Character. Not everybody has it. That’s why we read – to discover people with real character, with real grit, with a purpose for the things they do and say. There’s an Ernest Hemingway quote I pick up and read frequently. It goes:
Honestly, the first time I read it, I was getting bored by the end of the first sentence. Luckily, I forged ahead and read the second sentence anyway.
Character is formed out of living. It’s different than personality. Personality is important, especially in garnering the types of people who will become our friends, but character goes deeper. Character is earned through experience and decision-making. Personality varies depending on mood or atmosphere.
In storytelling, it takes more time and thought to develop a character’s character than it takes to give personality. A writer should know more about a character than what is told through the story. And that is necessary in order for the writer to know what a character will do, how they will think, and whose interests they will ultimately serve in any given situation.
Even when I write articles, I gather more information about the topic than I will tell the reader. The better I understand the subject, the simpler I can explain it to the reader.
As I mentioned in Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned by Watching Seinfeld, every being is important – from the extras to the main characters. Whether the reader hates or loves each character doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have a strong emotion tied to the character. Even the writer hates a character, and that is good, as long as the hatred comes from action and character as opposed to boredom and disinterest.
In the books that I have been working on, I realized I know some characters extremely well (almost as if they are based off of people I know). Even if I don’t agree with the things they do, I know why they make their decisions. I follow their reasoning because I understand their motivations. Other characters seem rushed. Some of their actions and words are more difficult for me to show to the reader or maybe even decipher for myself – and it’s simply because I don’t know enough about the character. I didn’t create the character – I added the character. They say write what you know – if I haven’t invested time in all of my characters, how can I expect the reader to invest in them?
So, I decided that if I am serious about not only finishing these books but making them their best possible selves, I need to know all of my characters to the same extent – thoroughly. Even my lesser characters should feel understood. I need to, at the very least, understand the background of their relationships with my main characters. That will lead to learning about their individual selves and lives as well because the smaller characters are just as important to the story as the main characters.
This is what I like best about my real-life relationships. I’m not a big talker (if I don’t know you), but I want to listen. I want to know what goes on behind the scenes. I like the backstory because it helps me understand the person. Tell me what makes you act and react the way you do, what thoughts affect each decision you make, what keeps you moving forward. I don’t need to like your personality; I want to understand you. My characters deserve no less.
Investing time in the history and life of my characters to make the best product can be used in any number of other situations. It can be used with cooking in learning which combinations of spices will intensify the flavors of various dishes, which drinks complement which meals and desserts.
When car shopping, a little research of the cars you are most interested in can go a long and save a lot of time. Strengths and weaknesses, worth versus allowance, necessary options.
Working relationships can benefit from some investment as well. Know your coworkers, boss, employees. Everyone is at their best when they feel valued!
When we know the characters in our books, we release the characters to be themselves. Even when we don’t necessarily like what they do, we can understand why they do it, and therefore, reflect both action and purpose to the reader.