This is my response to Melissa’s fabulous post on Monday about character creation. One thing Melissa said jumped right off the page and got my wheels turning:
“Actions tell us more than anything else. I don’t care that her brother flushed her beta fish down the toilet, or her parents divorced, or her boyfriend cheated on her, or her kids disappeared. What she does about it is what makes me care.”
Yes! A million times yes!
A character’s back story is only relevant to the degree that it affects their present and future. The present is the time over which the story takes place and the future is what’s alluded to at the end. Those are my definitions, anyway. How characters have dealt with things their whole lives speaks to how they’re going to deal with events in the story. It’s all about the sprinkle of minute details and making a character do stuff over the course of a story!
Behaviour is key, like Melissa said. The character doesn’t have to understand why they react the way they do to certain stimuli, it’s enough that a writer does. I tell you, nothing is more boring and/or unbelievable than Freudian introspection in a character that wouldn’t psychoanalyze themselves. Unless a writer makes them. I’m not saying a character can’t figure themselves out by the end of a story, but if they’re going to, a writer needs to make it work with how they act in other scenes. And, seriously, people rarely figure themselves out without external help.
Short answer to a long debate: reaction is a major indicator of AND influence on a person’s character. And I think readers make ALL of the decisions in the end. Let’s use a really clichéd example: an individual is faced with a choice: save their child or the spouse they’ve been madly in love with since high school. Who they pick will make different readers surmise certain things about them. Some will be offended if they choose the spouse, others the child. Some will hate them for not finding a way out of making a choice. Then they will be judged by how they live their life after the fact because it WILL be different. It has to be. Only a sociopath would be unaffected after such an event. And if you’re character turns out to be a sociopath, that’s just another direction to take it. Moreover, the survivor will be altered, too. Hello, deeper layer.
Ultimately, characters are the be all and end all of a story. Their actions and reactions are based on motivation because people are pushed and prodded by their desires. Strong, clear cut motivations make for strong characters who react appropriately to events that push them out of their comfort zones. How people react turns them into a character readers love or hate.
As a side note, I have to agree with Melissa when she says she hates character lists. They’re far too long and time consuming, not to mention they can totally undermine your confidence. I believe there are two things, minimum, that you need to know about your character in order to get your story rolling:
- The one thing they want above all others.
- What they’re capable of if something threatens that want.
You need more, obviously, if you want a well-rounded character, but these are an important starting place.