So far, the characters have been stick men who lurch their way through the chronology. I do the chronology first because I need to know what the characters are going to do before I can build the people likely to do it, and also because the chronology brings in characters I didn’t know I’d need until I sketched it out. By now, I have a list of characters but not much else. It’s time to put some flesh on those bones.
Build and program
In creating the characters, I have two objectives. The first is to make sure the characters are people who are going to do what is required of them. That’s important because characters in fiction are often expected to do some pretty weird things. If the resolution of the story requires the protagonist to confront a villain, jump off a cliff or strangle their spouse, then the character map needs to give us someone who would do that. Robert J Sawyer likens characters to robots that the writer builds and programs to execute the tasks required by the story. Following his analogy, the character map is the blueprint.
The second, more nebulous aim, is to generate microtension. Microtension is difficult to define, and I’ll be posting on it in more detail in the future. In brief, it’s those small things that constantly remind the reader that something is out of kilter. They are the references to what a character wants but can’t have. A sense of constant threat that may come from the kettle blowing yet another fuse when mother-in-law is demanding her Earl Grey as much as from the incoming asteroid. A disconnect between what a character says and what another character understands them to mean. Microtension is what turns a narrative from a list of events to a living thing that won’t let a reader’s eyes leave the page.
Because microtension is an accumulation of small things rather than a few large things, it’s impossible to plan in detail. We have to set up a situation where it will arise organically, which is where the character mapping comes in. The characters need to strike sparks off each other. Even if they’re on the same side, they need to compete with each other, to pursue different goals or to be hobbled by prejudices against each other. A harmoniously married couple working toward a common goal won’t generate as much microtension as a failing marriage, unless the protagonist is a third wheel who feels excluded by their harmony. Two guys on a camping trip won’t generate much microtension if the reader thinks they’ll just shrug their shoulders and laugh if one of them forgot the can opener. The reader needs to know they will fall out over it, even if no can opener is ever mentioned.
The factory floor
So how do we build those characters? My approach is to create a table with a list of the characters across the top of the page and a list of attributes down the side. I then write a few words about each attribute for each character. It’s not necessary to do this for everyone who walks through the door and walks straight out again. I find a short story has space for a maximum of three properly developed characters, so too much detail on the supporting cast risks bloating the story.
As for the list itself, I can divide it into attributes that I use for all my stories and attributes that are very dependent on the story. Here are my favourite attributes with a few words of explanation. If you use this as a starting point, you’ll probably find you develop your own ideas about what should be on it.
Attributes for all stories
Name Some basic rules for naming characters are not to pick anything too strange unless there’s a good reason for it, make sure it’s something easily pronounceable so the reader doesn’t stumble out of the narrative every time they see it, and try to make it gender specific unless you’re being deliberately ambiguous.
Age Obvious, really.
Gender Worth more thought than it sometimes gets. If a character has a cluster of traits that strike me as stereotypically masculine or feminine, it can be worth flipping their gender to break them out of that stereotype.
Brief description No need to describe the character as if you’re co-ordinating a manhunt for them, but a general description and a couple of defining features are helpful to have.
Best and worst memories These will define the character, and give you something to refer back to when it comes to foreshadowing the character’s behaviour. It’s an oversimplification as most people are defined by hundreds if not thousands of their memories, not just two. But then most people are far too complex to fully describe in a short story. To refer back to the robot analogy, these memories are a key part of the programming.
Greatest fear and desire The most interesting characters are the ones trapped between these two. They may have a compelling reason to make the choice they make, but they may also have a compelling reason to make a different choice. These are the two horns of a dilemma that’s ready made for pinning protagonists.
Most prized possession Most people have one, and whether it’s their grandmother’s paste diamond wedding ring or their shiny new car tells the reader a lot about them.
What do they do with their leisure time? You may not plan to give the character any of that, but what they do with it says a lot about them. It also gives them something to be doing other than sleeping or staring at the wall if the story does need to pull them out of their leisure time.
Attributes that depend on the story
Nationality / ethnicity This matters if there’s a range of nationalities or ethnicities within the story. If it happens in a homogeneous culture, it’s redundant.
Greatest achievement For an achievement-orientated character in an achievement orientated culture, this can be defining. The character may be trying to live up to a previous achievement or place an absurd amount of value on a minor achievement of ten years ago. Alternatively, the characters or culture may not lend themselves to the retrospection inherent in past achievements, in which case this is best left out.
First sexual experience Relevant if the character is going to have another sexual experience in the course of the story. If not , there’s no reason to mention sexuality at all.
Relationship with mother and father I’m ambivalent about this one. When I started out, I used angst-ridden parental relationships as a shortcut to explaining my characters’ motivations. Flashbacks to an overbearing father or demanding mother can explain a great deal of odd behaviour. Then a friend who had critiqued a few of my stories pointed out that it was becoming a running theme. Apart from beginning to get rather Freudian, I was getting lazy about motivating my characters. On the other hand, it’s a relevant consideration for a family orientated culture and sometimes it’s necessary.
Favourite film or book I find this useful to sum up a character’s philosophy, but it doesn’t always work because it’s so culturally specific. Characters in 11th century Scotland are unlikely to have a favourite of either. If the setting is in the future, referencing present day culture risks giving the impression that nothing worthwhile will ever be made or written after the end of next week. It’s useful for a contemporary setting, but otherwise best left out. Alternatively, it may help to fix a character in your own mind if they have a book or film as a motif, even if they’re never likely to have read or seen it and it’s never mentioned.
Having completed the map, things may have occurred to you that don’t fit into the attributes above. If so, it’s worth adding a brief biography to cover them. Don’t get carried away. The purpose of a character’s backstory is to support the story contained in the chronology. An over-complicated backstory will demand explanations and distract from the story rather than contribute to it. Keep it to a few sentences.
It may also be worth jotting down a brief description of the minor characters who didn’t warrant mapping.
By this time, you know more about each character than the story will ever mention. The map is not a checklist of items to work in, but a description of the characters in enough depth to make their behaviour consistent. By now, you know each character well enough to know how they will act in a given situation. It also gives you a collection of memories and anecdotes to roll out as and when you need them.
I find that while chronologies involve as much creative destruction as creation, I am far more meticulous about character mapping. I usually write them once, and much more slowly than I write chronologies. That said, there is no reason you shouldn’t be as messy and iterative about them as I described with chronologies if that works for you.
There’s plenty of discussion on character creation around. Unfortunately, the most often repeated advice is to ‘create engaging characters’, usually without any suggestion about how to go about it. I would suggest having a look at what Rich Hamper has to say, as it’s a bit more practically based than most.
Dust off the chronologies from the last exercise. Even if you didn’t manage to get them to the point you were fully satisfied, you should have a list of who the major and minor characters are. For each major character, make a list of the character attributes relevant for that story. Use all of the essential attributes above, as many of the non-essentials as you like and any others you come up with. Use it to map your major characters and add any backstory that doesn’t fit into the map. Then jot down a one or two sentence description of each minor character.
Now fire up the cliché detector again and use it to scrutinise what you have. Ask yourself honestly if you’ve drawn up a character from central casting, or from your favourite film or TV show. If the red light flashes and the siren goes off, go back and change a few attributes until you don’t recognise them.