Writing: Character Construction by Matthew Cox
Characters are the crux of a story. Regardless of the setting, the characters need to stay true to their sense of identity. Creating believable, memorable characters brings the reader deeper into the environment of a writer’s creation more than world-building alone can do. For me, nothing kills a story like characters who either fall flat or have a weak (or no) sense of identity. When participants in a story lack depth, or their actions seem random with no basis in a constructed psyche, it stands out.
In any story I write, I put a lot of thought into the characters involved. What goes on inside is as important (or more so) than what goes on outside. With a solid character to build on, a writer can throw any scenario at them and have a thorough grasp of how they’d react. Also, it’s better not to dump everything about the character over a reader’s head all at once. Show 10-30% of what you develop for a character, and use the rest as a basis for how the character interacts with others and behaves.
A couple of aspects of character creation that I find helpful are:
For major characters, I establish a primary trait or “concept” of what that person embodies. For example, Kirsten from Division Zero: At her core, she is a good soul with a powerful moral sense. She is resilient and has an altruistic nature that causes her to forget about her own safety when someone else is in danger.
The primary trait is the essence of that alternate psyche. Everything the character thinks or does filters through it. Her primary trait (strong moral sense) is a result of seeing into the world after death and the fears and insecurities that knowledge has caused. Others, such as her genuine altruism, are innate qualities.
Another example would be the character Joey from Virtual Immortality. His defining trait is that he is a thrill seeker. His search for an ever-stronger adrenaline rush motivates his actions. To a lesser extent, he’s a slacker―talented but unmotivated, and as much as he won’t admit it, a bit of a softie.
What happened in the character’s past to shape who they are? This question I tend to answer even for minor characters. Take Curtis Warren, the clerk at the cyberware shop in Division Zero. He only appears in one brief scene, however: He’s got a metal arm to replace one he lost while he was serving in the military on Mars. He’s seen enough horrible situations in combat to leave him him unimpressed with things that would scare many people. His wife left him due in part to mental issues from his service, his drinking, and that he spent more time at his shop than at home. He’s got a dog, which he got to fill the hole left behind by the divorce. He’s jaded with a society that isn’t aware a shooting war is going on up on Mars and doesn’t care that he went up there and got maimed for their benefit. He’s a rabid fan of the “Bloodthirsters” Gee-ball team, and has come close to physical violence with anyone who thinks the “Manglers” are better.
Now, most of that doesn’t come out in the story. It sits quiet in the background defining his personality and shaping his dialogue. Even minor characters benefit from a few snippets of background. These little facts weave the character into the world and make them a reflection of their surroundings, deepening the reader’s immersion.
Oftentimes, interaction with a character and their mannerisms can introduce elements of world building in ways more fulfilling than simple narrative. Also, if the character returns in another work or later revisions expand their role you have all the necessary framework to build on.
At least for the main character, and sometimes a prominent secondary character, I chart an evolutionary arc. What I mean by that is a gradual shift from one state of thought or being to another. I feel that characters should develop over the course of a story and wind up in a different place than where they started. A character that is isolated, lonely, and angry at the start of the story may wind up learning to trust someone by the end, or they may still be isolated and lonely, but no longer angry―as they find acceptance with their situation.
In my opinion, the primary trait that defines a character should not change lightly. However, a character’s nature could change with a severe enough experience. A good-hearted character is not going to turn evil because someone stiffed them for change when they got coffee. If something so trivial sets them off, they weren’t too good to begin with. When characters change, that change should feel natural and be proportional to the experiences they had during the story.
For example, Kirsten from Division Zero starts off loathing religion and anything even remotely connected to it because of the abuse she suffered from her mother. This aspect of her character changes over the course of the series based on her experiences.
Sometimes, a little quirk of a character can stand out in a reader’s mind long after they finish the story. These are little idiosyncratic behaviors or traits that everyone has, and goes a long way towards making them feel more like a real person. A character might have a fondness for jalapeños in their egg or love coffee. They might like cats, dogs, or the color puce. Do they have a phobia, a hobby, or a silly habit?
Take Nicole from Division Zero―she is the main character’s friend, but she has a short attention span. She will start a conversation on one topic and go through three more before whomever she’s speaking with can finish reacting to the first one. She is also rather free with her telepathic eavesdropping, and likes to take pictures of suspects who make stupid faces at her whenever she telekinetically yanks their weapons away.
These idiosyncrasies can be superficial or deep. In Nicole’s case, finding amusement in the criminals’ reaction to her gift is something to add humor to life and take her mind away from thinking about how her parents got divorced because they argued over how to raise a psionic child. It’s a mask for guilt, a barrier against the fear of how society looks at her and a facet of her constant attempts to be cute and endearing―she needs people to like her.
Dialogue - Keeping a character’s dialogue true to who they are is very important. Even small traits in the dialogue can be used to help convey who they are. For example, an arrogant character (like Archon from the Awakened Series) does not use contractions and chooses words that make him sound self-important. Someone like Nicole (who is a conversational scatterbrain) has quick topic shifts, mangles some words, and sometimes abbreviates things never meant to be abbreviated.
For this, I find it helpful to read dialogue out loud and imagine the character speaking like you’re intending. Of course, sometimes this can present its own problems. For at least a week after writing Anatoly Nemsky’s lines from Virtual Immortality, I kept hearing my inner thoughts in a bad Russian accent.
In short, the most important part of a story to me are the people, from major to minor and all points in between. Every character I add to a narrative has a constructed psyche and enough history to know who they are. The grandest stage you can build will be useless without believable characters upon it, but even the most drab of setting can be brought to life with memorable characters.
Whenever a situation presents itself to a character, imagine yourself in their place. Consider how you would react in that situation. What is going through the character’s mind at that moment? Once you have your gut reaction, run it through a thought process based on the character’s inner nature and consider how their background would influence them. After that, factor in their quirks, and the result is a genuine reaction of the real person you imagined.
Born in a little town known as South Amboy NJ in 1973, Matthew has been creating science fiction and fantasy worlds for most of his reasoning life. Somewhere between fifteen to eighteen of them spent developing the world in which Division Zero, Virtual Immortality, and The Awakened Series take place. He has several other projects in the works as well as a collaborative science fiction endeavor with author Tony Healey.
Hobbies and Interests:
Matthew is an avid gamer, a recovered WoW addict, Gamemaster for two custom systems (Chronicles of Eldrinaath [Fantasy] and Divergent Fates [Sci Fi], and a fan of anime, British humour (<- deliberate), and intellectual science fiction that questions the nature of reality, life, and what happens after it.
He is also fond of cats.