Nope, not talking about physical attributes (tall, petite, rail thin, built like an ox) today, but rather what shapes a person. Or, more specifically, fictional characters. But since they’re just the book/comic/movie version of us, it really applies across the board.
Have you ever read a book where you just couldn’t connect to a character? Maybe they were too negative, too positive, too much of a push over, too much of a bully. That isn’t necessary an indication that they were written incorrectly—some people we just don’t connect with. And that’s okay (so long as they weren’t the main character that we were supposed to fall in love with and cheer on for 200+ pages).
But have you ever read a book where you were like, “Wow, this character is (insert less than desirable characteristic here)”? They were dull, boring, said and did the same (annoying) thing over and over, not the brightest bulb in the box. Predictable.
*Yawn* Close book, reshelf, DNF (do not finish).
DNF?! As an author, that’s the last thing I want to see happen!
And yet, as a reader I’ve been there. If the character isn’t someone I can root for, or find even remotely interesting, I have a hard time plugging away until THE END. So as a writer, I try to make sure to give my character’s current state of mind sufficient thought. And that state of mind is determined by WHAT SHAPES THEM.
The first item that comes to mind may be their past, and that’d be partially right. Our past most definitely shapes us, and so should it shape our characters. What did their childhood look like? Did they have two, one, or no parents in the mix? Single child, or were they one of a gaggle of siblings? Did they have a creepy next door neighbor who barked at them to stay off their lawn, or sweet grandmotherly type who always invited them in for cookies? Were they the class clown or class nerd? Super jock, or super flop?
Ah, some of you are cringing at the memories, others are reveling the glory days. See? Your childhood shaped you. They should shape our beloved fictional characters, too.
So, what else shapes us, and in turn, our characters?
The present? Again, partially right. The mess that a character is currently facing most definitely shapes their actions, their decisions, their mindset, their mental and physical health, their level of freedom. While the past is an important piece of who a character is, it isn’t the end all, be all. It also doesn’t have to hold them prisoner. Painful as it may be to step out of the shadow of their past, characters written well who choose to grow and stretch toward new hopes and dreams will have devoted readers at their side, cheering them on as they stumble toward a better tomorrow.
Which brings up another piece of what shapes characters: the future. Or, as many of us so often devise, their expectations of how the future should or shouldn’t go. Whether a character is an optimist or a pessimist (or an insistent “realist”), they expect their lives to go a certain way and when it doesn’t, ack! Disaster! As a fiction author, it’s my job NOT to give them what they want. LOL At least, not until they’ve gone on a story-long journey and stretched and grown.
You want a cookie? Nope, that jerk of a coworker snatched it out from under your hand yet again.
Want the cute guy down the street to notice you? Oh, I can do that…but you’re probably not gonna like the scenario (insert evil author laugh here).
Goal setting can be great, but setting ourselves up to always meet them can be detrimental. Because guess what? Life happens, and not all goals/expectations are met. Be prepared for that, and you won’t walk around feeling gipped all the time. Same goes for characters—if they’re all “woe is me” for 200 pages, you’d better darned well believe that book is going in my DNF pile. Just as in real life, fictional beings need to keep their whining to a minimum.
And chew on this: sometimes what we end up with wasn’t what we wanted…but turned out to be something even better. Hmm…
Okay, so we’ve gotten past, present, and future covered. What else shapes a character? Oh, only about a million other things.
Location, climate, season, weather, the economy, their finances, employment (or lack thereof), hormones, age, stage in life, major life events…the list goes on and on. And while not all of these defining pieces need to necessarily be put on the page (or put on with great detail), they do need to be in the author’s mind if the character is to jump off the page. Otherwise, they’re just a flat, 2-D character relying on ink to move their story along, not heart.
But pull it all together, and you’ve got a beautiful, believable, relatable character you’re readers can hold near and dear. *starry-eyed sigh*
How about you?
Authors—what do you use to shape your fictional darlings?
Readers—what were some of the things that shaped your favorite characters?
Do tell, inquiring minds want to know. 😉
Have a great week, everyone. I’m headed back to the writing cave to keep shaping my current motley crew of characters…