Writing Dynamic Characters

We’ve all read it, and we’ve all written it: a character who simply falls flat on the page. Sure, they’re your baby, but after a while, you realize what everyone is saying is true. They’re a cardboard cut out, a description of flowing tresses without a soul. And no matter how beautiful your leading lady or how dashing your hero, no one will care if they fall off a cliff and die unless they built a connection with them. Sure, you can pity a paper doll, but you empathize with a character because of what’s inside them that makes them human (or dragon or space alien). You have to give them a soul. I know this sounds crazy, and all you skeptics out there are rolling your eyes, but I’m going to try to tell you how.

Background Setting
Before you think of a name, before you think of a personality, before you think of any of that stuff, you need to have a background setting in mind. This is the place a person came from, how they were raised, their heritage. These usually affect people greatly, even if they won’t admit it. Lisa Morelli, Christmas and Easter Catholic, born in Trenton, NJ will think a lot differently than Val Reinhart, Lutheran, from Savannah, GA now won’t she? And they’ll both be different from Sima Jayaraman, Hindu, from Bangalore. And whether people stray from the way they were raised or not, it still lingers in them.

Back Story
Back story gets more specific than background setting. This is all the events that happened to a character in their past, but like real people, characters should center on a few, as many as a dozen or so, events in their lives that shape them. Remembering that they have a PhD makes a character feel smart. And that plane crash in 1972 dissuades them from overseas travel. Their big brother constantly locking them in closets when they were 7 might make them tense in small spaces. A few bad teachers make you hate math. Her parents early divorce corrupts her intimacy with men. So many of these things happen. You character needs to have a life before the book begins. All events up to that point affect how they act to that day.

A word of caution: not every parent dies. They don’t all get divorced. Not everyone has a tortured childhood. I know people who do, and I have never seen them mope about it. Past events toughen people or give them fears and anxieties they try to hide. They get confidants and therapists and take up hobbies to blow off steam. Most people don’t just dwell on things. They cope somehow and these coping mechanisms are much better characterization than just brooding.

Example: I have issues with my mom, making me not trust women as much as I should, so I tend to have more guy friends. On the other hand, my friend never really knew her dad and compensates (subconsciously) by sleeping around.

Choosing a Name
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Sure, it’s a nice notion, but not when it comes to your characters. Jean Pierre doesn’t smell quite the same as Bubba from the get go, even before we know them. Because of this, You can use your readers’ preconceived notions to your advantage. It’s harder to convince them Bubba’s not akin to a truck driver, but you can do it, if you want, which can be fun, or you can use names that don’t have pre-programmed connotations.

Another important aspect of naming, if not the first thing you think about, is background: ethnicity, birthplace, and parents. I seriously doubt a Chinese family would name their son Pedro or a Mexican Family would name their daughter Xing. The name has to fit the ethnicity of the parents. However, if they live someplace more diverse, such as a big city or a country like the US, Canada, Australia, etc, with a big melting pot of cultures, it might be different. But there has to be a legitimate reason for them to be named how they are.

If you would like a Mary Sue, please name your character after: an object (Flower), an animal (raven), a color (Teal. I seriously had a character named this. You can even find him in my gallery), something sparkly or otherwise ridiculous, reasonless, and unnecessary.

On to last names. I know of so few people who are good with last names it vaguely frightens me. There is a rule in baby naming: if you have a simple name like Jones, then choose a first name that is more unique. Genevieve Jones. It’s a classical name, the name of a saint. If you have a crazy last name, maybe give a simpler first name: Adan Babazeda. Or even simpler would be to say short with long.

If your complaint is that you don’t know many surnames, I’ll fix your problem right now: http://www.census.gov/genealogy/names/dist.all.last The US Census list. If you can’t find it there, it might not even exist.

A note on naming non-humans: The Mary Sue rules still apply, if not more so. You heard me. But that doesn’t mean your alien from Planet Ip has to be named George. All races have standard naming sounds, like Guo would be a weird name in Mobile, but maybe not in Beijing. Give your names rules, like girls names usually end in n or t and boys names end in vowels, for example. And your race from the planet Ip combines their familial and given names without a space. Also, when naming your creatures, steer clear of names that are obviously from a certain race on earth unless you want readers to draw an association.

Outer Components of Personality
We haven’t delved very deep into characters yet, but we can make them seem more real with concrete details. Now, I’m not talking about hair and eye color (though normal ones would be nice unless there’s a damn good reason for them). I’m talking about mannerisms and quirks like how my friend sniffs glasses before she drinks out of them. I’m an apparently not so inconspicuous silverware checker. Some people tap their fingers, others check their watch a bit too often. Some people have to run down stairs. There may be a reason for these gestures, but more often than not, it’s subconscious.

If you’ve ever read the book The Things They Carried, you’d know that each thing says something about its owner. The things your characters have/own/carry with them say something about them. A girl carrying the Bible would probably be a Christian. A guy with a guitar is either a musician or wants to get girls. There are so many things you can “say” without actually having to say them.

Clothes don’t make the man, but they will make the man assume. If your audience assumes your character dressed all in black is introverted and down on herself, you need to prove to them otherwise. Your reader soon learns that your character was just on her way to her job: working back stage at a play and thus had to wear all black.

Making assumptions
You’re starting to see the pattern, aren’t you? Readers assume, and they’ll make you-know-whats out of both of us unless you either let them know their assumptions were correct or completely blow them out of the water. You’re in control. Make them think what you want them to think.

Getting into Character
Once upon a time, there was a Russian director named Constantin Stanislovski. Among his achievements, he created the a system of acting that took it, so to speak, out of the dark ages by asking actors to step into their character’s shoes mentally as well as physically. This was a big change from the overblown characters of melodrama that came before. Isn’t this exactly the switch you’re trying to make in your characters?

In this system, becoming a character consisted of five easy points:
1. Objective: what your character wants. Everyone has an objective in any given scene, even if they just want a drink of water. This shouldn’t be confused with a super objective, which is more of an overarching goal for a character, like they want to grow up to be a truck driver.

2. Obstacles: Characters shouldn’t always get want they want (lest they catch Maryus Suem virus). The bigger the objective, the more probable there are to be obstacles, but it all depends on context. I mean, even getting a drink of water might be difficult in oh, say, Death Valley.

3. Method or Tools of achieving said objective says a lot about the character. Back to our lad in Death Valley, if he had thought, he’d already have a canteen. If he was crafty, he’d find a cactus and cut off a piece. If he freaked out and ran around until he died, that’s also very telling of personality.

4. Units: Customarily, plays are broken into bits, scenes, so are novels, so is life if you think about it. What this means is that in each of these units, the objective may change. If desert boy gets rescued, that won’t be his objective any more and neither will getting water because he was given plenty. Now he wants to call his girlfriend and tell her he’s okay. People want a lot of things and so should characters. Characters that are so centered on one objective that they have blinders on to the world around them are not believable. This brings up the phrase: everybody poops. Everyone has needs, wants, and desires, even if they must kill the villain at all costs, they will think about other things at least sometimes.

5. Actions: At first, this sounded a lot like method to me, but then I had to go back and research. It’s actually the way the character goes about using his tools/method. It’s the undertones in everything that is done and said: kissing your grandma on the cheek is a lot different that kissing your girlfriend because of the reasons and the way you did it. You’re lucky a kiss isn’t always a kiss

If you want to delve further into acting techniques to maximize character development, steer your way toward Strasberg’s method. That’s right. THE Method. The one you’ve always heard about. But I won’t force you to eat a cockroach like Jack Nicholson did. I may, however, ask you to “get into character”.

You’re writing about our friend in death valley again, but you’ve never been there. No problem. Think about the time you were so thirsty you were about to collapse at that soccer game or the last heat wave where all the power went out. This is affective memory.

If desert boy’s girlfriend, after his anticipation of calling her, actually gave up on him and went out with someone else, he’d be devastated. Think of a similar emotional memory. The same goes for the grief of death or the happiness of a new child, really any emotion you’ve felt, and give these emotions to your characters.

Now, if you want to go even further, you can literally become your character. I’ve done this, but I would not advise it, unless it’s just exploring where that character lived or maybe trying to get into their head by dressing like them. But for beginning use, I’d stick with just the Stanislavski system.

It’s a buzz word these days, but it’s important. Everyone changes. It’s a natural process resulting from all the events in their lives. Cause and effect. The best stories show change in their characters, and these don’t always have to be positive or even permanent, but they still change. Keep that in mind.