Creating characters can be a lot of fun, provided you avoid developing a Mary Sue character you’re overly attached to. Heavily-idealized and pet characters are hard to kill when they need to be and can be burdensome on the reader. The side effect to creating a Mary Sue character is your reaction to the situation when someone doesn’t like your work. I’ve seen many writers get more defensive because that character means something to them that goes above and beyond the call of: “Well, I love my work.”
Gaming has helped me create well-rounded characters; there are some games, like Spirit of the Century, that focus on themed characters. (In this case, pulp.) Even within gaming, though, the character you design is rarely at the end of their journey. They always–relationships, career, aptitude, skills, etc.–have room to flourish.
Backgrounds can be even more difficult because, on the surface, it may be hard to design one that isn’t blah and boring. In the U.S., we base a lot of opinions on what someone does for a living. So career is often a big factor in determining a character background. Not so everywhere else in the world. While the “job” is a bucket that people can relate to, it’s not everything. Once the job is determined, I’ve seen some authors immediately default to childhood background as a way of fleshing out character motivation. Even then, many stereotypes are often derived from a troubled teen, an abused child, a runaway.
To get around the stereotypes, some authors develop characters using tarot cards. Corrine Kenner has an online Tarot for Writers workshop. On the surface, the structure is what I’d expect from such a course. Others, like myself, take a page from astrology in a different way.
The book I’ve listed in this post is called, The Element Encyclopedia of Birthdays. When I’m stuck developing a character, I turn to this resource and sift through the pages.
Because this book is based on a calendar year, there are three hundred and sixty five different characters to choose from as opposed to a book of archetypes, which traditionally has between six to forty-eight. Within each entry, there are additional opportunities to drill down and add depth. A typical entry isn’t just a list of attributes, it tells a story about the person born on that particular day. Take August 19th, for example. This is the “Day of the Editor.” Let’s call this guy “Bob.” Bob’s greatest challenge is revealing the real you. Positive and negative attributes are listed, along with a prompt for self-improvement. Image is important to those who share his birthday. Although Bob’s detail-oriented, in part because he’s deeply insecure, if he’s able to move past looking at everything as an opportunity for his own self-interest, he can find courage and free himself from his troubles.
As an author I say: “Wow, this is great inspiration!” So, a character who’s heavily focused on image might believe that even the smallest secrets can hurt her reputation — even though that might not be the case. There’s a certain amount of self-delusion that can come across to the reader in good dialog, romantic relationships, etc. In Bob’s character background, I’d develop trends of behavior based on common misunderstandings. No one else feels Bob is this terrible awful guy, but he’s pretty sensitive about innocuous comments. Maybe he’s switched careers a lot. Maybe he’s had trouble in relationships. Maybe he’s only had one job and works in the basement. Maybe he’s in a crappy relationship and is jealous of anyone who’s happy.
The other really nice thing about the entries in The Element Encyclopedia of Birthdays, is that there’s a lot of other information that supports the idea of being on a journey or a life path. Regardless of what day Bob was born on, when I write about him on a subconscious level I know that he’s come from somewhere and he’s also got some place to go. Bob is not a static automaton who is a certain way, all of a sudden. After all, characters are not photographs — they’re plants. While you bring them to life in your stories, a good character will always have room to grow.
That, my dear readers, is the trick to adding depth to your character backgrounds. Instead of assigning what you’re comfortable with, look at Bob’s psychology or mindset to figure out character motivations on a spectrum. From there, you can look at multiple options for what Bob might do and free your character from the tried-and-true.
Hey, I think that rhymed! Hrmm, I wonder if I could write a story about a character who couldn’t do anything but rhyme…