Let’s Get Really Personal: Characterization

Every adult human on this planet is a product of his or her childhood.  Writers ignore this fact at their own peril.  Different experiences in childhood produce different adults.  But it’s not true that the same experiences will produce the same adults.  Why?  Because the number of variables is huge.  For example, what happened to the child before the set of experiences shared with another child?  Those earlier experiences will affect the way the child processes and assimilates the shared experiences.

Characters need to have childhoods (if they’re not child characters, or even if they are).  To get to know a character (and avoid running into characterization problems later), a writer needs to spend time with his character in the character’s childhood.  This is getting really personal with a character.  None of it need appear in the story, of course, or perhaps one incident or issue could be used to give the character’s behavior depth and psychological meaning.  How does a writer enter a character’s childhood?

Write the character’s biography, focused on her early years.  Take an omniscient approach first, then write the biography from the point of view of her father, then from the POV of her mother, then write from the character’s POV.  What were her early talents?  Did she like school?  Was she social or withdrawn?  What happened one day that changed her life?  What happened to her that changed her parents?  More questions may come as the biography progresses.

Write the character’s childhood diary as if you’d just discovered it.  Capturing the child’s voice can give insight into the character and what’s important to him, his dreams, how he sees others, his thoughts about school, ideas about life.

Interview the character about his childhood.  Think about your own childhood and how you could be interviewed about it.  Use that as your guide.  Really listen to your character’s voice in your mind — if you don’t hear it yet, this exercise could help you find it.

Interview the character’s mother and father separately about her childhood.  This could include some history about how they got together and got married.  Their relationships with their own parents.  What were their goals and expectations for the character when she was a child?  Did they like her or dislike her?  Parents love their children, but don’t always like them.  Were there any problems when the character was a child?  What kind?  Other questions will come as you develop the interviews.

I have a series of questions that I ask myself about how I see the character I’m creating.  The answers change every time I go over the questions, as I get to know the character.  I’ve also interviewed characters to find out who they are.  With Evan Quinn, I knew certain things about his childhood up front: where he was born and grew up, the situation in which he lived as a child, his mentorship with his father’s best friend, and that he had a big childhood secret that affected the way he perceived the world and his relationship to it.

Another way to explore a character’s childhood is to talk with the other characters in the story — besides his parents if they’re in the story.  Did the character have a childhood best friend?  Has he known any of the other characters since childhood?  What do they remember about him as a child?

Children develop over 18 years (and beyond), and while they are not blank slates, what they experience and learn in childhood does affect them as adults.  For Evan, since he was an only child, it’s his relationships with his parents and his father’s best friend.  Adults have complete power over their children until at least middle school.  How the adults exercise that power affects their children profoundly, which I discovered was exactly the case with Evan.

Characters are not hard to get to know, although they will try to hide things from you.  If you spend  quality time with them, however, they may just decide to share their stories with you……


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