If you think about when you first met your best friend, you’ll discover one special thing this person did to get your attention.
For example, my best friend walked into a restaurant one evening wearing a cowboy hat. It wasn’t the type of place a woman would normally wear a cowboy hat. As a matter of fact, everyone else wore formal attire. This little lady walked right into a ritzy place wearing a cowboy hat and jeans with holes in the knees, and proceeded to act as if she owned the place. Two hours later, she did own the place; psychologically speaking. Everyone wanted to dance with her, and everyone rushed to speak with her. Why? Because she had the nerve to break protocol; she had the confidence to be herself while everyone else struggled to conform to standards they thought necessary to create and maintain an “in” crowd. Knowing this one thing about the lady drove everyone to want to know more.
What did your best friend do to get your attention?
We build character in writing the same way we learn about other people. No one gets to know another person overnight. We may want to, but it never works out that way. When we’re dating, before we say ‘yes’ to the big question, we want to know how our ‘significant other’ treats people: a parent, a waitress, friends, authority figures, employees, etc. We study them for clues to their base personality, and we judge them by what they say and do while they interact with their environments. We also judge them by what others say about them, or how they react to them. (If six different animals show a blatant distaste for your girlfriend or boyfriend, you may want to reconsider the relationship). The way one character reacts to stress and pressure normally differs drastically to the way another character reacts, because people are different and quite unique in their reactions. Your characters need that uniqueness as well. Otherwise, you’re creating carbon copy characters and readers will see right through them.
So, let’s ask ourselves: What makes Harry Potter such an interesting character? For one, right off the bat he’s depicted as famous, yet humbly famous, as he doesn’t understand his fame. Now, I ask you, how appealing is that? All the characters in the story react to him in awe. He’s “the boy who lived.” Everyone wants to know how he pulled that off (including Harry). So, here’s this kid everyone in the story reacts to with curiosity and awe. These character reactions dictate to the reader how we should judge this boy and how we should feel about him. We should be in awe too, he’s famous. Secondly, because Dumbledore is depicted as the ultimate good guy, and because he’s very protective of Harry, the reader begins to feel that way as well. This is all we have to know to incite our interest in Mr. Potter. Note that the narrator doesn’t “tell” us Harry is famous, the characters do. As the story progresses, we get to know more and more about Harry as he interacts with his friends, his professors, his family, etc. A little bit at a time, just as we get to know our own friends and family. The difference is, in fiction, we also get an inside look, a more intimate experience, as we’re privy to inner monologue as well. This, we never get in real life, unless we’re powerful psychics.
For a quick exercise, try to think of three different situations in which characters in your favorite story reacted to another character and how those reactions influenced your feelings and opinions.
Consider the following example:
Allison leaned across the table at the library and whispered, “I don’t like her. She’s a thief. Brody saw her taking stuff from the shelf at the dime store. How can you trust a thief?” Candace raised an eyebrow, nodded emphatically, and said, “She’s not old enough to be out of school, but she’s never here.” Always the one to argue, Melissa broke into the conversation, “She’s homeless, you twits. You’d steal too, if it was the only way to feed yourself and a baby. That’s right, her mother left her to take care of an infant. Kid’s not even out of diapers yet.”
From the example above, you can see how easy it is to form an opinion and then have it broken at any point during the course of a story. Used strategically, the effect can be powerful.
Here’s another question we must ask ourselves as writers: Is my story happening to my main character, or is my main character happening to my story? If you want in-depth characterization, choose the latter approach. Not quite meaning to, Harry Potter happens to Hogwarts, not the other way around. That’s the type of character and story most readers prefer.
For more on fleshing out characters, I recommend John Gardner’s, “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.” Regardless of your writing history or status, this book is a must have/must read for creative fiction writers everywhere.