I am a late bloomer. I don’t mean that literally, of course. In regards to my writing, I have learned more in these past three years than I ever knew in the total years I’ve been writing. In my defense, I was pseudo-self-taught and my first foray into writing outside of poetry was loosely categorized fan fiction about fake boy bands that eerily resembled the likes of Backstreet Boys and NSync. I was young. I liked to live vicariously through my characters and my characters didn’t require much depth because they were only necessary for carrying out my dreams of going on tour with Britney Spears and spending happily ever after with Nick Carter. That being said, my main characters–and even the secondary characters–lacked any real life outside of the stories that I weaved.
Dynamic characters are so important. Sure, my stories were fun for just me but they lacked not only originality but also a character that anyone who wasn’t me could find relatable. My main character existed because the story did and, to me, a story needs to exist because a character does. A story, whether it be 3,000 words or seven books and eight movies, is only as good as its characters are. Imagine Harry Potter without Harry Potter, for example. Imagine reading the scene in the third book where Harry is talking to Sirius Black outside of the Whomping Willow. Without knowing where Harry had come from, where Sirius had come from and how their stories coincided, would it have reduced you to tears the same way? What if you stuck Bruce Wayne without his backstory into the batsuit? Would Batman still exist? Technically, yes, but not in the same way. His motivations and convictions would be vastly different and the story as we know it would be gone. Those stories don’t exist without their characters and that’s because those stories are merely one snapshot of time in their characters’ lives while the characters continue to live before and after the pages are read.
As I mentioned before, I am a late bloomer. I’ve spent the past several years relearning my approach to writing and, even today, I find ways in which I can strengthen the worlds I build and the characters I write. Creating dynamic characters, however, is potentially the part of writing I struggle with the most. When I write, I have to constantly check myself to make sure my characters are driving the plot and not the other way around. It helps to spend the time upfront, though, asking myself questions that bring my characters to life outside of the story.
1. Where was my character born?
It might not seem like it but this is actually a really important question. First and foremost, it establishes that your character existed before the current plot. It also gives a lot of insight to how your character’s heritage will affect his/her motivations. Was he or she born in Russia before the family immigrated to another country? Were they born in the back of a taxi cab in Brooklyn? Was every member of their large, Jewish family in the room when they were delivered at home? Establishing this backstory helps you get a grasp on what environment they’d have been raised in and lets you begin thinking of how their beginnings will have shaped their present and future.
2. What is my character’s best/worst life experience?
The things your character experienced before the plot begins will vastly change how they will react to the events in your story as well as how they will drive your plot. Were they stood up at their wedding making them shy to opening up to new love? Were they once told by their beloved mentor that they would never be good enough to accomplish their goals leading them to be reticent in rising to the challenge they face in your story? I once had a character who claimed he was allergic to plum colored shoes. It’s kind of a crazy proclamation, right? I never told the audience why he thought he was allergic but it actually had everything to do with the fact that his mother had bought a pair for him when he was young and he’d worn them for the first time the day that his grandmother had died. Their unluckiness was then forever cemented in his mind. On the other end of that spectrum, good experiences also shape reactions. If someone was heavily rewarded for a fluke heroic act, they’re going to be more apt to try and play the hero again and, this time, that attempt might have disastrous results.
3. If my character had five people on speed-dial, who would they be?
This question establishes my character’s inner circle, the people to whom he or she would turn first in times of need and for whom he or she’d be most likely to drop everything to save in their time of need. If I can’t establish a relationship between my main character and her third cousin Rita, I can’t justify her putting herself into danger trying to save her. Alternatively, if Rita’s been her BFF since they were born, my character wouldn’t bat an eye at going after the guy who dumped Rita the day before prom. You can also ask which five people would be the last people they’d ever put on speed-dial? Who’s their mortal enemy? Who stole their juicebox in kindergarten? If Rita stole my character’s boyfriend the day before prom, it’s likely that my character will have a reason to suspect Rita as the antagonist when something else goes wrong.
4. If my character’s house were on fire, what one item would he/she save along with herself?
I stole this question from the movie Leap Year because it is so good at helping me discern what material things, if any, are important. If my character would grab a suitcase and fill it with all of his top shelf vodka, I think I have a pretty good inkling at what’s going to motivate him. If she saves her jewelry box full of Tiffanys merchandise, she might be materialistic. And if he or she only saves the only picture they have of their parents, then I know they likely won’t be motivated by material rewards but rather sentimental returns. Sometimes, I also discover that my character would let everything burn in order to save their cat, dog, bird, etc. which is just as telling as the character saving their Xbox or a box of comics. (What does it say about me that I saved my comics instead of my Xbox when my basement flooded?)
There are obviously an infinite amount of possibilities for questions to ask yourself to build a character that exists outside of a plot and these are only a few of them. Just like Sarah said in her post about character building, there’s more to the character than the tip of the iceberg or what you see when you bump into someone on the street. Equally so, there is more to a character than what you read in a book. How many fans still crave a prequel series about the Marauders because JK Rowling created these characters who existed outside of their relevance to Harry? How many fans of books, movies and TV shows take to writing their own stories to explore what happens before and after the original story is over? A good character is someone who exists outside of the words and not because of the words, someone who makes the story happen the way it does because of who they were before the story ever began.
There are lots of resources out there for character building and simply googling “Creating Dynamic Characters” returns 2.1 million results in a quarter of a second. My personal favorites for developing characters are a book call A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Lisa Edelstein and a few books that have nothing but character personality quizzes upon quizzes in them that I found in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on books to build your own questionnaires, though. Answering even a few of the questions above will help you have a more dynamic character. The point is that, even if you don’t tell your readers the answers to these questions, they’ll be able to figure it out based on how your character(s) drives the plot and that will make your character really come alive for them and make your character more relatable in the process. All stories have to have an end but that doesn’t mean our brainchildren can’t live forever.