I’m in the process of creating characters for a story, so I’ve been thinking about exactly how to go about this. The theory goes that a character must be person, not a caricature. Meaning, they must have depth, be multi-dimensional as opposed to flat. Consequently, the author who seeks to move and manipulate a character must know more than their height, weight and eye colour. The author must understand the character’s relationships with their grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and enemies. The author must comprehend the significant and insignificant experiences of that character’s life. The author must know the makeup of the character’s psychological, emotional and spiritual foundations. From such depth, the character gains autonomy, consciousness, life. Because if the author knows a character in such excruciating and intimate detail, it becomes possible for the character to make their own decisions. The author no longer needs to guess what Character X would do in situation Y because their response is obvious.
It took me a while to realise this. For example, one of the first things I did after coming up with a character was to make them jump through abstract hoops. I imagined which one of the sixteen Myers-Briggs categories they would fall into; I wondered which narrative archetypes they would resemble or not resemble; I speculated on the tropes they would embody or break; I even attempted to perform an alignment, Dungeons and Dragons style. “Was the character good, neutral or evil? Was the character lawful, chaotic or true neutral?”
It was fun, but only moderately helpful in my quest to create real, deep, autonomous characters. See, I’d confused knowing a character in “excruciating and intimate detail” with making high level abstractions about that character. I only realised my error when I thought about the people in my life. I discovered that it’s actually difficult to describe them. I can use generic terms like “fun”, “kind”, “smart” and “quirky”. But they don’t capture the essence of the people I know. And neither does describing them as a Trickster or a Barefoot Sage. So how do we come to know a person?
I know my parents because I’ve seen them in a diverse array of situations. I’ve seen them when they’re tired. I’ve seen them when they’re sad and when they’re happy. I know my friends because I’ve seen the jokes they laugh at, and the ones they don’t. I’ve seen how they treat the things they own, the things others own, and the things which everyone owns. From such small observations of them in specific scenarios I can know them, or get close to knowing them.
It extends beyond my quest to birth convincing, memorable characters. It’s a tenet of reality. We glimpse the essence of a person via concrete acts, not vague abstractions. How they talk to a stranger, how they drive, how they brush their teeth, how they carry their bag, how they act around children, how they respond to criticism or ridicule, how they tolerate physical discomfort or utilise a wealth of resources. These tiny episodes tell us more about an individual than imperfect words and arbitrary classification ever can.