Yesterday I was having an e-mail conversation with my dear writer-friend when she mentioned feeling that her characters were “run of the mill” or one-dimensional, whereas mine seemed more “real” or complex. Faced with such flattery, I had to admit to her that I am a big fat cheater. Because I don’t create my characters out of thin air. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I take a bunch of parts from actual people and sew them all together into a unique–and freakish–assortment of personality flaws.
For me, this process doesn’t depend on writing skill, but on personal insight. Many experts have said that observation is one of the most important skills to cultivate as a writer. (If I wasn’t feeling lazy, I would tell you which person said that and in which exact words.) But regardless of their expertise, I’m going to add to those words of wisdom and suggest that any good writer needs a healthy balance of unbiased observation and honest introspection.
If you think about it, each of us is the radical, yet inevitable result of our own life experiences and choices. Despite your best efforts, you can’t change your childhood or control how it has affected your development. The only thing you really can do is decide how you react to the world around you, and try to reshape your future with a series of educated choices. Some people prefer the trial and error method, others learn and grow by the examples of others. But in the end, it’s all about cause and effect. Or observation and application.
So what does this mean for your character development?
It basically means that character is not something you can switch up at the drop of a hat. Behaviors are influenced by attitudes, which are based on personal experiences and the overall perception of that character’s world. Therefore, you can’t change a character’s behavior to match with the plot you want, just as you can’t change your own behavior without going back to the source and altering your perceptions about life. Or you could buy a DeLorean.
Either way, it aint easy.
But like it or not, this is the secret to creating a dynamic, multi-faceted character that people will care about. Because a character can’t just be heroic or funny or interesting on the surface. A character needs to behave and speak in a way that reflects their foundation: their past, their mistakes, their desires, and what they believe in most. If you can’t show that in your writing, then maybe your character needs to do some serious soul-searching.
And just maybe, so do you.