This post originally appeared on the blog back in September of last year.
Just over a week ago (September 1) my mom and I were watching “Warehouse 13.” (Yes, I’m a nerd and proud to admit it.) For the entire debut season there’s been this lurking storyline. One of the characters lost their lover in Warehouse 13’s Act 0. (I will borrow here from my first professor of Shakespeare.) It’s pretty much the only significant thing they’ve ever indicated has happened to this character. Now, I realize that it would be no fun if they gave us her entire life story in one go. But, characters are more than just one shaping event from Act 0. Especially adult characters who have lived in the worlds we as authors create.
So, how do we complicate our characters, make them more than just one shaping event? For me, while each character does have one or two life-shattering events in their history, I try to map out changes around them. These changes can be corollary to event prime or unrelated. Then I fill in gaps. Small events, like whether they broke a bone, usually spring from the moment unless a past injury becomes an event prime and then I definitely plan it out ahead of time. I figure that I can let those little things spring from the well as I let the words flow because they aren’t crucial to story but they make a character real.
I also look beyond event prime to circumstances of birth. Did they have a birth defect? A neurological disorder? Poor? Rich? Nobility? Disgraced nobility? Fully human? (Fantasy worlds, after all, don’t necessarily preclude a no answer to that question.) The little details like that are what helps me to complicated my characters so they’re more than just Act 0 Event Prime.
Nowadays (meaning here in November of 2010) when I’m charactering, I think long and hard about those circumstances of birth and how they were raised. I look at the character’s parents’ modes of thinking, personal beliefs, etc, that might factor into how my character will react to things. Or from which the internal conflict might spring.
With my latest WiP, I’ve taken to letting the character’s decisions work backward from what I know is the decision she has to make at the end of the story. What decisions and events would lead my character, from the way she formed at the beginning, to the decisions and actions that come at the end?
It’s when I know these reactions, and they feel natural and not forced out, that I know I’ve come close to creating a full-fledged character, near to a real human being as I’m currently capable.