Continuing our talk about building stories and crafting characters, let’s touch upon character personality. When building a character, we need to decide upon character traits, empathy, flavor, motivation and contrast. All three are fancy ways of saying "What does this character portray to the audience?"
Traits: If you had to sum up their personality or thought process in a few words, what would they be? Honorable, strong, cowardly, intelligent, slimy, spastic… just about any descriptive word can apply. If you want to take it a step further, you could have their outward personality and also how they really are deep inside. For example, some people may seem shy, but deep down they might have all sorts of social insight or a rich sense of humor. Try not to have too many words, pare it down to the essence of this character. These traits can (and probably should) evolve as your story progresses. Where the character begins and where they end up is a fun road to travel upon as you write your storyline.
Empathy: How should the audience react to this character? Are they cute, annoying, shock-inducing… tell us what you want your readers to feel. It may not always come through the way you want it to, but if you have a goal in mind, then you can constantly compare your writing to that idea and see if it synchs up or if it needs to be changed. Just like with the personality traits, the character’s empathy can change as the story grows or your own ideas evolve.
Flavor: How can we make this character stand out? Do they have a unique or interesting manner of speech, a bad habit, strange appearance or something else? It’s not necessary to have every character "weird and different"; in a group of freaks, the normal character might be the one who actually stands out. Still, it’s fun to brainstorm off-the-wall characters and see how they can mesh together.
Motivation: What does each character want? Attaining it may not be possible, but at least knowing what it is can give you fuel to making a fun story. That goal (or multiple goals, or an evolving set of goals) can create wonderful movement for your story and can give it momentum when you run out of basic plot points. If the character does achieve their goal, what do they do next? The answers you find as you think about these things can surprise you and lead to more story possibilities.
Contrast: How a character works on their own is quite different from how they work with other characters. Does this character have a good sense of contrast if they’re in a group? Do they have a role to play that’s their own, or are they overshadowed by other people constantly? Mind you, a character constantly being overshadowed can be a story in and of itself. 🙂
Look at any super hero team or other group in a story and you’ll see all these character factors at play. Different personalities contrasting and complementing each other, whether the characters are working together or are creating interesting inner-group conflict. Each character in your story should be definable and understood by you the author, even if they’re a mystery waiting to be revealed to your audience. The gentle giant, the old curmudgeon, the honorable leader, the flighty jokester, the mysterious loner… these character concepts can be annoying clichés or wonderful opportunities if you give them a spin. Even villains or sideline characters can become integral and entertaining if you give them a fun personality trait or create a good contrast with your other cast of characters.
Plan your characters well and they’ll become the building blocks that make your story enjoyable.
Good article Jim!
I’ve found that there are also stable sets of characters that may influence your characterizations. My favorite set is leader, warrior, mystic, & clown. This fits lots of stories and even real-life quartets (like the Beatles, if you count Paul as the warrior of love). Another stable set is the pair, as in master/apprentice, dark/light, rude/polite, lover/fighter, etc. or some combination (ala Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Even the protagonist/antagonist are in their own way a pair.
I guess my point is that the other characters you include can and will influence each other and you should be aware of that when thinking about them and writing them. No character works in a vacuum.
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