Characterization is key to any novel, whether that novel be character-driven or plot-driven.
We all know to make our characters interesting, sympathetic, memorable. We know to draw them with verve and vitality. We know to give a physical description. We know not to make them perfect (perfect is boring and allows no room for growth).
But do we delve deeper into other attributes?
Moral compass. What is your protagonist’s moral compass? How does he react to a situation where he has a choice between right and wrong?
If he is honest to a fault, why is he that way? If his honesty vacillates, why is he that way? If, upon finding a wallet, does he look for identification to return it or does he rifle through it to take whatever money is in it? If he chooses the latter, does he later feel remorse? Or does he feel justified in taking the money, believing that if someone were foolish enough to lose his wallet, he deserves to lose his money as well?
What is your character’s attitude about racism? Will he stand up for the underdog or is he more likely to go along with the crowd when it comes to making fun of someone who is different?
Family background. What is your character’s family background? What is her place in the family? Books have been written upon birth order in influencing one’s behavior. The oldest child is frequently a leader, success oriented, determined to forge his own path in life. The middle child is often a peace-maker, the baby of the family somewhat spoiled, even a show-off. With five children in our family, I can clearly see the effects of birth order.
Of course, these are generalizations. Use them as a jumping-off point. Aside from birth order, there is the familial role. Have you noticed that returning to your parents’ home can trigger a reversion to the role you played as a child? My sister and I laugh (and sometimes cry) over the fact that we assumed the roles we had as children when we visited our parents. Twenty, thirty years later, we still return to the roles we played, or those that were foist upon us, when we return home.
Social background. Who are your main character’s friends? With whom does she feel comfortable hanging out? Conversely, with whom does she feel uncomfortable?
Consider the example of a fifteen year old girl who has gone to live with her grandparents after her parents’ untimely death in a car accident. She is plunged into a new town, a new school, a new life. At school, does she choose to hang out with the nerds because those were her friends in her previous life? Or does she go the other direction and find friends with the kids who cut class, experiment with drugs, shop-lift? Does grief prompt her to choose such a vastly different social group? Or does her grief send her into a shell where she refuses to involve herself with anyone, even her grandparents who love her?
Another part of social background is that of socio-economic status. Does your character come from a well-to-do home with all the advantages? Or does she come from a home where the parents are barely scraping by to make a living? Are books abundant in her life or are they a scarcity? Do you see how this connects with the attribute of family background?
Everyone has cultural influences, whatever they ethnicity. I grew up in Washington, DC
, but I count the south as part of my culture because my mother came from Tennessee
and brought many of those customs with her. The language, the cooking, the attitudes of the south colored our family and continue to pop up every now and then and make themselves felt in my writing.
What are the cultural influences on your character? Did he grow up in a family that emigrated from Germany as did my brother-in-law? Do his father’s parents, who hail from Russia, live with his family? These factors can have a profound effect upon a child and his thinking, from the way dinner is served to how holidays are celebrated.
Characters do not develop in a vacuum. Are you beginning to see how all of these attributes—and others—are connected? A character’s moral compass is directly related to her family background. Cultural influences make themselves known in the social backdrop of her life.