These aspects of character development are all very superficial. They are the things that make a character stand out and come alive on the page. They are the things that make the character seem like a real person, and engage the reader so they empathize with and want to root for the character.
However, this is not what makes characters memorable.
These superficial things are necessary, and especially with minor characters who don’t have as deeply evolved backstories, they help round out flat personalities and what might otherwise be stage props.
For your more major characters, though, you need to go deeper. Really get at the heart of who your character is, why she thinks and acts the way she does, and how that informs her choices going forward.
One important element of this is your character’s backstory.
We all have history, events and people and situations from our past that have shaped who we are, how we think, and our perceptions of the world. The same is true of our characters. Their history and education and family all play a role in who they are when the story starts.
Remember, 90% of backstory will not make it into the book itself. Backstory is boring, and nobody wants to wade through pages of it when they’re trying to move forward with the story. Nevertheless, it is important for your character to have some of this backstory and for you, as the author, to know about it, so you can communicate its importance through your character’s words and actions.
(For more on backstory and how to write it effectively, see this post.)
Some authors write whole books on their characters, from important childhood events, to favorite color and favorite song, to the name of their childhood pet, to family dynamics, to personality types, and so on.
If that’s how you develop your characters, then do what works for you. However, since this is more of a cheat-sheet guide, I’m not going to recommend that you go into that much detail. Instead, I’m going to suggest that you pick a few main things that are important for your character’s arc, rather than a myriad of little details.
You certainly don’t have to use all (or any) of these elements to shape your character, but here are some suggestions on things that might be in your character’s backstory that inform who the character is on the page. And remember, this is fiction, so any backstory you add will have must be relevant to the story you are building.
- Childhood Trauma
Not everyone has a great trauma from childhood, and not every trauma is hugely impactful to every person, but painful events do shape us and change us, and if your character has experienced something horrible, then it very likely will affect how he thinks throughout your story.
Perhaps when he was young, his brother drowned in a lake. Now, he avoids water. He can’t swim, and he doesn’t like to talk about why he will never go out on a boat or to the swimming pool, and so on. This might not be an issue in a romantic comedy, but it will certainly be important if he has to board a boat to escape from the bad guys, and then just when he’s getting used to being on a boat, something malfunctions and he has to board a life raft.
Maybe she was abused by a teacher or coach, and now all male authority figures are untrustworthy in her eyes. If this is the case, then it will be something that will impact her when she has to trust a teacher in order to accomplish her goal.
Whatever the trauma, and however your character views the world because of it, bring that thing into your story at some point so your character is forced to deal with it. We’ll cover their reactions to this situation in the next section on choices, but remember, any trauma you insert into your character’s backstory must relate to how she acts and reacts in the present.
- Personality Type
Personality Types are a highly debated method of classifying people into various categories. Some people think everything you know about someone can be explained by personality type, and all behavior stems from it, and spend years and base entire fields of study on personality types, while others think they are virtually meaningless, as people are too complex to boil down into such a narrow definition, and since people’s behavior and attitudes change based on context.
Personally, I think both of those things hold true to an extent. We are each completely unique and there is no one on earth like us, so there are, in actuality, billions of personality types. However, I do think the study of personality types has some merit and can be useful, especially in character creation. Personality types define how a person in any given type typically views the world and how they tend to react or think in a given situation. It isn’t comprehensive, but if you have a general idea of your character’s personality type or learning style, you can shape his behavior and thinking accordingly.
- Family Dynamics
Family dynamics play a huge role in how many of us think and act. An only child is going to have certain expectations, for example regarding personal space, personal property, and sharing living space, that will differ from someone with seven siblings who only wore hand-me-downs and shared a room with two other people all her life.
Someone from a divorced family will likely have a different view of relationships than someone whose parents were happily married for sixty years.
Someone who grew up in foster care or with an abusive or alcoholic parent is going to face certain challenges that someone in a stable home won’t.
Step-families add other dimensions to family life. Your character’s family may or may not have much bearing on your story’s plot, but if she has a sister she’s close to, that might be the first person she calls in a crisis. Or, he may decide to work on Thanksgiving because the thought of being crammed into a tiny house with his mom and step-dad who are always fighting, and trying to maintain peace with four siblings and step-siblings, is not how he wants to spend his day. And thus that can propel the story to other plot points or influence how she behaves when confronted with something opposite her comfort zone.
There’s no getting around this issue. Race has an impact on who we are, how we think, how we react, how we live.
The same is true of our characters. Let them be who they are. Sometimes, you may see them in a certain way in your head, or base them off someone you know, or be inspired by someone you read about, and that diversity will add depth to your world.
This can be difficult. None of us has any control over the family into which we were born or how we were raised, and none of us can really know what it’s like to be someone else, so writing a character who is different from us is going to be challenging. You will not please everyone. There will always be someone who will take offense or think you portrayed another race badly in one way or another, or, if you try to avoid that potential pitfall, will be upset that your story doesn’t contain enough diversity.
The best advice I can give is to not worry too much about who you’re going to upset, and just do the best you can to empathize with and understand another culture or race and make your characters true to that understanding. Someone raised in a middle-class, suburban, white family will see the world through a different lens than someone raised in a slum who never had enough to wear or enough to eat, and it will be different still for a Syrian refugee who has just landed in a new world where he doesn’t know the language or understand the cultural norms or have a job, and so on.
This is also true when it comes to gender and sexuality and all the other issues that tend to be sensitive topics. People who are different from you exist in the world. They should exist in your story. How deep and how diverse you choose to go is up to you, but your characters will have more believability if they’re not all cookie-cutters of one another.
Do research. Interview people. Empathize with people. Do the best you can to be true to the real people who are like your character when you are developing your character.
Education plays a huge role in how we think and act. From the basics, like knowing how to read and write, to more complex issues, like being educated in a rural area versus in an inner city. Farmer or manufacturer versus intellectual pursuits. Book-smarts versus street-smarts. High-school drop-out versus college graduate. Ivy League versus community college or trade school. Science versus literature. And so on.
Your character’s education will influence his politics, the way he speaks, the way he thinks, the way he feels about others, and so on. While it doesn’t impact intelligence, a character’s education will play a role in how she goes about day-to-day activities, and how she pursues whatever her goal is in the context of the story.
No matter how intelligent he might be, a boy who dropped out of high school in order to work will not have the same outlook as someone who graduated with a PhD from an Ivy League school. He will not be able to debate certain things or carry on a conversation about some other things, and he will have different opinions than the Ivy League doctor. Of course, there are exceptions, as in “Good Will Hunting,” the prodigies who excel and educate themselves despite the odds. However, “Good Will Hunting” was a compelling story precisely because it was outside the norm.
In my series on World Building, I had a section on Stereotypes. Stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s okay for your character to fall into them. Add dimension and depth, of course, so your character isn’t flat, but let your character behave in a way that is natural to his or her backstory. And again, any backstory you add needs to be relevant to the plot you’re developing.