Readers don’t care what’s happening unless we care who it’s happening to.
This is the truest truism I know about writing—that character is the vehicle in which readers travel through your story. We don’t rave about a story of the savant-like solution of seemingly unsolvable crimes; or an indestructible suit that grants the wearer staggering power and strength to defend the world from attack; or the political battle between a small resistance group and an evil empire. What makes these stories vivid and relatable is our identification with Sherlock Holmes; Tony Stark’s Iron Man; Leia, Luke, and Han Solo (and a wide cast of memorable characters).
No matter how exciting the world you’ve built, how thrilling or original or tightly woven your plot, readers must connect—deeply and directly—with your protagonist(s) to fully engage and invest. Character is the foundation of story.
There’s no shortage of writing advice on how to build up and develop your characters, much of it centered on discovering and developing their defining traits, their motivations, and their goals. It’s excellent advice—but it can leave authors feeling lost or overwhelmed by the daunting task of creating from scratch fully fleshed, believable, engaging, memorable people to populate their stories. How can authors develop characters so real and relatable that readers feel we know them inside and out, so we identify with them clearly and strongly—so that essentially we become them?
Rather than trying to spin these characters into existence from the ether through sheer imagination, it can sometimes be more useful to work backward: to start with the traits and characterization you want your protagonist to have for the purposes of the story—a meticulous observer of the world unbound by social conventions, for instance (Sherlock Holmes), or an arrogant playboy (Tony Stark), or a dedicated leader of her people (Princess Leia)—and trace back the origins of those qualities instead.
Digging Down to Build Up
Once you know your starting point—or more accurately your endpoint, meaning who your character is by the time of the portion of his life you’re telling in this story—start asking yourself questions about the traits you’ve allocated to him, little by little mining down to what might create those specific traits in a person.
Let’s use Sherlock Holmes as an example. In author Sherry Thomas’s innovative Lady Sherlock series, she reimagines the classic detective as a woman, Charlotte Holmes. Thomas adheres to the traditional foundation of Sherlock’s character: reclusive and a bit seemingly misanthropic; extraordinarily gifted at observation and deduction; afflicted with a compulsion toward substance abuse. But she reimagines the situation and background for her version of the character.
Extremely intelligent and independent in a time when society largely valued neither trait in a woman, strong-minded Charlotte has detached herself from worrying about what others may think of her. In fact, when we meet her in the first book of the series, A Study in Scarlet Women, she has carefully engineered the ruin of her own reputation to thwart her father’s attempts to force into a future she does not want and buy herself the freedom to pursue her own goals—to become a headmistress at a women’s academy. It’s easy to understand how Charlotte’s desire to live without strictures in a society where that is unacceptable for women leads her to divorce herself from that society and feel a bit unkindly disposed toward those who would shoehorn her into a role she rejects.
When her plan backfires and Charlotte is publicly demonized, her chosen path is no longer available to her and she must find a way to get by in a world where women have few options to earn a living. When a friend who knows her brilliance solicits her help with a seemingly unsolvable crime, it turns out Charlotte is quite good at it, thanks to her intelligence and keen observational powers, and she realizes she can support herself with this work she enjoys and has a gift for—as long as no one knows she’s a woman. The need to hide her identity further divorces Charlotte from society. We’re slowly understanding more about what created the traits of the “Sherlock Holmes” we meet in this story, based on the character’s background and the situations she faces within the context of the story world.
The original Sherlock was a drug addict. Thomas didn’t choose to allocate that specific trait to her Holmes, so she worked backward from that idea—that one of the character’s weaknesses is a compulsive draw to something detrimental to her in some way—and gave Charlotte a nearly uncontrollable sweet tooth. A woman in the society of her time was valued for her appearance and restraint, so this addiction is seen as a debilitating weakness by her mother and others…and while Charlotte rejects those standards, she is in some ways nonetheless bound by them, and struggles with moderation.
Notice how each of these circumstances that’s an organic part of the world of the story and the character logically creates the classic traits of Sherlock Holmes, yet Thomas adapts them brilliantly and organically for the different circumstances of her character from the original—for the story she wanted to tell and the protagonist she chose to create.
Putting It into Practice
So how can you apply this technique to your own writing? Start with the end product you want to create—the traits, foibles, strengths, and weaknesses you want your protagonist to have—and then trace backward to what might have engendered those qualities by asking yourself some key questions:
- Who is this character? What are her main character traits?
You may already have a character in mind or partly formed in your head, but you might sit and see how exhaustive a list of her traits and characteristics you can identify. What makes a character especially rich and a story resonant and cohesive is if the protagonist’s traits are directly germane to the achievement of and/or obstacles to her goal. In other words, dig backward from the situation this character faces in your story and determine the personal traits that would make things most challenging for her on that path.
With Charlotte, for instance, her intelligence, forthrightness, lack of interest in tact and decorum, disinterest in society and marriage, and independence are all uniquely suited to make her journey as a woman in Victorian-era London trying to live on her own terms maximally difficult. Yet it’s also these same qualities that allow her to succeed wildly as a secret Sherlock Holmes.
- What in the character’s background might have caused those qualities?
I frequently recommend to writers, among a roster of some of my favorite craft books, that they read widely in the field of psychology. Authors are paleontologists of the human psyche—our job is to deeply understand the inner workings of the human mind and how it manifests in our behaviors and actions, and to believably convey that on the page. There’s little better way to learn to do that than by becoming a keen observer and student of humanity. Watching people’s actions will tell you much about who they are that’s valuable to bring to your character development; but reading about the psychological underpinnings of those behaviors will illuminate the whys, and that’s where great characterization lies.
For instance, an upbringing or society in which men are expected to be stoic, strong, and infallible might result in a man raised in that environment being closed off, out of touch with his true emotions, afraid to show weakness or uncertainty. That might result in a character who behaves in an arrogant, cocky manner; or one who is painfully introverted or withdrawn; or one who hurts and negates others in the belief that there can be only one king of the hill. The same “origin story” can create a vast array of adaptive behaviors in people, depending on other factors in their upbringing and life and their own inborn traits (i.e., intelligence, drive, adaptability, happiness set point, etc.). Your job—your privilege—as a writer is to play God and create all those factors; to decide which ingredients to mix together to yield the result you want (i.e., what character traits).
- What does this person lack or want most in life, as a direct result of these particular traits that make up her character?
Perhaps our hypothetical emotionally stunted alpha male above wants to take over the land of his greatest political rival—that’s his main goal when we meet him. How might that directly result from his background and traits? If he internalized the message that a man’s worth is tied up in being the strongest and most powerful, then his internal motivation might be that he wants to win—his very identity hinges upon it.
That goal and motivation may shift as the character progresses along his arc—but that change, too, must come from his intrinsic character makeup you’ve created, and you can keep excavating to discover how his background might contribute to the change in his character and/or goals.
For instance, perhaps Our Hero falls in love with daughter of the neighboring king he wants to defeat. Through her love he begins to rediscover the long-buried softer emotions his upbringing stifled in him. Perhaps toppling her father the king means losing this woman he loves, and in facing that choice he must reevaluate long-held, perhaps subconscious internalized beliefs about himself and the world: Is it “winning” if he loses the thing he has come to value most (the woman)? What will ruling more land and people and garnering more power net him? What is it he actually values, underneath the external goal (defeating the king) and the automatic learned behavior of always fighting to be on top?
Perhaps he discovers that what he actually values—or the way he defines the internalized concept of “winning” in this case—is bringing peace and order to the land he loves and guaranteeing its prosperity, stability, and its strength against outside invaders. Perhaps he comes to see, through the wider spectrum of emotions and beliefs the woman helps open him up to, that there are other ways to achieve that besides forcibly expanding his own empire—that joining forces with the neighboring king as allies not only achieves those goals, but allows him to also have his other strongest value, the woman he loves. This result is still consistent with the man we have seen him to be and the forces that shaped him—but the circumstances of the story have shifted his perspective within the context of those selfsame traits.
Writers often talk about “building character”—but rather than layering on characterization from the ground up, it might be more useful to reverse-engineer it instead. Reimagine your task as mining down to discover who your character is and has been based on the essential traits you want him to have that intrinsically affect his journey in your story, and you may find the characters who populate your stories springing more easily and fully to life.