From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.
I recently submitted an application for a volunteer position that included a prompt for a brief personal essay: Tell us about yourself.
I’ve been thinking about that prompt in the context of writing fiction, since I’m transitioning from a manuscript whose characters I’ve gotten to know over six years to a brand new world with characters I’m still feeling out. I’d really love for them to tell me more about themselves.
When a reader comes to a story and meets new characters, it’s with this same question. But readers aren’t afraid to pry—in fact they’re expecting to—so the real question they’re asking is much deeper: Who are you, anyway?
In my opinion, this question must be answered on at least three levels. Today I’m going to walk through what those levels are, how to touch on them in your own writing, and how they interact with one another.
1. We are who people perceive us to be.
In middle and high school, this reality seems inescapable. Even after that, most of us remain conscious of it for the rest of our lives.
This is the most basic way to answer the Who are you? question: it includes age, race, cohesion to gender norms, and perceived sexuality. It includes the way we dress, the color of our hair, our posture and mannerisms and accents, the names we were given and the names we choose to use.
We might not like it, but humans are creatures of habit and prone to snap judgments: Who we are on the surface will always color the way we’re able to navigate the world. This reality should impact our characters too. That’s why you can’t only tell me that a character is, for example, an immigrant: in order to believe it, I need to see how that surface-level detail impacts other aspects of their lives.
Which brings us to:
2. We are the person inside our own heads.
The image we project on the outside matters, but so do the conversations that happen in the privacy of our own brains. These conversations are directly impacted by how others perceive us, but they also include all those moments of self-doubt, of pride, of desire, of superiority, of cruelty, and of regret that we might never share with other people but that are nevertheless part of our identity.
This comes through especially clearly for characters in first-person or close third, but it should be felt in any perspective. Who we are in our heads informs the things we choose to talk about and how we talk about them. It informs the options we think we have available to us and our perceptions of right and wrong.
The people we are in our heads are often the most interesting, and these quirky, specific things are what bring characters most to life—but to be fully realized you have to be honest about them, including times when your characters’ values and beliefs come into conflict.
In the privacy of our heads, we tell ourselves secrets. When we’re writing a story, we’re letting our characters share those secrets with strangers.
And in sharing those secrets, we realize that…
3. We are the choices we make, given the constraints we’re handed.
We all have constraints. Some constraints hang out for everyone to notice (see point 1), while others live below the surface but are still very real, including trauma, mood disorders, and emotional baggage. Other constraints might include income, geography, and the expectations of the communities you’re part of. In a story, a character’s constraints will also include the overarching plot.
What we believe influences what we do, though it doesn’t control it. A character might believe himself to be brave, but that won’t stop him from committing a hit-and-run. A character might believe herself weak, but that doesn’t preclude her from jumping into a lake to save a drowning child. Individuals who seemingly face the same set of constraints may react differently given their personalities, experiences, and other constraints we may not see or fully understand.
It’s easy to write characters who do stuff, but that’s not actually why readers are coming to your story. More often than not, they’re picking up your story because they want to see characters make tough choices (and subsequently do stuff). Your plot should seem to grow out of these choices, rather than the other way around.
The more clearly you’ve drawn your characters’ internal life, the easier it will be for you to understand the choices they would make (beyond what the plot might want to dictate). This will also make it easier for a reader to understand and believe a character’s choices, even if they disagree with them.
When you ignore one or more of these levels of identity, you create flat characters.
You won’t capture everything in the first draft, or even in the second. Think about how much learning you’re still doing about yourself, and you’re inside your own head 24/7!
Give yourself permission to write flat characters as you come to understand who they are. But also push yourself to ask how each aspect of their identity informs the others. How do their beliefs contradict or facilitate their actions? How do their actions cause others to change their opinions about them? How do the opinions of others influence their self identity and their future choices?
The interactions between how others react to us, what we tell ourselves, and what we choose to do in a given situation are what make us fully human. They’re what make us fascinating and contradictory and frustrating and heroic and unique.
So. With that in mind, let’s go craft some characters and find out who they are, anyway.