We all want believable characters in both what we read and what we write, there is no question about that. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your plot may be, without believable characters your novel will fall flat with the majority of readers. A story is about a person’s emotional journey, and the plot is merely the physical journey the protagonist takes to reach their destination.
So how does a writer reach into their characters for emotional depth?
All writers should be good actors. It is vital that you be able to place yourself in your characters’ minds so you can feel what they feel, see what they see. Ask any good actor how they perfect their roles and the first word out of their mouth will be research.
So let’s apply the actor’s character study to writing. Most writers are familiar with the character sketch of occupation, hair color, eye color, etc. These are all superficial qualities that are necessary, but don’t actually give you the emotional make-up of your character. So in addition to the standard character sketch, I would suggest a great tool to use is one that Andy Shackcloth presented in his post Writing Characters Using the Proust Questionnaire.
Now that you have all the information, what do you do with it?
This is where your research comes in. Let’s say your character is a woman who was sexually abused as a child, but you, the writer, was raised in a stable loving home. How do you find that emotional connection with your character so that you feel what they feel? You will need to get your hands on books and articles on psychology, abused children, memoirs by abused children so you can completely immerse yourself into the mindset of an abused woman.
Imagine what a day in her life would be like, not the superficial stimulants, but what will her thoughts be as she goes through her day. This doesn’t have to be a scene from your novel; create a past for her and watch it in your mind like a movie. What does she feel when someone looks at her? How does she deal with the trauma from her past and how does this affect her interactions with other people? Does her trauma make her overly submissive or overly aggressive? How do her actions reflect these emotions?
Is that difficult? Yes. It can also be painful, but the more you read and learn about your character’s personality type, the more alive that character will become first to you, then to your readers.
It’s not enough to know eye and hair color, you also need to know how that character will speak and think. When I was doing my research for Lucian, I read writings from the Apostolic Fathers, because I wanted a certain speech pattern that reflected the era in which Lucian lived. I read any article I could find about twins and twin relationships, and I read books and articles that analyzed the thinking patterns of people who lived in abusive relationships. When I worked on Catarina, I had to shift mental gears and learn about abusers and their personalities.
Now I have a deeper picture of my characters than simply eye and hair color. Before I actually sit down to write a scene or chapter, I imagine the entire scene as if it was a movie, but I am the actor portraying Lucian (or whichever character’s point of view I happen to be using for that scene). I imagine myself in that character’s body and I try to act and react the same as that person would.
Only after I have a firm picture in my mind of how the character will think and act do I actually begin to write. First I set the stage by writing the setting, then I set my actors into place and write their emotional responses. As I go through the scene, I already have in mind the memories and emotional responses I want my characters to have, so then I’m left with the hard task of making those memories and emotional responses seem real. That simply takes practice.
It is a lengthy process, but it’s all well worth the effort when you finish a scene and someone says that it felt real. That’s how I construct my characters, but I’d be very interested to hear how anyone else constructs their characters. I think everyone employs a different technique, and I am always delighted to learn new ways into my characters’ thoughts.
A few good articles I’ve found while browsing the net are:
Handling a Cast of Thousands Part I Getting to Know Your Characters by Will Greenway
Seven Common Character Types by Terry W. Ervin II
Web Resources for Developing Characters by Greg Knollenberg