Greetings Storytellers! We’re off to Part 3 of Crafting Rich Characters. In Part 1, we explored a character’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and quirks. In Part 2, we covered Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, and Occupations and Interests.
In this post, we’re going to look at Formative Backstories, Core Values, and The Lie. These are parts of the character that we can’t see, but they’ll impact your character’s thoughts, choices, and behavior.
All characters (unless they’re robots) have a formative life that shaped them and established their worldviews. In previous posts, I talked a little about the person as an individual, but a character is, or was, also part of a family or group. A child’s or young person’s experiences stay with them, and most people carry around some baggage from their formative years, both positive and negative.
This doesn’t mean you need to detail your character’s entire childhood in your story! But answering some basic questions will help explain a little about who your character is on the inside.
Here are some questions for exploring a character’s formative years:
- What was the character’s childhood like?
- How strong were/are the family ties?
- Where are the character’s parents and/or siblings?
- And my favorite: What significant event of the past shaped who the character is today?
(If I were only going to answer one question regarding a character’s childhood, that last one would be it. To appreciate the power of this, simply think back on your own life and the key experiences that you never forgot.)
- And finally, what was the character doing before the first page opened?
Core values often arise in response to a character’s upbringing. They may align with family/community values or be in complete opposition. A family with a core value of amassing wealth at all costs may produce a ruthlessly greedy character or one who rebels and lives on a commune.
Core values are tied to the character’s beliefs about people and the world, and they shape choices.
Consider tying the protagonist’s and villain’s core values to their plot goals. What is it they prize above all else? A vigilante may possess a burning desire for justice. A rising star may sacrifice fame for a core value of family.
Examples of core values: Wealth, honesty, loyalty, compassion, fame, authenticity, adventure, success, beauty, community, family, pleasure, faith, power, justice, knowledge, love, security, reputation, wisdom, etc.
Here are some questions for exploring a character’s core values:
- What were they taught to dislike or disapprove of as a child?
- What pushes their buttons?
- What do they believe that’s not accurate?
- What do they believe that’s not so nice, but accurate in their world?
- What will they fight for?
- What are they ashamed of?
The Lie is related to a character’s incorrect belief or lack of information. He or she is operating based on values, opinions, or knowledge that isn’t accurate. Information may be hidden by foes or allies or by his own biases. The point is – the character’s ducks aren’t in a row, and he needs to overcome this deficit to grow as a person or for the plot to resolve.
Lies are rampant in our world, and we only need to turn on the news to see how they impact choices and behavior. Lack of information or incorrect information leads people to make terrible decisions, even when well-intentioned.
What we’re talking about here is what the main character can’t see or doesn’t know, at least not at first. The character misinterprets her fiancé’s nights out as cold feet. The museum’s alarm went off but it seems nothing was stolen. The boy doesn’t believe he has any magical abilities. The man won’t hire the best talent because she’s too giggly.
Red herrings are perfect examples of The Lie – the character is operating off a faulty assumption (and so is the reader). The fiancé’s sneaky behavior was really about setting up a marriage proposal. The thieves replaced the stolen artwork with fakes. The boy discovers his power. The giggler shows her savvy and makes the giant sale! Love needs to be confessed, the final clue uncovered, the bias dispelled. The monstrous alien saves the hero’s life, proving it wasn’t such a monster after all. Peace is now possible!
In the above examples, the Lie is a big element of the plot, but it doesn’t have to be. Use the Lie to create one more obstacle for the character to overcome, even if it’s a small one.
That concludes Part 3.
Now that we’ve covered aspects of the character that we can’t observe, what’s planned for Part 4? My favorite part of character development: Secrets, The Big Fear, and The Mask.