What gives a character authenticity? Elaborate backstory and emotion are not enough; instead, the writer needs to dig deeper.
Dec. 8, 2020 · 6 Min Read
Quirks, detailed backstory, and raw emotion are not enough to enliven a character. Some characters don’t seem to be able to shake their blandness—writers reiterate and revise, draft after draft, but still feel unsatisfied with the authenticity of their creations. There is a distance between the writer and his creation; protagonists feel apathetic, and antagonists fall into familiar tropes. This issue is more prevalent in commercial fiction, but it can also crop up in literary writing. In this article we’ll look at two crucial, often overlooked, ingredients of characterization: the character’s self-identity and perception of the world.
Common Pitfalls of Characterization
Before we look at techniques that serve to enliven characters, we have to analyze some of the common pitfalls of character construction.
The impact of quirks and elaborate backstory
Character quirks (also known as tags) and well-developed backstory can add depth to a character. However, they are not effective on their own. A character is the sum of what he’s been through, of course—but if his interactions and choices don’t reflect that, then the backstory means little. Additionally, writers sometimes give their characters a differentiating quirk in the hope that it will make them stand out. Eyepatches, nasally voices, certain types of outfits, odd hobbies… the list is extensive. However, character tags often aren’t integrated into the story enough to be impactful—for the most part, they act as mere visual identifiers for the reader. Needless to say, these additions rarely add to a character’s gravitas.
The impact of musing and dialogue
Another common misconception is that a character can be made fully rounded with only dialogue and internal musings. True, both of these are important—but again, when used in a vacuum they rarely add depth to a character. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes after reading a lengthy passage detailing a character’s hate, anger, love, fear etc., then you’ve seen this mistake. Why the annoyance? Usually because the emotions feel forced; what the character feels does not match reality. When that happens, the reader cannot empathize—and when the reader cannot empathize, the character feels bland.
Now that we’ve looked at some misconceptions, let’s look at the facets that determine a character’s emotional pull: self-identity and perception of the world. Please bear in mind that many aspects (both structural and stylistic) contribute to the authenticity of a character. However, clearly defined self-identity and perception form the basis for most well-written characters.
How does the character see himself? This may seem like a redundant question; many writers fall back on the argument that actions define the character. This is true—but a character’s self-identity should inform his actions. If a character’s self-identity is poorly defined, then what he does will come across as familiar.
For example, let’s say your character is a rich banker with a well-established backstory. He comes from an old-money family in Connecticut. Naturally, he attended an Ivy League university—the same institution his father and grandfather attended. For good measure, the writer gives him a quirk—let’s say a superstition. He does not travel or go to work on Fridays. At first glance, it may seem like our banker is well rounded. However, this is not the case—we’ve only listed biographical data, the type of facts that would be at home in a cover letter for a job application. What does the banker need to be authentic? Self-identity.
Without a solid self-identity, the banker’s actions (no matter how outrageous) will feel familiar. If he steals, the reader will chalk it down to white-collar fraud. If he murders, well, rich people have murdered before. You get the point. However, what if the banker harbors a secret hate toward capitalism? He sees himself as a revolutionary fighting for a cause greater than himself. There is now a reason for him to commit heinous actions against other bankers and, what’s more, the reader can empathize—even though the character’s actions are criminal. His firm beliefs about himself (a revolutionary) gives him momentum as a character. In his mind, his actions are justified, which makes him feel instantly more real. Note that reader empathy has not been generated by backstory; his contrasting upbringing is interesting, but not logical. The reader understands because the character understands himself.
Note that self-identity is not the same as musing; introspection is marked by buts, ifs, and maybes. Self-identity is identifiable as I am.
Perception of the world
Self-identity is not enough to construct a rounded character—outward perception is equally important. How does your character see the world? What does he envy? What does he find humorous? What would he change if he could? Your character’s rejection, acceptance, or apathy regarding his reality will influence his actions and decisions. Yet how does perception make a character more relatable and authentic? By validating or invalidating his self-identity.
Let’s return to our banker for a moment. He sees himself as a revolutionary fighting against a greedy machine. If not for the system he grew up in, he might not have had the same likes and disdains. Would the same banker have equally rebellious tendencies if he grew up in a communist state? Perhaps—he might have been an activist trying to overthrow a wholly different system. Perhaps he would be entirely content. That’s the point—how a character reacts to his surroundings is dependent on how he sees his surroundings.
For a character to be fully rounded, his perception of the world has to be an active contributor. It cannot be a footnote. If your protagonist exists in a vacuum, unaffected by the world around him, then he will feel robotic. Think about real life. Why do you naturally gravitate toward certain types of people? What do you like about your friends? They most likely have the same outlook on life as you do. Most of the time, the alignment of these values determines the depth of the bond. How do they arrive at their conclusions? By having an opinion about their environment (a perception of the world). When characters show an even higher degree of perceptiveness, readers’ empathy and interest are stoked.
How to Reinforce a Characters’ Self-Identity and Perception
The answer to this question depends on how far into your novel you are. Obviously, it is easier to conceptualize and implement if you’re at the beginning of your story. If you’re a few revisions in, and you’re afraid that your characters still aren’t engaging enough, then it is trickier. The latter will most likely require cuts, rewriting, and a close analysis of character interactions. Additionally, character construction depends on how much you plan before you start writing. If you’re an outliner, then you’ll be more inclined to fully plan the character before putting her on the page. No matter how you approach character building, the following considerations will help you construct a character with real gravitas.
Never mind what your character will become—what is she throughout the novel? Can the reader open your book anywhere and, within a few pages, know the present slant of your protagonist? If not, then she might need better definition. Remember, extensive musing often engenders a wishy-washy feeling. What is your character’s sense of self? Even if she’s insecure, what about her does she know with concrete fact to be true? What about the world is she absolutely convinced about? Remember, good characters are always opinionated—if not outwardly, then to themselves. This immediacy must be evident in dialogue as well as description (if the point of view is intimate) and the rest of the narrative.
Without conflict, there is no story. Conflict is especially important for affirming or invalidating a character’s self-identity and perception of the world. If the character isn’t constantly challenged (either overtly or subtly), then there is no need for her to define her self-identity and perception of the world. How is this challenge conveyed? Dialogue, action, situations, and plot events are used to illicit a character’s I am. This state consists of conviction and action. What does she feel when challenged, and how does she react? How does she impose herself and her beliefs on those around her? It does not matter if your character will eventually change; as mentioned, immediacy is important.
At manuscriptmentoring.com, we carefully analyze all facets of our clients’ writing. This naturally entails character development. To write a believable, likable character, empathy and authenticity are needed—both in backstory and identity. If you need help and personalized advice on how to grow the characters in your fiction, then have a look at our Services page.