Jan 30 2016

Adding Depth with Character Bias

BiasToday I’ve got a few tips for those wanting to brush up on their characterization skills. Credit for these ideas goes mostly to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time; few people can pull off character bias like Jordan could.

If you want to give your story depth, the first place to start is with your characters. When a character is just a name on a page; they come across as one-dimensional and boring. And readers can tell when you haven’t done your groundwork. So how do you make your characters into memorable, unique individuals?

Rule #1: A character is more than just eyes, height and hair color.

For an inexperienced writer, the temptation is to use a character’s physical appearance to make them stand out. (Purple eyes are so common in fanfiction that they’ve actually become a trope.) But honestly, who preens in the mirror every morning, admiring their ebony/chestnut/strawberry-blond tresses while batting their deep blue/brown/hazel eyes? Do you? A character going about his daily life isn’t thinking about how he looks, so unless his appearance is immediately relevant to the plot, it can wait a few pages. Or a few chapters. Or you can leave it out altogether, and let the reader fill in the details. Even with secondary characters you can go easy on the physical description, because chances are the reader isn’t going to remember more than one or two details by the end of the page. Only when your protagonist is meeting someone for the first time can you (occasionally) get away with the full run-down.

When it comes right down to it, looks aren’t what’s going to make your readers remember a character; its their archetype which is important. If I say the word ‘busybody’, your mind immediately fills in the blanks, perhaps even with the physical characteristics of a person you know. The same with ‘mentor’, ‘workaholic’, and ‘genius’. If you do go with a physical descriptor, you’ll get more mileage out of words like ‘athletic’, ‘well-dressed’, or ‘frazzled’, than you will from ‘tall’, ‘dark’ and ‘handsome’. Try to stay away from words that describe personality directly (impatient, hard-working, etc.), because it’s better to show this in the narrative than tell us up front.

Rule #2: Give your character biases.

There’s far more to a fully-realized character than just their physical presence. Think about your favorite characters. Can you imagine what they would be most likely to do in a crisis? When the author has done their job well, you can picture which ones would run and hide, which would hold their ground and fight, which would think of a witty line of dialogue to punctuate the moment. If that character were the keeper of a dire secret, who would reveal it to the enemy, who would confide in a friend, and who would take it to their grave? You know the answers to these questions because the author has effectively conveyed that character’s bias.

So what do I mean by character bias? I mean the unique set of life experiences which inform her decision-making process. No person is a blank slate. They’re going to have foods they like, a favorite color, and people they’d rather not hang out with. This sort of bias isn’t a bad thing – it helps us make decisions more quickly, whether the choice is where to go for dinner or which of the oncoming horde to shoot first – but it can be a source of conflict between characters. Conflict is good. It drives the story forward and keeps your reader interested. Don’t be afraid to give your characters conflicting biases.

Rule #3: Determine where your character is coming from.

If you want to determine your character’s unique set of biases, the first place to start is with their background. Where did they grow up? What is the socioeconomic situation there? The geography? What do they, or their parents, do for work? All of these things are going to affect the way they think and act. Someone who works in fashion will notice what people are wearing. A man who lives by the ocean might use water metaphors more than others. Someone who works outdoors is going to pay more attention to the weather than the guy who telecommutes. A little bit of research into the trappings of your character’s trade can go a long way when it comes to believability.

Don’t be afraid to let characters make mistakes because of their bias. Just because one character knows that those clouds mean a storm is coming doesn’t mean the guy with the boat does. Or maybe your protagonist’s heart-felt apology bombs because the recipient doesn’t like chocolate. All of these things are potential points for conflict, and conflict is good.

Finally, remember that each character is the hero of their own story.

Yes, even the villain. Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet are going to be more concerned with their own daily struggles than they are with those of the stranger beside them. They must be convinced, cajoled, or coerced into joining the hero’s cause. Even then, they should have their own unique reasons to participate. Because honestly, ‘We met in a bar and decided to save the world together’ only works in D&D campaigns.

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