In the Interstices

An author wishing to develop unique characters can choose from a wide variety of methods. I’ll discuss one that works in a plot-driven drama here, since that best suits the abilities of so many fledgling authors. It involves a way to insert background information on characters, since the forces that have shaped their lives before the book starts helps to set them apart.

The first step is to draw up notes for a character. They are placed in a separate file, filling up as many pages as you like. Keep in mind, though, that you won’t be using that much of the material as background passages in the text. In a plot-driven book you don’t have much down time. With this method you allude to things that have happened, only occasionally spelling out the whole story. But you need to know the story yourself in the first place in order to drop hints about it.

Then you look for material in the text that would serve, in stage parlance, as cues. If a hero had a strict father, for instance, a similar figure like a military superior might cause the hero to curse that strictness under his breath. Keep in mind, the reader has never met the father, doesn’t really know anything about him, but by the time the character has cursed military strictures for the third or fourth time, now we’re curious. What did happen when the hero was growing up?

Then you pop a story that illustrates in full the allusions the character has been making. This could include the father’s imposing hard labor, like chopping wood all day long during a freezing winter. In that story you flesh out the hints you have been dropping, and if the story is awful enough, you have a “payoff” for the intrigue you have been mounting.

This method suffices for minor character building, but keep in mind that the events that take place during the course of the book still have the most impact. Once you have shown the protagonist’s instability, because she has been traumatized by an issue in the past, you then have to put her in danger because she cannot control her irrational reactions. You just assign the father figure, say, to a character that she actively combats. Then your background pieces will bear full fruit.

Exercise: Identify three main traits that your lead character(s) possesses. Write out in a separate file at least three traumatic incidents in his childhood that highlight how the character was molded in those ways. Then scheme toward the future. What present-day incidents could you devise that are logical outcomes of those traits?

“One can never produce anything as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about.”
—H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.