As writers, we’re often told, “write what you know.” But what do we really know. If I know a single mom, are all single moms like her? Of course not. Many factors make us who we are, and as we write characters, we need to think about the myriad factors that make characters who they are. Merging those traits into a believable, non-stereotypical character is the beauty of character development.
So how do you start to define a character? Let’s start with a few traits:
Gender. The last thing I want to do is set up a gender binary (or forget that people can be trans-gender or other gender– think of the wonderful novel Middlesex.)What I do want to think about is how gender affects a character’s behavior in various situations. Depending on gender, do these characters face certain biases? Does a female engineer face ridicule/gender bias being in a male-dominated field? Does a single working dad face issues a single working mom does not? What about a female truck driver? How would she be treated by co-workers?
Class. A world famous neurosurgeon could have a truck driver dad (or mom) and be from a single-parent household with six siblings. That character will be different from a neurosurgeon who comes from an upper-middle class background with two parents and was an only child.
Race. If you are reading this and you are white (in the Western world), ask yourself why you are writing a character of a different race. What do you hope to gain for your story? How will you make sure you don’t create a stereotype? What lived experiences make your character a believable individual?
Sexuality. Certainly sexual orientation affects a character, at the very least, for the matter of love interest. Both there is much more too. As with race, try to avoid stereotyping, and if you don’t actually know a gay/lesbian person, maybe you shouldn’t write one. Many gay people go through traumatic experiences (abuse, bullying, family not accepting them) that change their world views. Knowing this makes for a more well-rounded character.
Place. What makes a Minnesotan different from a Texan? It sounds like the start of a joke, but where your character lives or is from molds behavior, attitudes, beliefs, style, and word choices. So tell me, where’s your character from?
Religion. (Notice how I didn’t put this right next to sexuality.) How is a Unitarian different from a Southern Baptist? Again, this sounds like the start of a joke, but religious beliefs strongly color a character. If your character is atheist, why? Did s/he lose his/her belief for some reason?
Contradictions. A final thought on traits is that humans tend to be idiosyncratic. So tell me all about your politically left-leaning Texas oil baron and how she got that way.
This is far from an exhaustive list. I am trying to offer a little food for thought. I’ll have a follow-up post to discuss some possible ideas on how to research characters.
Please share your thoughts! Comments are strongly encouraged! 🙂