Your Characters Should Exist in Time

26 Aug

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.

14 Responses to “Your Characters Should Exist in Time”

  1. Tim August 26, 2011 at 2:08 PM #

    Ahh this article has made me kind of nervous. lol. My character likes long coats because they billow…lol there’s no real characterization to that I just kind of like that. Maybe I should look into that.
    I’m kind of confused about what you mean though. Should the character have a past that isn’t actually fully defined, but just adds to the character? Or should it be mentioned, like in a flashback? Lol I really like flashbacks but they can be awful. Like my character suffered physichal abuse and intimidation when she was younger, so when she gets restrained by an agent she starts having nightmares and sort of gets not panic attacks. It relates to the plot, but is that a little bit heavy handed?

    • Vee August 26, 2011 at 2:15 PM #

      Lol, don’t be nervous! I don’t think what you’ve done will read as heavy handed, so long as it’s executed well (I guess that’s a caveat to everything with writing, though).

      I definitely mean more along the lines of a past that isn’t necessarily defined, but which adds to and impacts upon your character as opposed to incorporating flashbacks. Which are an effective method of showing the reader the past (usually for plot purposes rather than characterisation, though, imo) in some stories, but not others.

  2. Amber Cuadra August 26, 2011 at 2:34 PM #

    This is brilliant! I agree, a character needs history to have depth. I’m writing a story right now where there’s a war that’s been going on for sixteen years. My main character doesn’t dwell on the fact that there’s been a war for most of her lifetime every moment of the story, but that fact effects her. It effects her relationship with her husband, and it effects her relationships with her family. She is constantly wondering about the future because her husband is a soldier. Is he going off to battle soon? Is he going to survive?

    I’ve written other characters where there is very little history and it’s really hard to get into the story because there’s a bunch of facts but nothing previous to those facts.

    Good post!

    • Vee August 28, 2011 at 3:40 AM #

      That sounds really cool about the way you’ve had the war impact your character. And those questions have such high emotional stakes 🙂

      I agree that it’s definitely easier to write characters with some kind of history, or meaningful past.

  3. Marina August 26, 2011 at 2:35 PM #

    I’ve never thought about it, but it explains most of the problems I usually have with books and don’t really know how to pin-point. Most authors, I think, do well with the past, but a lot don’t really plan a definite future for the characters, besides the ultimate climax and then the end of the story. But I don’t see the long term goals, which I think is important in defining the character, because most of us think about what we want in out futures at least once a day. They just end after the book is closed, and I have to idea what will happen to them. And I don’t mean it has to be clearly defined or talked about all the time, but just a glimpse, like yes, the character does aspire to something more than finding that right guy, or saving the world or what not.

    • Vee August 28, 2011 at 3:42 AM #

      Yes, futures are really difficult! I’m currently struggling to get the future to have enough pull in FALL TO PIECES, actually. It’s hard, because I tend to write characters who have little to no idea where they’re going (just because I, and most of my friends were like this in high school, lol), but I still want to instill some kind of feeling about the future in the story. Even if the characters aren’t thinking about it explicitly.

  4. Andrea August 26, 2011 at 5:28 PM #

    What an interesting post! I think that the more you think about a character, including their past and future, can only help your writing. Even if you only allow little bits of past or future to weave themselves into the writing, it will help to create a more fully-rounded character.

    • Vee August 28, 2011 at 3:43 AM #

      Yes, the more you think about a character, definitely the better! (Although I am guilty of not knowing some of my (minor) characters’ last names…;)).

  5. Asia Morela August 26, 2011 at 6:54 PM #

    This is very true. I think Randy Ingermanson wrote an article about that, in which he underlines the importance of the “old story”, even though what we’re telling in the book is the “new story”. You can’t have people without past, without entourage, who seem like they’ve come alive as the first element of your new story hit them. It’s all about weaving together the old and the new story, because the old story might not be what you’re interested about, but it’s what determines how your character will react to the new story.

    As for the future, that’s strongly intertwined with goals, and your characters must have goals that, once again, are not strictly defined by the new element setting your story in motion. What were this character’s dreams and interests before he got kidnapped by aliens? Anyone would want to escape; but does that involve learning more about them in the process, killing them? etc. That’s how your character becomes specific and unique, and not some kind of abstract, generic human being.

    • Vee August 28, 2011 at 3:47 AM #

      That’s a really cool way to look at it — the “old story” and the “new story”. The understanding that there must have been some kind of story beforehand is really interesting.

      I pretty much agree with you on futures, too. But I do think futures — for me — is slightly different to immediate goals. Or even conscious goals such as dreams and interests. I really just want to know the path that my characters — often subconsciously — think that their lives are heading down. And in books that I read, I want to *feel* a sense of that future, if that makes sense?

  6. cgmasonhantal August 27, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

    Very good post! Wonderful observations!

    • Vee August 28, 2011 at 3:48 AM #

      Thank you! 🙂

  7. harmamae August 30, 2011 at 11:24 PM #

    I agree! I’ve read far too many books where the characters seem to exist only for the purpose of the story. No past, no future, like you said. I’ve been trying to steer away from that in my writing…

  8. Cheyenne Hill (@chylu) September 1, 2011 at 7:02 AM #

    I love this. I would never want to be defined simply by what I do, like in your description of “That’s Nancy, she’s a nurse.” At times I’ve been a student, a secretary, a trainee, a waitress, and I’m a sister, daughter, girlfriend… whatever. I don’t want to be defined by those labels, so it definitely makes sense to not want my characters to just have a label slapped on them based on one or two possessions, relationships or things they do. I’m sure we all do it in our every day life – for example, we see someone and think, she’s a nurse, based on her uniform. But she’s *so* much more than that. This is really thought-provoking for character development. Thanks!

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