on. Some annoy us. Some make us mad. Some make us crazy. Some make us laugh. But not all the time. You may love your mom, but she may also drive you nuts. You may hate your boss, but you had a great time with him at the company picnic. There is a standard mode we have when dealing with certain people and there are other modes depending on our mood, the nature of the conversation, and the situation.
When you ask a friend for a loan, you probably use a different manner than when you are talking to him about a movie or asking him what you want to do for the evening. When using relational characterization it’s important to stay aware of the context. We also use different voices with different people. We might put on our sexy voice for our lover, a cutsy voice for our pet or children. We may use a tense, guarded voice for people we don’t trust. And this defines not only our relationships with those people, but the way we feel about them. The way certain people effect us can create impulsive emotional responses that we later regret. If someone hurt our feelings in the past, something may remind us of that in a conversation and all of a sudden we start saying mean things. These kind of responses are useful to be aware of. Such reactions can clue the Audience to important back story elements that are revealed later.
Like I said, choice is a powerful indicator. In most cases we choose who we love and hate. And the reasons for this can speak volumes.
REMEMBER: A character is defined by their contradictions, choices, and relationships.