“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves.” ~ Laura Esquivel
“I barely knew I had skin before I met you.” ~ Sarah Waters
“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” ~ The Sound of Music
I love making characters. For a few years I was pretty heavily involved in a tumblr RP (role playing) community that was populated mostly with OCs (original characters), which was fun and unusual. Fandoms often don’t tolerate additions to the casts of canon characters with all that much grace – and having seen Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and poorly thought out self-inserts aplenty in every fandom I’ve participated in, I can understand why. But in this more flexible environment the setting had more canonic establishment than anything else and we were free to populate it with whoever (or whatever, even) we wanted.
There were at least four upsides to the way this worked.
First: Everyone was building their own characters, mostly from scratch, so we were all in the same boat. If characterization was thin it was usually understood that constructive (key word) criticism could be offered and accepted. Maybe even in the form of dropping random questions (prompts) in someone’s ask box, or participating in ask memes à la the fourth thing on this list.
Second: Because tumblr is set up for things to stream by on your dash, most OCs had static profile pages on their blogs as a kind of character cheat sheet for new followers. Name, age, gender identity, height, build, and hair and eye colors were pretty standard, but other than that there was a lot of variation. Some writers preferred to intentionally keep the character’s backstory or certain life details murky, especially if it wasn’t something the character would be willing to openly share. The point, though, is that if you wanted to create a new character in the community there was no shortage of examples of the kinds of details that could go into doing that.
Third: Face claims, which are #2 on this character building list (which comes with a helpful worksheet). These were encouraged in the same way profile pages were, as a helpful resource to promote interaction. It’s an exercise basically picking a real live person to serve as a muse for what the character looks like. The awesome upside of doing this was that if you were following any artists who were open to the idea, you could request drawings of your character. Or sometimes they would just randomly post and/or send you art.
Fourth: The most effective way to start new RP threads was to reblog one of those numbered question memes and wait for someone to drop numbers into your ask box. Even if this didn’t actually kickstart some response and interaction, at the very least it would be answering a question in character.
The characters in my novel came out of this process. At this point they’ve been around for years and I’ve only now found them a story of their own. Surprisingly little about them has to change — just the cultures they grew up in.
… All of this is slightly off topic from what I intended to talk about, but that’s okay.
To be more three dimensional, characters should be written with personal growth already a part of their history. That way they enter the reader’s awareness as flawed, relatable, and ultimately human. (This goes for both heroes and villains.) But they still need to change in some way in between the first and last sentences of the story.
Since I like character building, I often set this up to happen for two characters mainly by creating an isolating situation and playing them off each other a lot. The questions I have to ask myself ahead of time in order to do that are, to paraphrase the above quotes:
- (internal) Which matches can they not strike for themselves that the other can, and why?
- (external) What experiences and new ideas will character A open character B’s eyes to, and vice versa?
- (for me) How do I solve a problem like character A/character B?
I know there are plenty ways to set up these changes, this is just what I’ve noticed I tend to do. Maybe I should make a conscious effort to shake that up sometime.
What are your usual methods for building character development in a story?