How to build complex, multi-dimensional characters
10 Tips for Creating Multi-faceted Characters By Maxine E. Thompson http://www.maxinethompson.com ===================================
When I was sixteen, during the Civil Rights era, as part of a one-way student exchange program (from the inner city of Detroit to suburban Traverse City, Michigan), I lived with a white family as part of an integration initiative. (For me, it was an escape from the drugs taking over my neighborhood and some other demons in my life, but that's another story.) The mother of the family was also an artist, a sculptress, who encouraged me to write when she saw my love of the written word. Her name is Verna Bartnick, and when she prophesied that she saw a writing talent in me, I wasn't so sure. After all, if, at the time, I had told my family I wanted to be a writer, they would've laughed and said, "Go get you a good job." Well, as life rolled around, and I went to college, then became a social worker for the next twenty-three years, while raising 3 children, I used to wonder, when was my literary destiny going to begin?
Ironically, by the time my writing did emerge, I had buried my mother and become a grandmother, two milestones, which forced me to take action and realize how transient this life is. From living, I gleaned many things about my journey, but this is one thing I can’t say enough now—everything I learned about building multi-faceted characters I learned as a social worker.
These are 10 tips for building multi-faceted characters.
1. I learned that babies will die from maternal deprivation if a process called bonding does not take place. From that I’d like to make an analogy. I learned that as a writer, you must make your reader bond to your character or your characters will die from reader deprivation. You do this through reader identification, emotions and loyalty. The reader will then begin to root for your main character(s.)
2. Even a crackhead has redeemable qualities and a motivation for what led to him or her becoming a substance abuser. Give your villains (or antagonist) a motivation, a past, and some good traits. Also, I learned, just like in life, that in fiction the best lines can come from bums and street corner “psychologists.” In my novel, No Pockets in a Shroud, these are gems spoken from my character Poor Boy, an alcoholic derelict.
“When you don’t love someone, you just don’t love them. They can be ever so nice to you, but you can’t make yourself love them. And vice-versa. I been in love both ways. The kind where I didn’t love someone back, and the kind where the other party was just using me. I know this is sad to say, but graveyard love done killed a many people. Got more people in the cemetery than cancer.”
3. Also, just like in life, in fiction, being good is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s easier to do the wrong thing. The person, such as a “do gooder” social worker, who tries to do the right thing, has the hardest struggle. Show this in your characters, particularly in your protagonist or main character. Fiction is about struggle and the fight to do good in a world filled with evil. Good intentions are generally what lead to conflicts in books. For example, a good mother, with well-meaning intentions, can overprotect her children, creating followers and people who make bad choices. (So if your main character is a goody-two shoe, give her a critical flaw.) On the other hand, sometimes you can use the bad guy as the lead character. They seem to inspire a lot of admiration from ordinary, law abiding citizens. Remember how in The Godfather, more people loved the Godfather than they did Fredo, his wimpy son, who was not a murderer? So don’t rule out using anti-heroes as your lead character.
4. Things happen to people that can either build their character early in life or destroy them. One teenage mother can go on to become a lawyer; another will drop out of high school, become a welfare queen or substance abuser. One child can grow up with a schizophrenic parent and go on to become a self-fulfilled adult; another can grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth and become a serial killer. A character’s backstory is important, but it doesn't always determine what kind of person he or she will become. The best early life experience does not always produce resilient, tenacious people, nor does the worst early life experience always produce bad people. That’s why it’s often said that hardship builds character.
5. Life is often about compromise. Don’t give your books neat little happy endings. In my novel, No Pockets in a Shroud, Nefertititi reunites with her birth daughter she'd had as a teen and placed for adoption at birth, but she pays the price of always wondering what would have happened had she opted to raise her child at a time when society was merciless to “unwed mothers.”
6. People generally grow during downward spirals. The worse life experience can sometimes turn out be the best thing that can happen. The grandmothers who had to take in crack grandbabies often looked younger than their crack daughters and were really better mothers the second time around. Hitting rock bottom is often where people grow or discombobulate. Put this in your fiction.
7. Show the dark side of your characters; this adds to complexity. How about a man who works with children, then goes home and batters his wife? People are full of contradictions.
Or, the flaw could be more subtle. Perhaps look at how people get stuck in bad relationships and refuse to move on, that is, until something happens (the death of a child) such as in Anne Tyler’s novel, The Accidental Tourist, which forces the characters into action.
8. The line between life and death is tenuous. I buried Aids babies and Down Syndrome babies. I witnessed the after results of murder—a man had killed his wife--and I had to place the children. Capture this dichotomy between life and death in your fiction.
9. Life is full of stories. My foster mothers used to tell me stories. My clients told me stories. My clients’ families called and told all the “family skeletons.” I learned that everyone had a story. Everyone had a secret. Show me the inner life of your characters.
10. The Ten Commandments were written because man is essentially in need of God. How different men find their spirituality can be a rocky road such as Paul on the road to Damascus . Take me, as the reader, on this journey. Walter Mosley does this in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, as we travel with Socrates, as he redeems himself for the murders that he committed earlier in life.
About the Author
A former social worker of 23 years, I have published 2 novels, The Ebony Tree and No Pockets in a Shroud, A Place Called Home. I have had numerous short stories, articles and essays published in magazines, anthologies and e-zines. Recently I began an on-line column to promote the works of new and self-published writers. The column is called, On The Same Page. Since 1999, I have written book reviews and columns across the Internet. Since 3/05/02, I have hosted an on-line radio show on www.voiceamerica.com called "On The Same Page". The show is aired on Tuesdays at 6:00 a.m. Pacific Time, 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and Saturday 1:00 p.m.