The Importance of Story 2
Written by John Campbell
Before I can talk about what a character is, I should probably talk a little bit about what a person is. If you've studied some basic philosophy or psychology, you're probably familiar with this stuff, so you can skip it. I'm just going to be talking about basic stuff that relates to writing character, so there's no philosophic treatise here or anything.
First of all, the debate over human identity for the past few centuries has involved what's called "Nature and Nurture," or, "Nature vs. Nurture." Nature is what human beings bring into the world to begin with, and nurture is what happens to them. For a little while some people thought it was one or the other, but now it seems to be generally agreed that both are pretty heavily involved. A friend of mine's mom works in a hospital nursery, and sees differences in temperament right after babies are born. Some are complacent, some cranky, some loud, some quiet, some fidgety, some lie still, etc. What happens throughout your life affects you in a pretty irrefutable way as well. If you didn't know the people you have known, you would be quite different in a lot of ways. If you hadn't been exposed to computers, video games, and adventure games in just the right way, you probably wouldn't be reading this right now.
In developmental psychology, children are said to have developed a "theory of the mind" when they can grasp concretely and differentiate between other human beings' desires, beliefs, and actions. What someone wants, what they think, and what they do can be unified or conflicting, but are always related. For instance, someone could be raised around manual labor, let's say on a farm. As a result of this, some relationship, and maybe a vague sort of contemplative nature, this person believes there's a lot of honor in manual labor. Because of some other relationship or experience, this person desires to have some money. So, as a result, their action is to get a job and live in the city. When they drive by construction workers, they feel a vague sense of respect, or maybe even jealousy.
So, you're probably getting a clear picture of how I develop a character: there's nature and nurture-basic personality traits, and life experience. Then, there's the internal working of someone that result from nature and nurture-their desires, beliefs, and actions. Of course, that's a pretty simple understanding of people, but it's what has helped me. Characters develop in my mind in a less straight-forward way. I might know a little bit about what someone does in a story, and maybe their general temperament. Eventually, I have to fill in the gaps. This comes with the second piece of advice:
Write character sketches.
Write about your characters. Don't worry about prose, just get the facts down so you have them together. Gather the random sentences about a character, and get them together in your head. Then, write something chronological, detailing from childhood to the time of the narrative.
The best place I've found to start is with the character's parents. If you know some things about the character, figure out what kind of parents might produce that. If you don't know anything, just come up with parent characters and let the other character result.
Trace the character's life in whatever detail you want. Sometimes I just go with obviously life-altering events, sometimes I have a bunch of little things that change a character little by little.
Borrow things from other people's lives, other stories, your own life, anything you can get your hands on. You're going to be doing it anyways, so you might as well be doing it consciously. Learn how to put a person together and make them make some kind of sense. This takes practice.
The point of this is to get to know your character. Eventually you should have a pretty full conception of him or her. That way, when you hit a point in the story and wonder, "What would he/she say now?" you actually know. Your characters will have a past and a future you can write about. This will be a lot of work, but it is most certainly worth it. One thing I've found almost always true in life in general and in writing is: once I've really gotten to know someone well, I can't help but care about them some.
This is most definitely not the only way to come at things; it's just the way I do things. You should at least try to "flesh out" your characters while you're developing a narrative, so if you don't like this, try something else. Also, developing characters can require some knowledge of plot (which hopefully I'll cover next), most specifically setting. The strange thing about writing is that the elements can't really develop well separately, so me hitting this thematically doesn't reflect the writing process. I should add a comedy addendum: if you are wonderfully hilarious, I probably won't care how developed your characters are. Traditionally comedy works off simple stereotypes. A person is defined by one exaggerated characteristic. Really funny stuff is another thing I think is magical, but that might be just because I'm not particularly funny, at least when I write.
I hope this can give you a good push towards figuring out how to turn your characters into detailed, developed, even interesting people.