The Consistent Character
I know I promised the next portion of the Oren short for this week, and I hate to keep you all in suspense, but with family in town for the holidays, I haven't had a chance to polish the story to my liking. That being said, I have chosen to release a previously written blog post in it's place with the hope that another week will help to polish up the next portion of the Oren Vow short story : "The Hunter." I hope you can forgive me the bait and switch. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy this entry into the blog and are looking forward to next weeks short story, which I intend to get back to work on as soon as I have published this.
In the time I've been writing, I have found one of the hardest things about creating a character-driven story is character consistency.
In order for a character to feel real they need to be constantly changing. They need to be fluid to react to different situations with real thought and depth. Character development is often a huge factor in Character driven stories, and often a character may react to a similar situation in a variety of ways throughout the story depending on where they are in their development and where they are going. In fact, often stories will deliberately place characters in situations that are echoes of early situations in order to create a contrast and show their development.
With all this in mind, how can you keep a recognizable character through a story. I will share my method for building a consistent character from the ground up. I've seen a few different tricks to forming characters. It is a relatively straight-forward process, but one that seems to go wrong often. My trick is to identify pivotal personality traits in my characters.
For every character who has any notable role in the Smoke,Fire and Ash trilogy I have identified two or three character traits that form the core of the character. These character traits do not change, no matter the changes the characters themselves change and these traits form the motives under almost every word or action attributed to the characters. I find the most interesting pivotal character traits are either negative characteristics, or those that can motivate both negative and positive responses in situations.
These characteristics form the "skeleton" so to speak, of the character which is then fleshed out by all the various motives, thoughts and changes that effect us all as humans. They work as a fulcrum around which every part of these characters personalities function.
If you were asked to describe a favorite character, how would you answer? Would you talk about their character development through the story? Often we might fall to backstory or plot to describe a character, but those things only describe what happened to a character, not who he or she is? While background may effect character, it is not in and of itself a character trait.
What if someone asked the same question of you about a friend or family member? Would you give them a run through of personal history, talk about what they do for a living, or divulge secrets? Most of us would make a list more like "Kind" or "Considerate" or maybe "Obnoxious". Even if you don't describe your characters to others in so many words, it's useful for an author to have a short list of these types of qualities. The more concise and fundamental, the better.
Once I identified these traits in my own characters I began to notice them in other well developed characters as well. Let me give you an example I noticed recently.
The Walking Dead is a hugely popular show. It follows a character driven plot so while there is action and tension to drive certain things forward, the majority of the reason why we are so eager to follow what happens next is because of the fleshed out characters and their relationships with each other. The show spends a large amount of time on backstory and character motivation throughout the course of the show.
Rick Grimes, the protagonist of the show, is a character who experiences a dramatic change in character through the course of the show. The Rick we see in Season One is still very civilized. He avoids taking life wherever he can, he doubts himself often, and he weighs decisions based on the various voices in the group. In opposition to this, the Rick Grimes in Season Five is far more feral. We can see it in his physical appearance alone. While Rick may be less vocal about his thought process in later seasons, we can clearly see that his priorities have changed. He is determined, violent and unrelenting.
While in the early seasons we wonder along with a slightly unhinged Shane if Rick has everything it takes to survive in the new reality they find themselves in, later seasons show Rick willing to do some truly horrendous things for the sake of his group. It would be easy to loose track of the character in the course of the changes, however, Ricks motivation has never changed. Rick feels a sense of responsibility that causes him to take leadership roles in whatever place he finds himself. He takes that role in the group as soon as he walks onto the scene, on the farm despite Hershel's obvious authority, and finally in Alexandria in spite of a fully developed authority structure. The other immovable characteristic in Rick's character is his familial love. Rick is a family man. In the first season that family was Shane, who he viewed as a brother, his wife and his son. Loosing those people drove Rick nearly to the edge until we see him adopt the group he is leading as his family. Even still, Ricks sense of family love is stronger with a few individuals. His son and daughter are obviously part of that group, and Daryl, who he has repeatedly called a brother...much like Shane had been.
If we analyze Ricks actions through the show I feel like everything we see from his character flow from these two motivations. This of course disregards things like hunger, exhaustion and the like. If we were asked to summarize Rick's character, without the benefit of describing his change though the season, what words would you choose?
I have developed these pivotal traits for each character in my book that has any significant role. For each of these characters I know their base-line character traits, so that I can extrapolate how events in their pasts and in the plot might effect them, and in turn how they might react to those events and set in motion other events.
I will give you a short example from my own writing process. I identify two or three major components in each of my characters.
Oren Vow, my main protagonist, is very instinctual but also very curious.
Another major character, Amonshek is probably the most like me. I gave him all my worse characteristics. He I would call Arrogant (spoiled, more accurately) and loyal.
Akharis, one of my most fully developed characters at the time the book begins, could be described as Compassionate and Responsible.
Dedkhira, Akharis's little brother was the most difficult to pin down. Honestly he kept hiding in the shadow of his brother and it took almost the whole novel to pull him out. He's given me quite the chore for my second draft. He can be described as Reserved and Independent.
Dred, the pirate and freed slave is probably the most complicated, although I haven't gotten into the women yet. Him I would call "Joyful, Violent, and Honest" An interesting mix there, and a lot of fun to write.
I could probably continue here, but you get the point.
Using these traits I can begin to form my characters reactions to the world around them. Amonshek is both arrogant and loyal, so how would he react if he was put down by someone he loved.
Oren is instinctual, so he wouldn't hesitate to act if surprised by someone.
Akharis is compassionate and Responsible. Are there times when he has to chose between taking care of someone he loves and keeping a stranger from death and suffering.
Dred is joyful. Is there a difference between being optimistic and being happy in spite of circumstances, and if so what would that look like.
What about some of your characters? What are some of their strongest character traits? Do you have a different method to creating consistency in your character? Please, comment and share your experience. Keep an eye out next week for the conclusion to the Oren Vow Short Story: The Hunter.