A writer must develop the background of her character in order to understand what makes the character tick. This understanding is essential to develop the correct responses to story situations. For instance, a character who dropped out of high school will be unbelievable if he uses quantum mechanics to explain how the aliens transported money out of a locked bank vault. A sickly protagonist can’t use physical violence to subjugate the antagonist. However, a character raised in France can use French words and phrases without sounding snobbish to the reader.
How much background is required? This is open question. I use more than a page of background to define a major character in a short story and a paragraph or two for a minor character. As a rule of thumb, the more important the character is to your story, the more background you require. The deeper you plan to probe into the character’s psyche during the story, the more detail you need about the character’s mental composition. Conversely, the more you know about the character’s mental makeup, the easier it is for your story to probe deeply.
An important nonphysical feature of my characters is their philosophical outlook. This element is one of the first that I give to my new character since it influences other aspects. For instance, a reader will not believe in a cheerful character who is supposed to be a pessimist. Similarly, a morose character will make a poor (i.e. unbelievable) optimist.
This attribute also influences the way the character thinks and defines the character’s reaction to some story stimuli. Assume, for instance, a protagonist with a pessimistic philosophy who is faced with a monumental plot problem. When her sidekick makes a suggestion, she responds, “Yes! That’s it! Let’s do it.” We now have a protagonist who is reacting inappropriately. She reacted as an optimist. A pessimist would respond with, “What a dumb idea. That’ll never work.”
Besides pessimism (reality is evil) and optimism (reality is good), I use a number of other philosophies for my characters. These include individualism (personal freedom and autonomy), materialism (reality consists of matter only), mysticism (reliance on and belief in creeds or faiths), nihilism (social and economic order is corrupt), and pragmatism (emphasizes consequences and practical results of one’s actions). Definitions of all of these can be found in number of books including dictionaries.
In building a group of characters for a story, I ensure that the characters have a variety of philosophies. A lot of conflict and humor can be achieved by giving the protagonist and the sidekick conflicting philosophies such as pessimism and optimism or mysticism and materialism. This last pair pits a character with a strong belief in faith against another who doesn’t believe that faith has anything to do with events or results.
Readers must empathize with the protagonist of your story, otherwise, they won’t care what happens to him. For empathy with a character to occur, the reader must conclude that the character shares some human values with the reader.
Empathy (understanding) must not be confused with sympathy (pity). The reader must say to herself, “This gal is like me. I want her to solve her problem.” A protagonist who kicks puppies, and cheats the blind news stand worker is not going to gain a lot of empathy from readers unless he has some other traits which balance these negatives. If this puppy-kicking character has a conscience and regrets his actions as soon as he does it, he may have a small chance of gaining the reader’s empathy. If this character kicks puppies because a brain tumor has damaged his personality, then the reader might excuse such unkind acts, knowing they are involuntary. A further problem with a puppy-kicking protagonist is trying to develop an antagonist who is even more obnoxious. With a nasty protagonist, the reader may establish an empathetic link with the antagonist. This results in a reversal of the usual reader allegiance with the reader now hoping the bad guy wins. If the protagonist wins, as he usually does, the reader is left with an empty feeling that something is wrong with the story, and that it was a waste of time to read it.
On the other hand, a character who constantly moans, “woe is me,” may get sympathy but the reader won’t develop empathy with this whiny fellow. For instance, suppose your protagonist faces a series of difficulties not of his own choosing. He can struggle to keep his head above water and gain empathy or he can blame others for his misery and possibly gain sympathy. The first is the stuff of good stories, the second isn’t.
For the reader to like and root for the protagonist, he must display traits that are admired by the reader. These include courage, virtue, competence and amiability. Of course, the protag may be lacking in one or more of these characteristics at the beginning of the story and find or develop the attribute at the end of the story. As an example, a character, faced with solving a dangerous plot problem, may agonize over his lack of nerve. At the end of the story, he overcomes his fears and finds the courage to face the danger.
To me, these are small bits of action that make characters more human. Under certain emotional or stressful conditions, the characters will fall back on these habits. One character may curl her hair when she is deep in thought or concentrating. Another character may drum his fingertips on a table when upset or angry. Once you’ve identified the idiosyncrasy to the reader, it can become a signal about the character’s mental state. When you show this woman sitting at a table and wincing because she curled her hair too tight, you don’t have to tell the reader she is reflecting on a problem; the reader knows that. Similarly, the guy’s furious thumping with his fingers indicates to the reader that he is angry and the author doesn’t have to tell it to the reader.
But don’t confuse these idiosyncrasies with normal habits. A character that is always adjusting his glasses is not displaying an idiosyncrasy, he is showing a habit, and he does it without thinking about it.
Linking an idiosyncrasy with a physical attribute is a powerful way to build reader identity with a character. Suppose you have a protag with a visible facial scar. Whenever he fingers the scar, the reader knows he is thinking about the knife-wielding assailant and hoping to get revenge. Another example is a pronounced limp. If the injury was caused by the character freezing in fear at a crucial moment, every time the character messages his knee he recalls his failure and fears. Perhaps the story can hinge on him facing these fears in another test. These linkages can be used with either the protagonist or the antagonist.
Like ordinary people, story characters must be complex. The more complex these characters are, the more compelling the readers will find them. While this certainly applies to the protagonist, don’t neglect to build a multifaceted antagonist. A complex protagonist struggling against a cardboard antagonist will leave the reader feeling that something is missing.