Since the month seems to be focusing on the food aspects of writing, I thought I’d be trendy and go in the organic direction. When I think of organic or whole foods, I think of simple, the way nature intended, unadulterated ingredients. In relation to characterization, I think of characters with a rich and unique background, not created to fit the story, but naturally emerging from their setting, lifestyle, and experiences. Many of my readers tell me that’s my special sauce, that my characters are unique and distinctive from one another. How did that become my strength? I’m not sure, but here are a few ideas.
Psychology and people watching: I didn’t like people as a child. When I was young, I decided that people were cruel, selfish, devious, and impossible to interpret or understand. I may have been somewhat lacking in social skills. I determined that animals were superior in all ways. As I grew older and a bit more mature, I realized I had to get along with my fellow humans and the best way to do that would be to understand them and why they do what they do. Thus started my non-career interest in psychology. As I learned, both from books and personal experience, my attitude shifted. I love people. We’re amazing, complex, and limitless. The way that who we are merges with our genetics, environment, and experience, shaping every person to be a little bit different is fascinating. One of the aspects of writing that I love the most is the opportunity to present my characters as truly unique individuals.
Language: I speak multiple languages, sort of, and the acquirement and exposure to these languages has led me to an interest in linguistics. In brief, I grew up in an area with many Spanish speakers, studied French in school, served for my church in the Philippines and learned Tagalog and Ilokano, and our young family went to German-speaking Switzerland for my husband’s post-doctorate employment. The only language I ever became fluent in besides English was Tagalog, now long forgotten. Still, the study of those languages along with listening to people speak from different geological, socio-economic, and educational areas, gave me a sense for how different everyone expresses themselves, not only from one culture to another, but also as individuals within those cultures. I believe that understanding bleeds through to my characters, giving them distinctive ways of expressing themselves.
History: I love history. If I had the history channel I’d never get any writing done. One thing that all of us have in common is a distinctive history. That history doesn’t just span a single person’s lifetime, but extends into the generations before. In looking at my characters’ backstory, I try to look at why they had a childhood like *blank,* why they believe *blank,* and what is their connection, physically and emotionally, to the community around them. I don’t necessarily go through in-depth interviews or write everything down, but as I think about those things, my characters develop a unique personality in my head. I tend to see a lot of my scenes and people during my pre-writing like one might see a movie. Bits and pieces of their history, including how that history evolved will churn in my thoughts, the characters and setting birthing from one another.
Like any good recipe, these “natural” ingredients mix together to create a balanced and tasty meal. In the same way, various characteristics combine to create well-rounded individuals in our stories, with strengths and weaknesses, distinctive patterns of speech, and unique wants and needs. I don’t know if this list helps in any way with your own writing, but I hope that as you consider these points with the characters you create, you can see them as unique people, friends or enemies, as real in theory as the people you interact with on a daily basis are in reality.