As the doctor prescribes: New Years Resolutions: Work that Butt off Baby!!!
Yep, the title pretty much says it all. I’ve decided to shift the focus of Regimen and Tonic to a more writerly advice type blog, and decided to kick things off with character personality. Why? Because personally, one of the most daunting sections I face when writing a character’s article is the personality section. (That and the powers and abilities section, but that’s another issue entirely). The pressure comes from the fact that I want to give my characters believable personalities that match with their own little motives and goals while avoiding inconsistency. In other words, I want to portray my characters realistically.
Now, I was going to try and condense everything into one blog, but I soon abandoned that as being hopelessly optimistic. The subject really is just too large to handle effectively in one blog. I could try and condense things into an overview of sorts, but that would be at the expense of detail. So I’ve decided to split this up into parts. I’m not sure how many yet, but so far I am looking at:
- 1. Writing “human” characters (this blog)
- 2. Writing effective fears and psychological disorders
- 3. Writing realistic female characters
- 4. Character masks and relationships
(So about four blogs, maybe more, in this particular series, depending on how things go).
In a nutshell, personality is the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual. Their behavioral tendencies, their patterns of thought, speech, and actions. It governs how they respond to experiences, situations, and other people. What makes a personality interesting is when it is compelling: in other words, when the reader becomes emotionally involved with the character.
The personality section is the lynchpin of your article. For the simple reason that it serves as a bridge between the character’s history (where they came from) and the powers and abilities and/or plot section (where they are now). It also determines how you will write the character, and not just dialogue or their romantic preferences. The personality of your character affects everything. For those of us who RP, this means the personality drives how a character will act in combat. More universally, meaning something that would apply to both RPing and more literary endeavors such as writing a book is that interesting, well-developed characters tend to make for interesting, well-developed stories. Of course the plot can still fail miserably, but if the characters are compelling and they are the ones who drive the story along through their choices and actions (as opposed to the plot dictating the actions or choices of the character) the reader is probably going to care anyway: enough to stick it out through the long-haul. Personality is thus both the most complex and most important part of any character.
So how do you go about writing more interesting characters?
Consider the Source (Us)
Inspiration comes to us from a myriad of sources in real life. Whether that be from books, movies, videogames or the lady who dropped her pizza at the 7-11 and blames it on the cashier, we all draw subconsciously upon the characters and persons around us when we sit down to write. It is human to copy humans after all, unless you’re trying to write a painfully accurate “Biography of an Orca” or something. But there are good ways and bad ways to put that inspiration to use. Probably the number one take-away here is don’t carbon-copy anything. It’s okay to pattern a character after something you saw from somewhere else and liked, but you still need to put forward the effort to make that character your own.
Secondly, it’s important that you start to become conscious of where your sources are actually coming from. Try and train yourself to recognize familiar patterns and clichés, especially in films and TV shows and such. Not all tropes are bad, but it is good to know when you decide to use a trope as opposed to just employing it without any conscious thought. This will allow you to use the trope to its maximum effect, or to switch up the trope and go against a reader’s expectations. Unpredictability, as long as it is a believable (fitting with the character) sort of unpredictability, is generally a good thing.
Well, let me rephrase: shock factors for the sake of shock factors aren’t such a great idea, but it is good to try and, as much as possible, be original. This is important because typically originality, as opposed to sticking to the tried-and-true, makes for good characters, which in turn causes people (as I said before) to actually care about your story.
Originality. Heh. So often that can be the bane when it comes to developing a character’s personality, mainly because it is so damn difficult. However, whatever you do it is important, more than anything else, not to be original but to write human characters. As I mentioned before, we draw from the sources around us, and those sources are human, no matter what way you look at it. “Oh I draw inspiration from nature.” Well that’s all fine and good, but even your perspective of that nature is shaped by human influence. You yourself are human, after all. Even if you set out to create an utterly “inhuman” personality, really the only way these kinds of characters can be made interesting is to first understand human nature. Think of the titular alien from, well, Alien. It was effective because it preyed upon our own instinctual fears as humans and the need to survive. Even if it's a monster its only a monster because we humans see it as such, am I right? At any rate, the importance of writing human characters cannot be understated. But what do we mean by “human?”
Philosophical debates aside, for our purposes here we can perhaps agree that “human” is those things that we are: our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are universal: things we possess naturally regardless of our circumstances or culture. The ability to love, to hate, our most basic fears and wants, even elements of morality, all these work to distinguish us as our own kind of being. But let’s cut the Socrates for a moment and start from the ground up.
On our most basic level we have our biological needs, such as food, water, shelter, etc. Humans are social creatures too, and as is so often quoted, “no man is an island unto himself.” We need others to meet or emotional needs. Even the most anti-social serial killer who sees fellow humans as pigs to be slaughtered still had a mother, unbelievable right? Heh. On a deeper level though, the question “what does it mean to be human” ultimately becomes a spiritual one (even for those who don’t believe in anything “spiritual”) and what I mean by that is that we answer that question based on our own respective worldviews. There is a reason why SO many books and films reexamine the same theme over and over again, because it is a theme that each of us wrestles with in some way or another throughout the course of our lives, even if it is as simplistic a thought as “what makes me different than that dog over there?”
But back onto the topic of how this applies to writing characters: that complex, beautiful system of our needs, our relationships, and even the patterns of our thoughts are what make up our human canvas. In other words, explore that and the sky’s the limit when it comes to making a character “human.” In a literary sense, pointing to a character’s soul is a way of pointing at our own souls. It turns the mirror on ourselves other words, which is what makes entirely fictional characters so believable and “real”
Autonomy or Agency
This refers to a character’s ability to act and make decisions “on their own.” Since characters are products of their authors, this may be a bit hard to visualize, but basically this means that your characters should not be puppets. Puppet characters are those who only service the writer’s will, either as an excuse for the author to live vicariously through their own creations (ie, the character is a carbon-copy of the author’s personality or desired personality) or the character is just waltzing through the story and allowing the plot to happen to them (they are subject to or a product of the plot). Well-developed characters make decisions on their own: meaning they do and say things that fit within the scope of their personality that might not fit exactly with the plot at-hand. In fact they might be doing things that go against the plot, which can create conflict. There is a fine line, however, between allowing a character to do what they would do naturally and bogging down the story. Usually the easiest way to avoid a problem like this is to allow characters to drive the plot as opposed to the other way around. In other words: even if you personally don’t agree with the actions a character might take, if it is something they would do if they were a real person, then they should do it anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your plot for the sake of your characters though: as long as your characters are acting within the realm of their own personalities then you can have them do whatever you want, but be careful to not betray the illusion that these characters do in fact have agency to act on their own.
I feel that this is something that tends to be over-looked a lot, especially by fanon writers. While I see a lot of varied and really descriptive personality sections on articles and such, when it comes out in an actual RP or story the characters themselves tend to be... largely the same based upon the author whose character it is. Individuality does NOT just mean that you should fill out your cast with a variety of character types (although you certainly should). In other words, saying that “ah well this one is a brawler and this one is the medic and this one is the leader etc. etc” doesn’t make for individuality: Your characters should be distinct from one another at their most fundamental basis. Their “cores” in other words. If your start there, minute variances in personalities, even mannerisms and dialogue should come as the natural result. Sometimes this doesn’t even do the trick though, in which case you might have to paint in broader strokes. For example making one character extremely reserved and timid in order to contrast with the loud and obnoxious guy. Of course this means you are running the risk of crossing into “stereotype” territory: and it’s up to you when to draw that line. Personally, I’m okay with a character being seen as somewhat stereotypical, especially my minor characters, as opposed to having characters that might be seen as identical. Individuality relates to creating memorable characters. Yet it’s important to use judgment when making a character distinct so as not to go completely over-board.
Every character, no matter how insignificant they might be in the end, should have their own goal. Even if that goal is as simple as “get myself a glass of water” or as elaborate as “become the seaweed king,” each character in your story should have their own specific motivation for doing something. I have always seen a character’s individual goals as being something rather... well, boring, and have focused more on their plot-related goals. Such as “stopping the bad guy” or “finding the Holy Grail.” However, I have found that one way to make goals more interesting is to add layers to them. If a guy wants revenge on someone else for stealing his wallet, he might be driven by more personal motives such as being rather sentimental and that wallet having been a gift from his grandfather, or having spent a childhood where his milk-money was stolen every day by bullies. Goals can be more spiritual too: such as a character who is in search of redemption or security, and more often than not these kinds of metaphysical goals, mainly when applied to the protagonist, are what determine the theme of the story. So be careful when you decide on a character’s goal: they should be believable, yet meaningful. Major characters should have both plot-related goals and personal goals, whereas it’s okay to give minor (and by minor I mean the guy gets like, five lines in-story or something) more minor goals. Keep in mind that goals don’t have to be reasonable. They don’t even have to be sane goals, but they should fit with the character themselves and also serve as a compelling reason for us, the readers, to care about them.
As much as “keep your characters in-character” is stressed when it comes to writing believable characters, the fact of the matter is that sometimes people will do inconsistent things at times. In fact, some people are defined by their inconsistency. This can be a good thing, as it helps to make your character more three-dimensional as it adds complexity, but it is easy to mis-handle. Inconsistency can’t be added for the sake of inconsistency after all, it should stem from conflicting motivations and internal conflict. Inner struggles add realism and a way for a character to demonstrate different sides of their personality. When backed up by a credible explanation, a character acting inconsistently with how they normally do can serve to make them more interesting. In other words, while their goals and motivations might be predictable, the methods they use to accomplish those goals should not be. It’s difficult to know every facet of a person, both in real life and in fiction. Thus when faced with new and unexpected situations you have a chance to show your character acting in new and unexpected ways. Although of course it’s not really “new”, its about the confrontation and growth that arises from each situation they face. A.k.a. character development. Be careful however, because if that development isn’t backed up believably it will end up as derailment, not development. Here’s a couple of ways that you can show a character being multifaceted without contradicting the character themselves:
- Give them new situations they’ve never confronted before
- Allow what they say and what they do to contradict (this happens all the time in real life, but takes some skill to pull off story-wise)
- Differences in how they treat other characters. Everyone does this, I’m going to talk to my brother much differently than say, my boss, which is why relationships are a vital part of a character’s personality.
Flaws and Weaknesses
One of the all time number one BEST ways to make a character seem more human is to make them imperfect. To be flawed is to be human. Weaknesses serve to add depth and conflict to a character, as well as making them easier to emphasize with. Flaws make a character memorable. They are the medium through which a reader most readily identifies. Without flaws it is difficult to create conflict: the character becomes nothing more than a victim to their circumstances, with little to no personal investment in the story at-hand. Now here comes the painful part:
As much as we writers would like to say that a character is flawed, as many sentences as we might devote to the matter in the personality section, the fact of the matter is that more often than not we don’t grant these flaws enough weight. “She’s too nice” or “he is too idealistic” are not character flaws. Not even physical handicaps, life circumstances, or fears count as flaws. Sorry. Flaws are fundamental. They are personality defects, something that is inherently wrong inside this particular character.
Flaws are HUGE.
Flaws, in order to be counted as actual flaws, need to impede the character in achieving their own goals in some way. In fact this can become the entire story itself: let’s say a boy wants to buy ice cream. Simple goal right? But let's say it’s the 1950’s, and the only one selling that day is the black girl across the street: He can’t stand to lower himself and buy her ice cream. The only way for him to achieve his goal (buying the ice cream) is to overcome his inherent prejudice (the fatal flaw of the character). You see what I mean? And flaws don’t just have to be used for protagonists either. If you really want to add depth to your cast of characters, you should consider giving everyone their own particular goal and their own particular contrasting flaw. Personally, one of my biggest flaws is that I’m a perfectionist, which contrasts with my huge propensity to procrastinate, creating no small end of headaches. Draw from your own flaws. The sky’s the limit when it comes to choosing one for your character. But remember that it has to have actual impact on the character themselves. However, for the large majority of the characters you create, it is probably wise to avoid unforgivable flaws, such as “chronic child killing syndrome,” but if you really do want to add something so dark and crippling then there’s no one stopping you. Be aware that characters like these come with their own set of problems: namely creating another way by which the reader can identify with them. Thus the dilemma of the antihero. On the other hand, these particular kinds of flaws can be used to great effect for villains as well as antiheroes. Just something to think about. Whatever you decide to give them, it should serve to deepen their characterization in some way. You can choose to explain them via personality or back-story, up to you, and you don’t have to limit yourself to just one. You can give them a plethora of minor and non-impeding flaws, but just be sure that they actually make sense for the character. But you should at least give them one, major one. In a traditional sense, (think tragedies and Shakespeare), this is the “fatal flaw” that will eventually lead the protagonist to moment of no return, leading to inevitable destruction. For Hamlet it was his obsession with revenge that drove him to eventual self-destruction. A more modern example is Anakin: whose pride in believing only he could protect Padmé and thinking he was powerful enough to prevent her death eventually led him to the dark side.
Now, I think most people hear the word “flaw” and cringe because they often confuse flaws for weaknesses. Most of the time flaws ARE weaknesses, but they don’t have to be necessarily. A weakness is something that can be exploited: whether that is a virtue (such as a character being too trusting), a vice, a secret, a desire, etc. One of the most abused things I’ve seen is psychological disorders and things like PTSD. While these things most definitely can serve as weaknesses for a character, they should not be seen as personality flaws because they are outside the character’s control. Now the character might have flaws that arise from these types of weaknesses, but there is a difference here, and I hope you can see that.
A flaw doesn’t have to be crippling either, not unless you want it to be. It can be redeemable or unredeemable. Flaws are simply sins and imperfections after all, ones that directly affect the character in question. The "Seven Deadly Sins" are a good example. Just because a character is prideful or struggles with anger doesn’t mean they are socially dysfunctional, in fact they can still be extremely likeable. It is also interesting to layer flaws: for example, someone who is prideful and stubborn yet is extremely harsh on themselves and plagued by constant guilt would definitely act in interesting and unexpected ways if handled well. Remember this though: the most important thing about adding flaws is that there should be good reasons for why they are there. Just as Mary Sues are seen as something to be avoided, a guy who is irreparably evil for no apparent reason is just... bad writing. You don’t have to show why a character might possess each individual flaw, but as long as you define their major one to some depth the minor ones that consequently stem from that will be much more believable.
You don’t have to go into this much detail for minor characters, obviously, and sometimes you’ll have a character that you don’t WANT the readers to sympathize with. But when it comes to major, protagonist-type characters, flaws are glorious. Keep in mind that flaws should be treated like goals: throw the characters into different situations and watch what happens. Because flaws should have a direct impact on the story. (That’s what makes them flaws to begin with). Allow your character to make mistakes that stem from their flaws. Don’t coddle your characters. Drop hints about their flaw through the various ways in which they talk or interact with other characters, for example. Give them consequences based upon their flaws. If you can’t come up with a good (or should I say bad) fallout that the character might experience as a result of their flaw, then their flaw isn’t flawed enough. The character should hate these consequences, regardless of whether they are conflicted over their flaws or not.
Static and Dynamic Characters
One final point that I believe is worth mentioning here is that really there are only two different fundamental character types: static and dynamic.
A static character is one who does not undergo important change over the course of the story: they are relatively the same at the end as they were at the beginning. A dynamic character, on the other hand, is one who does undergo an important change. These could be changes in insight, understanding, commitment, values, or whatever. As long as they demonstrate a significant difference at the end than how they were at the beginning, they are dynamic.
You might think that dynamic characters are thus the better of the two, but this isn’t necessarily so. Character change can be important. If the story has an optimistic ending, usually this means they have been changed for the better. More often than not they have come to terms with their flaw and, in one way or another, overcome it. Carl from Up (the Pixar movie) is an excellent example of this. But character change can also be negative. If they were a “good” person at the beginning of the story, struggle with darkness and at the end finally succumb to it, that is character change, although not necessarily the kind we might have been expecting.
But static characters, ones who do not exhibit a drastic change of character, can also be done effectively. Usually this comes in the form of rejecting whatever it is that might have saved them from their initial problem, sliding back into whatever they were before. Typically this sort of an ending is kind of, well, bleak and depressing, but it can also deliver a powerful message when all is said and done. Shinichi from Parasyte is, surprisingly, a good example of a static character. While he definitely undergoes development as the series progress and as we watch him go through his various stages of dealing with his situation (nearly becoming a monster himself at one point) in the end his character is fundamentally the same as it was at the beginning of the series. He might have become stronger: but in the end the question was asked whether or not he could come to accept the parasitic creatures that the series is well, named after. His answer to that question was, I thought, one of the most interesting moments of the entire series.
It is up to you then, when thinking out a character, to determine either ahead of time or throughout the course of the plot whether or not your character will change as a result of their conflicts, or if they will stay the same. What happens in between is, simply put, story.
To wrap this up, since I couldn’t come up with a conclusion to this thing I thought I’d give you guys a couple of resources to get you started. These are things that I personally found to be pretty helpful, so I hope you’ll find them helpful as well. Good luck, and see you next month.
- Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters: Pretty much what it says. These are excellent and in-depth guides, but rather lengthy.
- Contradiction in Character: A more literary approach to applying personality to a story. A different perspective than mine.
- TV Trope’s Character Development Guide and their interesting character DIY guide.
- 123 Character Flaws