Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books with characters that have felt ever-so-slightly flat. On the surface it seems as if these characters have been constructed perfectly — they have likes and dislikes, flaws and strengths. My poor brain has been working overtime trying to figure out what’s wrong, what crucial element has been missing in these characters.
I think I’ve finally figured it out. The missing element, the thing that’s holding these characters back from truly popping on the page? Time. These characters were defined purely through their relationships to the things around them. They seemed to have near non-existent histories and were unaware that such a thing as the future existed.
I think one of the easiest traps to fall into with characterization, especially of protagonists, is to view their identity through a purely material lens. “Oh,” the clever author says, “he/she is intelligent, and must therefore own a lot of books about quantum physics!” I actually think that this kind of material characterization is okay, and in fact really good in most cases. It’s active, it involves the character doing something. Namely, reading books about quantum physics.
Characters who have material interests in the present are not necessarily bad or poorly developed. On the other hand, if the material crutch that an author leans on is, say, the kind of clothes or make up the character chooses to wear — I get a little bit more leery.
If clothing, and buying clothing is a big part of the story then that’s a-okay. It’s exactly like the earlier quantum physics example — it involves the protagonist doing something. But. If clothing is simply used as lazy characterization — a way to slot the character into a certain archetypal mold — then as a reader? I get annoyed.
To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t describe your characters’ clothing. It can add to characterization, can set up that initial archetype — I think for instance, Harry Potter’s skinny frame along with the baggy t-shirts and sellotaped glasses was a good initial character set up. What I am saying is that this shouldn’t be where your characterization ENDS.
I’m saying that you need to move beyond the material.
It’s hard to stop defining your character by the things that they possess, and to start defining them by the things that they do. It’s even harder to get beyond the things that they do, and hit at who they truly are. When asked, “Who is that woman?” A standard answer in our society would be, “Oh, that’s Nancy. She’s a nurse”. The conflation between what we do — job wise especially — and who we are is there on a lot of levels.
And of course, what we do does feed into who we are.
But I think there is a certain fabric beneath that exterior, a fabric of self that is defined in time rather than in things-done or things-owned. A character is not just the sum of all their parts. They’re the sum of all their parts, and all the parts they used to have but are no longer in their possession.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Say a character is presently a very, very confident person. Perhaps over confident. But when they were younger, they were a shy, self-conscious, overweight boy. That element of their past will be taken with them through their life.
It’s the same for less defining moments. Childhood trips, lame inside jokes with friends, ways of texting or speaking that seem so embarrassing to you when you’re older, modes of thinking that you outgrow. Sometimes, it’s the most insignificant things that stick with people, lingering ‘ghost’ parts of their sum.
So you need to weave your character’s past not necessarily into the story, but into your character, into the way that they approach and respond to their world.
And it’s the same with the future. The character needs to have some kind of expectation for the future — it doesn’t need to be a complex plan of any kind, it can just be a feeling “bleak” or “happy” or “bittersweet” or “messy”. Or it can be more specific like “wedded bliss” or “career security” or “ten kids” or “first woman on Saturn”.
Humans are decoders. We’re constantly trying to work this life out, constantly making both minor and major plans — not having a character be aware that there *is* a future would seem odd, to me. Let your character guess at the future, as if trying to predict an upcoming plot twist in a novel. Let what they see or predict influence them, whether for good or ill.
This doesn’t mean that your characters need to spend a lot of time obsessing about their past, present and future and how all three relate to each other. Good, rounded characters seem to display awareness of this dynamic very naturally.
For instance, in the last book I read, Hannah Moskowitz’s Invincible Summer, the main character’s story story is structured around four summers. You don’t see the time that passes between those summers, but that time bumps over into Chase, the protagonist. The pull of the past on him– those idyllic summers from when he was younger — and his absolute terror of a future and where it will take him, and his falling-apart family, adds a lot of weight to his characterization. For me, more so than if he’d been given a whole slew of hobbies.
So, this is a post to say that our characters are dynamic beings who exist in time, who are constantly changing. I think that acknowledging this dynamic is one of the keys to creating a well-rounded, compelling character.
What do you guys think? Is time an important element of characterisation? If so, how do you incorporate it into your stories?
Vahini Naidoo is a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.