You need him, but you can’t get into his head.
Whether you can’t get a read on him, or he shifts personalities when you aren’t looking, he’s a major problem. Plot puppets aren’t allowed, not in your story.
So what do you do?
I’ve got a couple different methods, but the one I use most is equally effective when you have a story and when all you have is a bunch of ideas thrown into a pot. (Been there, done that.)
The Backdoor to Character
Most writers try to get to know a character through scrutiny, jotting down details like his favorite breakfast, and end up playing pin the tail on the donkey because there’s no point of reference to hold him together and give it all meaning.
It doesn’t give him a personality.
…Even the fears and desires you come up with feel hollow. (Been there, done that.)
Instead, we’re going to take a step back, go around, and sneak in another way. We’re going to look for the character’s theme.
So simple. So deceptively deep.
A character’s theme is an anchor. It marks how the character fits with the cast, the story, or the situation. And you don’t need to fill out a gigantic questionnaire before you start getting a feel for him.
You just have to pick a line of thought and start rummaging.
Stepping Back to Dive In
Consider these three questions:
If you have a story planned, what theme runs through it? If you have a world you want to create, what theme will shape it? If you have ideas for the character but can’t nail him down, what patterns do you see in those shifting traits?
At first glance, the most straightforward approach is using the story’s theme to decide the character’s theme. You want to have different characters exploring different aspects of the theme, more nuanced than standing on one side or the other.
You’ll start to get a feel for the character’s attitude, too.
The second way is to look at the world you’re imagining. What’s the atmosphere? What shapes that atmosphere?
For instance, if you want a world of intrigue, you’re probably going to look at the theme “influence,” aka “carrot or stick.” I’ve found that in this case it’s easier to find the method than the motivation.
Get creative. Both sides of a theme will usually have an array of options that will reveal vastly different characters. (Use “carrot or stick” as practice. What do you come up with?)
When you ask why he’s influencing others generalized answers aren’t going to cut it. You need to deepen the character as you answer that question.
The backstory is probably going to be your strongest tool. Explore the life he has at the start of the story. You can also think of it in terms of, “What does he regret?” “What is his temptation?” “His passion?”
These questions, deepening your character, allow you to see how he fits in the story. Answers specific to his story, to the role you need him to play, make him an asset to your writing process.
The first two paths are great for outlining entire casts quickly.
The third way is to look at the character himself. You can look at his place in the story, look for patterns in the traits he has (even the ones that mutate), or the one thing that has never shifted.
Do you know how you want him to arc? That’s a theme.
How does he look at the world differently? What does he see when he passes a crisis on the street? What does he feel? That’s his worldview, and worldview can be a theme.
Like I said. Rummage.
Dig deeper. Ask why something is the way it is.
Ask why everything is the way it is.
Embrace Your Character’s Individual Theme
You can use a combination of the three paths, rolling him around in motivation and method.
…Stretching him with arc, warming him up with backstory, soaking him in worldview.
…And dropping him in the middle of an atmosphere.
AND checking to make sure he doesn’t look like he’s been tarred and feathered with traits when you’re done. (It’s not pretty.)
Don’t be afraid to give him multiple themes, either.
Get to know him any way you can. Just do it at a deep level, where it matters.
No more superficial questions unless they give you deeper insight, okay?
Having trouble with your character? Subscribe for tools and tips you won’t get anywhere else.