The most alive characters in fiction, the most realistic, are true to themselves – They are not there to do your bidding as their writer and creator – They are not there to follow your orders or to show the world your feeling or thoughts or ideas – They are not there to obey you – They are there purely as themselves, reacting as they would react, thinking and living and breathing inside their world – not yours.
This is something I have learned. It might not be true for every writer (you all know your own style and what works for you), but it sure is true for me.
Some writers find character development tricky – how do they flesh them out? Personally, I don’t try to flesh them out, I let them flesh themselves out because then it’s the reflections of circumstances that’s doing it, not choice.
It’s too easy to try and control your characters. You created them to say something but you cannot force them to say it. They are not dolls or puppets, no matter how much you want them to be. Yes, you can treat them as such, force them to comply and have it all your way, but I guarantee that all your readers will see is awkwardness.
If you want something said or done, you must create the circumstances that will allow a character to develop into the sort of person who would want to say or do it.
It’s truth that brings a story alive and consistency that keeps it there.
That means giving them incentive that is true. That means setting them into the circumstances that will promote development of action or plot in a natural way and along understandable channels.
Basically, the most important thing to do is to make their world a believable place to be. Even fantasy and science fiction, complete with remarkable beings and outlandish creatures, need a backdrop based on rules and acceptances that make sense.
Make the plot as realistic as you can. It’s no good, for instance, creating a Bad Guy that everyone can walk away from. Why are the Good Guys trembling in their boots if the Bad Guy can be walked away from? Why the high drama if there’s a police station just around the corner? If there isn’t a police station, why not? If the Bad Guy can’t be walked away from, why not? It matters!
The whys and the how of such things build the world and the circumstances into which you bring your characters. Once released, they will bounce around inside those circumstances and generate natural reactions that will further the plot. They develop themselves, they grow naturally – and it’s a joy to watch.
Being too tight with your characters means you haven’t allowed them any leeway or freedom. If you do that, you won’t get spontaneity or excitement. You’ll end up with dry characters and forced dialogue. There will be no genuine connection between them, either, no feelings that live.
Being too loose with your characters means you haven’t given them limitations or incentive inside their world and they’ll start free-roaming looking for a life. You’ll end up with no story, or one that’s so loose that no one (including you) knows what it is.
The trick is, then, to be strict with your circumstances and settings, and allow your characters the full freedom to be who they are inside those settings. Of course they will search for ways out of their circumstances, which will probably become the background plot if not the story itself. It adds credibility.
It all sounds very complicated, I know, but it really isn’t. The most joyful characters are free.
Originally posted in March 2014 under the title “Truthful Characterization”.