Writing 101: Character Consequences
Characters are defined by three things:
1. Their personality
2. Their motivations
3. Their backgrounds
As writers we generate a chemical reaction which brings these three elements together for our protagonists. (And often the antagonist too!). These elements won't always share equal influence. One may outweight the others. However, when we develop these characters we need to think about the consequences of how these elements develop. That's what this post is about, looking through the lens of the impact any one of these elements will have on a character, thereby defining them.
Let me illustrate. In my novel 'The Bastard from Fairyland', its protagonist is a member of the Fae. They are a long-lived race, measuring lifetimes in centuries. The central premise of Robin, the main character, is how this longevity influences his personality and his motivations. To refer to my 3 elements again - it is his background that plays the key role here. He's lived a violent life as a warrior, been abused for much of it, misunderstood and isolated from those he loves. For centuries. In developing this guy, I had to ask myself, what impact would this have on someone? In a way, it's a variation of the Bill Murray character in Groundhod Day - you can only live a certain way for so long before you need change. What changes take place when you are embittered, angry and feel that you've been treated badly for millennia?
This post poses questions that I hope will help you to identify the central tenet of your character, the element on which you hang everything else. What consequence defines this character? So that it influences their personality, their motivations and their background.
What is their life-defining experience?
What one thing in your life has shaped you into who you are? You can only choose one! We often don't know unless we think about it carefully. Psychiatrists make a living, asking this question! But you need to identify the one thing that affects your protagonist (and antagonist, don't forget) more than anything. It might be the death of a family member, a humiliating event in childhood, a trauma, a sudden and unexpected change in lifestyle (like bankruptcy).
Now plot a sequence showing how that event has shaped them. For instance, the childhood humiliation makes them nervous, insecure, afraid of further humiliation. This prevents them from seeking the career they have always dreamed about. That frustration turns into resentment, aimed at the cause of the humiliation, their self-esteem reaches rock bottom, they suffer from depression, anxiety. They find alcohol is a good way of dealing with it so they drink.
And this is the point where we meet them, at the start of their story. Insecure, awkward, drunk. And yet for whatever reason, they have to combat these factors to "save the day" as the protagonist. Now we have an interesting, well-rounded character whose actions are founded on that humiliation. It may not feature much in the story, it's a flashback, a confession, a regular dream. But its consequences are massive!
Who has been their greatest influence?
We encounter lots of people in the course of our lives. Some will influence us enormously. Family members when we are young, as we reach adulthood it might be a teacher or employer. It might be a close friend who has stood by through thick and thin. It might be a mentor of some kind (such as in sport). My question - who is this person and what are the consequences of that influence?
Remember, the influence doesn't need to be either good or bad. It may not even be visible to the protagonist (this is often a cause for issues later on!). For instance, The Friend. The person who is loyal, trustworthy, fun to be around. Yet impulsive too. They mock the protagonist's natural caution and provoke them into doing something risky, unpredictable. The outcome is dramatic. Life changing.
Or. The Friend isn't as ambitious. They ridicule the protagonists need for self-improvement at some point. It triggers an argument, a separation. The protagonist's guilt over this separation causes them to question their actions, especially when the Friend does something wrong. They should have been there to help.
The story begins at this point - tension in a long-established relationship caused by different motivations.
What is their greatest regret? Or their greatest mistake?
Every story needs an element of conflict, the same is true for characters; I'm talking internal conflict here. Without it they are dull and more able to cope with the demands the story will place on them. We must invest our characters with weaknesses. A great way to do this is for them to have made a mistake in their background - or done something they regret (which may have been necessary but wasn't a mistake). William Styron wrote a book on just this. Sophie's Choice is a story about one character's regret at having to make a life and death decision between her two children. The repurcussions of that regret/mistake are what stay with them long after the event itself and dictate who they are as a character. For instance, the blood-soaked warrior who's taken so many lives each one haunts him now. In a favourite fantasy novel of mine, Steven McKinnon's 'Symphony of the Wind' his protagonist is captured and unable to save the woman he loves from being tortured and killed. It turns the guy into a disallusioned, empty shell of a man. So consider what regrets you can give your protagonists.
What makes the character different? So they stand out? Become an outcast?
The protagonist needs something that makes them unusual, different to the majority of other people. In speculative fiction this is easy to achieve in simple ways - they're an alien, they possess magical ability, they're an android, they've been trained as an assassin from the age of six!
But what are the consequences of that difference? How do they react to being an outcast? Are they mistreated? Subjected to abuse and prejudice? How do they react to this? Do those reactions change over time? (They should!) Does this person shrink away from others for this reason or do they celebrate their difference? What repurcussions happen as a result? And remember the importance of internal conflict - their behaviour might be only bravado. Inside they are afraid, intimidated. Angry even. How might this 'inner self' manifest in their outward behavour eventually?
What is their big secret?
Every protagonist worth their salt needs a terrible secret, don't they? It can be a factor that drives the story - how will they keep it hidden? What lengths will they go to? Will they kill for it? Or must they run away? Who else knows about it - and how does it affect relationships. Hiding a secret requires tension - when will the secret get out. Because it must. Who gives the game away, and why? For the person with the secret that tension exists between everyone who knows the truth so trust comes into play here. How far will that trust go? What challenges will test it? For inspiration you only need look at the storylines of any soap! I'm talking Big Secret here (so not an affair!). It's on the scale of Darth Vadar being Luke's dad!
This post has been all about looking at the consequences of one factor and how they affect a person. Those effects can influence motivation, relationships and personality. BUT. Consequences are like a line of dominoes, knock one over and they all fall. My point is this: work out the sequence of these consequences so it impacts upon these three elements (in red). I was once told in a writing workshop that the author needs to keep defining the character's prime characteristic on a regular basis (once per chapter ideally). This doesn't mean saying the same thing! It means finding another means to establish the information - and this 'consequence dominoes' idea does that for you. It's what others say to them, it appears in their behaviour, their conversations, their internal monologues, their treatment by other people (which will differ depending on each individual).
Final tip: I'm a great believer in writing exercises that reinforce the characterisation. I make a point of writing short stories which explore these qualities, you can see some examples here. The events in the short stories probably won't appear in your novel but they will go a long way to defining them for you!