What makes you fall in love with a character? The Authors Collection.
August 9, 2013
Have you ever read a book, fallen in love with it, but been completely unable to figure out why? To Kill a Mockingbird is one such book for me. I have read it several times just looking to see what it is that so captures me. Only when I sat down to write this blog the other day, did it hit me. The characters are so authentic, so utterly real that not once in the entire story do I ever trip over anything in any character that has me leave the story. Once immersed in that book, I am captured in another world so perfectly, so completely that I am no longer reading a book; I am one with the story. Characters, for me are the heart and soul of fiction, because only they have the power to hold my focus sufficiently to have my world drop away and their worlds own me. The real power of plot or story then becomes to create a place where the character can reach that level of authenticity. We are people; thus we care most about people (with the occasional animal taking their place) and understand what they do best. Their job in a novel is to pull us in and hold us there until the story ends.
When a story is largely autobiographical, much like To Kill a Mockingbird, the writer has a leg up because the characters are so thoroughly known. This is also aided by an author who is deeply observant and can actually pick up on the characteristics of people that make them not only real but also unique, for there are no two of us alike anywhere, not even identical twins. So I don’t take anything away from Harper Lee. She set us undeniably in her childhood world as if we lived next door. But if we are starting more from scratch, how then can we create characters that are equally authentic?
If you use a person that is someone you’ve known, and you are observant enough to see all that is going on over there, the advantage you have is that they are consistent through their own doing. They created themselves, so to speak, from their childhood experiences and resulting beliefs and attitudes, so consistency is a given. People don’t change over a lifetime, not at their core. They may intensify a trait or attitude but they don’t change it. So what we as authors must do is understand, as a starting point, some basic personality types, a bundle of characteristics that exist in our culture that we recognize when we meet up with them.
For example, if our character is to be an introvert, then we need to know the basic features that characterize an introvert. Introvert isn’t the word for one behavioral quality; it is a bundle of aspects. Introverts aren’t just seemingly shy. Here is a bundle of behaviors that characterize them. They are someone who prefers:
- thinking to acting
- depth of knowledge and influence as opposed to breadth
- substantial interaction as opposed to frequent
- recharge not with people but through solitude
If you integrate all of those into you character, the reader will keep sinking deeper into their reality, maybe without even realizing it, because deep in their core they know those qualities represent the introvert experience; they’ve known introverts and here is one believably before them. And that doesn’t mean an introvert can’t surprise the reader by, say, pushing his boundaries way out there to become they person who endures the crowd to stand tall for what he believes. But, and this is where so many writers lose their character, he doesn’t then become the extroverted hero. Once an introvert, always an introvert for introverted ness is far more than seeming shyness.
I would have to say, though I have not checked this out, that the great characters, the ones we carry with us forever once we meet, are those who originate with a writer who has either made it a point to study human behavior or intuitively senses the various natures that people express and is observant enough to keep them in their appropriate bundles. It’s not impossible, for the development of an area called personality typology started with Carl Jung and was later packaged by a mother-daughter team, Katherine Briggs and Isabelle Myers, as the now well-known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. If you have never taken the Myers Briggs inventory, some of the validity of the results that accumulated may be lost on you. But they have done a fine job, in a non-exact science, of organizing bundles of behaviors that characterize human beings. Since there are an inordinate number of ways that a person can go about this, what lends validity to any personality inventory is the commonness and usefulness of those traits explored and describe.
I am not going to explain their whole system. You can read about that for yourself, but they ended up with four areas that they then identified with letters. These letters represent core psychological preferences in people. They are not telling people who they are. They are describing what, in their deep core, they prefer and the behaviors we associate with those preferences. Anyone who knows me and has read the description of an INTP will say without taking a breath, they got her figured.
The preferences Myers-Briggs chose cover much of what we all experience with the people around us, the characters in our world. They include the attitude of introvert/extrovert; four principal psychological function: sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling; and then the major way we prefer to make ourselves aware of the world—perception— and the major ways we draw conclusion from that data—judgment. They have described bundles that you can use in creating your characters, authentic bundles that will give breadth and depth to a character, dimensions that will enrich them and give you more options for their behaviors that are consistent, thus real.
Consistency is the key to an authentic, riveting character. You don’t want your introvert going out to discos to rejuvenate or chatting away on the phone to relieve her angst. Nor do you want your character you’ve set up as deeply intuitive giving the time as 4:28:05 or going to the thermometer to decide if she’ll wear a coat to work. Can you begin to see how deeply authentic a character can become in an understated show-don’t-tell manner? Can you begin to feel how you would perceive who they are?
There are other personality typologies; the very best to my thinking is one that never got written up. Someday I might write that one down, but until then, take a look at the sixteen bundles that Myers-Briggs came up with and begin to imagine the full, rich characters you could create with just a bit more understanding of human nature.
Please click the book cover to read more about Christina Carson and her novels on Amazon. She does know how to develop real, convincing, and unforgettable characters.