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Building characters into bona fide people

Flat characters are the death of a narrative. Here's how to prevent them.

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It was Ray Bradbury who said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

Without characters, you don’t have a story. And to take that one step further, without characters the reader will care about, you still don’t have a story. Flat characters are the death of a narrative. That’s why I love Ernest Hemingway’s classic quote: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters.”

Then there’s my favorite quote about character, from Yiyun Li: “Your characters are like children. You give birth to these children, but you have to send them into the world, and then they have to live their own lives.”

And how do you do that?

The interview

Well, one answer is you treat them like living people. Pretend like they’re real. And one classic way to do that is through use of a character questionnaire, dating all the way back to Marcel Proust’s. Asking your character questions, like what is their greatest accomplishment, what is their biggest regret, where would they like to live, and providing answers for your character can provide a ton of insight.

The concept behind these questionnaires is pretty simple. You ask characters questions like you would at a job or journalism interview and learn about them in the process. Most of the information you get from these character interviews – their favorite food is nachos, for instance – is not going to make it into the story. And that’s fine. The point isn’t to build out the plot; the point is to build out the character.

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Knowing that your character loves nachos can help you understand who they are and other character traits that may actually be relevant to the story. Maybe they frequent bars or their favorite restaurant as a kid was a Tex-Mex restaurant. Maybe they despise fine dining, prefer queso on all their foods, so on and so forth. Little questions like favorite foods help you understand your character better, bridging the gap between known and unknown. Then, when they’re alive in your story, doing things, making decisions, you’re not flying blind. The character has started to live a life of their own.

Small decisions beget big ones

Now, to revisit Li’s quote, about your characters being like children. You are in control of their upbringing, how they turn out, how they act. But after a while, they become their own entity. They make their own decisions. But those decisions become laborious if you don’t know your characters. Maybe it’s as simple as what road do they take when going to their uncle’s house: the back roads or the highway?

If you don’t know your character, you’re going to have them idling at that decision point, laboring over whether they’d turn right or left and second-guessing along the way. Maybe you backtrack after making the decision because, well, actually, that doesn’t feel quite right for your character. Small decisions can help us understand how they’d react to big decisions, like what happens when their house catches on fire. (Do they flee immediately from the burning building or try to save everything they can?)

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The key here is that the character should be sent out into the world to create a life of their own, and that’s where another character development tactic comes into play – dropping them into specific situations and seeing how they get out.

This goes back into the questionnaire concept. What situations you drop them into may have nothing to do with the story itself, and that’s fine. Maybe a situation will form its own short story down the road, but it doesn’t have to. All this exercise has to do is help you to understand your character. Seeing how they react, how they adjust and grow, and how their mind works.

So take that character, no matter where you are in the development process, if you’ve interviewed them or not, and drop them into a tough situation. For the purpose of this example, let’s say this character is the manager at the local Petco and has just been offered a job working for a black-market exotic pet retailer.

What do they do?

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The great thing about this exercise is you can approach it in multiple ways. You can idle over this decision, thinking about it long and hard to figure out what makes the most sense for this character. But what works best here is to make a snap decision. Present the situation to your character and see what grabs you first.

Of course, if you make that snap decision and doubt it, hey, that’s fine too. It’s also the other approach to this exercise: Take your character down both paths. Heck, create a third path, too. Play out the situation with your character and see which one feels the most natural. Whatever seems like the thing that most resonates with who your character is.

 

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What happens next?

Well, that’s up to you. You have the option to keep going with this same scenario. They take the job as a black-market exotic pet dealer, and they have to sell a red panda to their estranged aunt. How do they react?

It could go on indefinitely, or you can reset and try a new situation. What happens when your character hears the news that their favorite nacho haunt is closing down? Do they break down or immediately find somewhere else to go, and how do they react when those nachos aren’t as good? Or how do they react when they find those nachos are better?

It may seem silly, I know – why throw them into an irrelevant situation that won’t be in the story and waste precious written words? I hear you. But in the name of character development, nothing is silly. Nothing is wasted.

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To be clear, I’m not saying this is the right way to develop characters because there is no right or wrong way. I’m saying that the more situations you throw your character into, the more you can learn about them and how they face different obstacles. So when they have to face obstacles in the story that matter, they overcome them more organically. Or they stumble and fall, but still more organically. More like who you want them to be.

You will learn if your characters are petty or resilient, if they’re patient or over-eager, if they would rather sell hamsters or capybaras. These traits develop by, as Li put it, letting them out into the world. Letting them grow up and make decisions on their own. That’s when you start to understand who your characters are and then, reverting back to the story, when more decision points come up, the choice becomes more natural. Their behavior becomes more known, less unpredictable – which means less editing for you down the road.

—Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. Twitter:
@sippenator101; more at joshsippie.com.

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