Believable, 3-D characters...
“There is so much good in the worst of us, so much bad in the best of us.” Amy Grant, singer/songwriter. Of all of the challenges a novelist faces, one of the biggest is to create believable, three-dimensional characters. The worst of villains needs at least one redeeming quality, and the best of heroes needs at least one flaw. So how does a writer go about doing just that?
One way is for the author to play armchair psychologist—to search out reasons and motives behind their characters’ actions. What makes your characters act the way they do—who are they? What happened to them when they were young? Did anyone love them? Were they abused, spoiled, ignored? Were they popular or scorned, smart or struggling, hefty or skinny? Were they self-conscious or self-confident, proud or humble?
Some authors make lists of details answering 100 questions about each character—things such as: eye color, hair color, age, schools attended, parents, siblings, cities where they live, and on to more detailed things like favorite foods, how old they were when something significant happened in history, were they rich or poor, have they ever had surgery, what are their favorite scents, colors, sights, sounds…the list can go on and on.
But character lists can also be frustrating; at least that’s how I see them. I hate thinking up details for a character I don’t know. I need to meet my characters the way I meet real people. Introduce me. Let’s sit down and chat for a while. Characters need to become as real to an author as a person with flesh and blood.
So once a character introduces himself to me, I spend some time “listening” to them tell me who they are. Some of this happens as I paragraph journal the things I know about them. As I try to fit them into what I know of the story’s plot, they reveal who they are—little by little. The same way I would get to know a friend.
Some authors spend months “living” with their characters before they write a word. I get to know mine as I write. This can be good and bad—good because by the time the first draft is finished, I have a good idea who my characters are as people—bad when a character tells me something at the end of a first draft that I should have known in the beginning. (This is one reason why writers rewrite.)
This is also where Idea Boards come in handy, especially for visual learners. Seeing your characters will help you imagine better who they are, with the goal being to understand character motivation. What makes them tick? The more you know who they are, the more you can write true to their character, and be less likely to have them acting out of character—unless the story calls for them to act outside the norm. For instance, as a character, an English teacher who cares about proper diction is not likely to suddenly start speaking slang or mumbling her words unless something is forcing her to act that way.
The more you know your characters inside and out, the better your story. The serial killer who cares deeply about his sister has a quality that will make us care about him, at least a little. A beloved, godly king, who kills a rival over a woman, will seem exceedingly more human and therefore, more real.
The Bible is a great place to study characterization just by getting to know the people immortalized there. God preserved their stories, with good and bad qualities exposed, making them fully human and relatable. To be memorable, our characters need the same qualities.