By Margaret Lucke
Books and classes on fiction writing tell aspiring authors that one key to a successful novel is to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.
Easier said than done. Yet as readers we can all think of books we loved because of a character who seemed vivid and alive, and other books that fell flat to us because the characters were flat as well. And as writers we strive to write the former kind, not the latter.
A handout I use in my fiction writing classes is based loosely on Lajos Egri's classic book The Art of Dramatic Writing, in which he describes the three dimensions of characters as physiological, sociological, and psychological. The handout lists a series of questions, arranged in Egri's three categories, that we can ask about our characters as we are getting to know them. (If you'd like a copy of the handout, contact me through my website and I will be happy to send it to you.)
The last two questions, which come under the 'psychological' banner, are perhaps the most important:
Fondest Dream or Desire -- What does this character want more than anything else? How far is she willing to go to achieve it?
Darkest Fear -- What does this character fear more than anything else? How far is he willing to go to avoid it?
Desire and fear are great motivating factors. These emotions impel the actions our characters take and the decisions they make, though the character may not always be aware of the role that the feeling plays.
Naturally desires and fears come in both small and large sizes. In the morning I desire a cup of tea; in the evening I'm afraid that bad traffic on the way to Cineplex will make me miss the start of the movie. Those are examples of the small kind, with little consequence for me or the story I'm taking part in -- unless the tea turns out to be poisoned or the late arrival puts me in position to witness a crime.
It's the large ones that are the driving forces. The desire for fortune, fame, love, justice, success in whatever way the character defines that word. The fear of pain, of being vulnerable, of the unfamiliar or unknown, of a grievous loss, of a disaster that might or might not occur.
Once you've figured out what your character wants most and what she is afraid of, it's time to drop her into your story. What does she stand to gain from this situation, and what does she stand to lose? What steps will she take to try to bring about the outcome she desires and avoid the one she fears? How will her desires and fears, and the actions she takes because of them, assist or impede the desires, fears, and actions of other characters, and what will they do as a result?
Now the story situation is beginning to take shape as a well-developed plot.
Of course creating characters takes more than answering questions on a checklist. Characters have minds of their own, and when you're halfway into writing the story, they have a way of letting you know that whatever you assumed about them is wrong. If this happens it's best to follow their lead and not try to force them to fit your preconceived notions.
But having an idea of their desires and fears is a good way to begin.