By Ruth DyckFehderau
Invariably, for me, memorable stories have one thing in common: believable, well-developed characters. In fact, I’d say a good story is driven NOT by plot at all, but by a character managing obstacles. “Plot,” Stephen King says, in On Writing, “is…the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Or, worse, clichéd, brittle, exhausted, and stereotyped.
If readers are to buy into a character, they need a vivid, utterly convincing, sensory reality. If it’s not specific enough, they won’t buy in. If it’s clichéd, then it’s not specific enough. They need characters complex enough not to be exploited by reductive everyone-in-this-category-is-the-same fantasies, rich enough not to be boring, fleshed out enough that any single event doesn’t define her/him/them. “Nice” is not a detail, and “queer” is not a personality trait.
The best technique I’ve found for creating that believable reality is to really know my characters so that I can anticipate what they would do or say in any situation. I do this, first, by researching real people who have a thing or two in common with the characters. People in the same line of work, perhaps, or people who move in similar social circles, or who’ve lived in the same region at the same time. I look at catalogues or newspapers they may have read or television shows/YouTube videos they might have watched. Increasingly, even for researching historical fiction, such resources are online.
The second thing I do, and which I’ll explain here at greater length, is to create an emotional resumé for each character – an imagined backstory that explains the character’s feelings and mindset and worldview, that drives the choices she/he/they make, that can determine how the character negotiates the obstacles I throw in the path.
On what side of the tracks was her childhood home? How did that affect her? Does she have siblings? What was the family dynamic? What is it now?
What was his first summer job? What were his high school grades in chemistry? In music?
Do their dialogue and diction reflect their hometown? Their reading habits? Their education? Do their gestures and body language reveal their mindset? Or is there something of a disconnect or façade? If so, why?
Is she articulate? Or does she fumble her words?
Does he have an iPhone? If so, what colour? How old is it?
Are they near-sighted? Does their voice take a nasal tone? If so, do they know?
Is she handy with a spade or an axe? Where did she pick up the skill?
Has he ever lied on a resumé? About what?
What does he read/watch? And in what format?
What do they prefer to wear? How often do they wear hats, and what kind? How do they feel about socks and sandals? About unpolished shoes? About stilettos?
What kind of car does she want? What kind of car does she drive? How does she feel about standard transmissions? How does she drive? Where on the steering wheel does she place her hands?
Manwich or croissant? Steak or tofu? Deep-fried or broiled? Beer or prosecco? Food allergies? To what? How do they feel about the Carolina Reaper? Or the much-milder Scotch bonnet? About tartare? About flavoured liqueurs?
What/who does he really need to control? Or not need to control? What happens when he loses control of something important to him? Does he have vestigial anxieties from formative events in which he was powerless? What does his anxiety look like? White knuckles? A super-human calm? Instant body heat? An addiction?
How would they defend, say, an act of theft? Or a cheating partner?
How would they respond to forgetting their wallet? To accidentally emailing the whole listserve? To deadlines? Barking dogs? Snow falling down the collar? Wearing black pants that rip on the day they wear yellow underwear? To Trump being re-elected? To recycling services being shut down? To electricity going down for a week? To missing the last bus?
Does she ignore or stomp in or prance through puddles?
How thoroughly does she clean her flat? Does her demeanour change if someone is watching her clean? Or if they’re angry at her?
Would he use the word “panties”? How does he feel about Bitcoin? Rihanna? Chopin? Board games? Vaccines? Winter camping? The Indian Act? A Black Lives Matter protest? A Pride march? Evangelicalism? The Gaza strip being bombed? About whatever event is in the news right now?
If they lived next door to you, what would piss you off?
What are their short- and long-term goals? What are the goals they won’t admit to having?
What do you see as her strengths/weaknesses? What does she see as her strengths/ weaknesses?
Do his behaviours make sense to you? To him? To whom might they seem irrational?
And then there are all the questions about specific cultural, racial, or religious backgrounds…
Believable characters grapple with power, with their place in the world, even when they think they’re grappling with the condo board or with dandelion roots. Beyond identity, what does your character grapple with? Why, exactly, do the condo board or dandelion roots stir up emotion? A well-crafted story has no good or bad characters, no sassy gay sidekicks or heart-of-gold sex workers. In their own stories, all the characters are protagonists. So who do they think they are?
Obviously, even over the course of a long novel, I’d never use all of this backstory. The point is that, with the answer to each question, I understand a little more about the personality behind the character. And the more I understand, the easier it is to write her/him/them in ways that are credible and compelling.
About the Author
Ruth DyckFehderau writes fiction and nonfiction, and teaches Creative Writing and English Lit at University of Alberta. Her shorter pieces have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, her book The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree (2017 CBHSSJB, distrib WLUP), written with James Bay Cree storytellers, is currently being translated into five languages, and I (Athena), a novel, is forthcoming in 2023 (NeWest). Currently, Ruth is working on another commission for the James Bay Cree: Finding Our Way Home: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree (Vol 1 forthcoming 2022, CBHSSJB, distrib WLUP). She has won many literary awards