Thursday, September 10, 2009

Complicating Characters

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.

Had enough nerd language? Ok, I'll stop.


  1. I think having an idea of your characters past is very important, even if it's not part of your story. Knowing where the characters came from helps determine their actions and reactions in current situations.

  2. I need this. One of the big global comments I got from my first beta reader was the my other protag was a little flat. Good post.

  3. Act 0 - I've never referred to a character's past like that, but it's so applicable. The past is important.

  4. Excellent thoughts! It’s the adding of detail that can make or break a character. A past injury/broken bone is a great way to bring out some of the characters history or sneak in a little back-story. A character rubbing a sore arm or leg or touching a scar when they’re feeling a certain emotion could be used in so many ways… Thanks!

  5. While agree that the past is crucial, i also believe there is another item that complicates (adding interest) to any character. And that is the associations with other characters. Their interactions, how h/she truly feels about the other person. Any conflicts between the two. Especially when there is no true liking, but they have to co-exist nonetheless.

  6. Absolutely, SF. The way a character walks can tell something of their history too.

    JM, while I agree, I would also have to argue that the way characters interact with each other is directly influenced by their past. So if you map out their past, you can determine how they'll react in situations and interact with those around them.

  7. One thing that I find adds depth to my protagonist is how other characters see her. It adds an extra dimension to see how she interacts with them. Of course, I stay in her head most of the time, but there are certain chapters where I move to the love interest, best friend, or husband.

    It's especially fun to see her from the conflicting viewpoints of the love interest v. the husband. Who also happens to be her brother. ;)

  8. I agree on that one too.

    Thanks for the great discussion everyone!

  9. *hangs head sheepishly*

    Somehow, I missed your comment, Elana.

    Act 0 was the way my first Shakespeare professor ever referred to everything the occurred prior to the opening scene of one of his plays. It just sort of stuck with me and I use it a lot in other realms.


All content copyright of the author. Please ask permission before re-printing.

Fair use quotations and links do no require prior consent of the author.