The Evolution of a Character
Since I’ve been in shiny new idea city for a little while now, this has been on my mind a lot lately. And it got me thinking…is there a formula to this? Because sometimes I do this better than other times. So I want to look at the good times and document it for future reference. 🙂
I love examples, so let’s take a look at Petra. One of the things I did after observing her for a while is break her down to who she is in the simplest denominator.
She is a juvenile delinquent. This is where I start. Next I moved on to what she actually does that makes her a delinquent. In the story, I’m not going to say, “Petra is a delinquent.” or “I am a delinquent.” I’m going to show her breaking into the school after hours to glue the chemistry teacher’s desk drawers shut.
After I figure out what they do all day…I try to figure out why they’re acting like that. What makes them tick? What was their childhood like? How did this effect them? Essential, what is their backstory? This isn’t something you necessarily have to spell out in the story. This is mostly for you, the narrator, the author. This helps you understand who they are so you can convey them as accurately and as consistently as possible.
Going back to Petra. Her parents split up after a year of marriage, right before she was born. She didn’t see her dad until she was eight. Naturally, now sixteen years old, she finds him a bit intolerable. Also, her relationship with her mom is a joke. The woman was not there for her at all. She learned very early how to take care of herself. This leads to an inability to accept help from other people, so when it’s offered to her, it drives her insane.
I think the best way to get your know your characters is through interviewing them. Once you have their ear, you’ll be able to dig into their pasts pretty quickly, and things like “what was your childhood like” will come to you right away. Well-developed characters have a past almost as rich as your own. But don’t think you have to write all this stuff down. You absolutely don’t. That’s the beauty of having the character’s ear. You know what they know. I don’t have to write down Petra’s favorite color. I already know it’s purple. And I know why she always feels a pinch in her gut when she sees it.
When you’re crafting back story, it’s important to get the timing right. To help me with this part of the post, I’m turning to Reagan from Chains of Destiny.
Six weeks into writing this, I realized she sucked. The girl was a mess. And I know this because everyone else was AMAZing.
In version one, she didn’t remember the past (big mistake on my part!), and she was the second loneliest MC I’ve ever had. My mistakes led to her coming out of the crockpot totally weird and inconsistent. I stopped myself halfway through and started over.
In version two, she still didn’t remember the past (because I still couldn’t do it, it was violent), but she was happy in her sheltered life. This time she came out more stable, but she ended up excruciatingly boring because she hadn’t really lived a single day in her entire life.
In version three, she lived through her past (finally! yay!), but the bad stuff didn’t happen early enough. She spent the entire book moping and crying about what she lost.
In version four, she lived through her past and at the right age, finally! She came out angry. She came out a fighter. (And kind of irresponsible and a tad lazy, but she finally had that fire in her that I needed her to have!)
Using this example I can see that it’s not enough to just have Petra’s parents split up. Her father has to leave and reenter her life at the right times…whatever time is best for the story. Because now, we have Petra’s father who’s been trying to wiggle his way back into her life for 8 years. This sets the relationship at a certain dynamic. I needed her to be wary of her father, but not mistrust him so much that they couldn’t start building a relationship at some point in the story in a gradual and believable way. This is why he can’t suddenly reenter her life at sixteen or even fifteen or fourteen. The dynamic would be all screwy and it would muss the story up. I needed them to have a history of awkward father/daughter dates to explain why she treats him the way that she does.
It’s really worth it to take a few days before you start drafting to really get to know your characters. Not only will everyone stand out with their own personalities, but it will aid in making your entire world more vivid and real to the reader. ^_^
No time spent brainstorming is ever wasted.