18 February 2011

How to build believeble characters- part 1. Emotional baggage

photo by africa

This is my second post on building characters, whose past, persent and future fit together and make sense.

Emotional baggage, when handled well, can be a great source of internal and external conflict. It's what has formed your characters' motivations and will provide fertile ground for them to grow.
However, it is important not to overdo it, as you may end up with someone who has more than your novel can handle.

If you want to use emotional baggage as a tool to build your character you need to remember these simple, general rules:

1. Age
Personality needs time to mature. It's different for different people, but as a rule of thumb people are rarely mature by the age of 20, most people would achieve maturity in their mid- late twenties. Does it mean you can't have an 18 y.o. mature, responsible young man? Well, you can, but make sure you give him enough life experience to back up your claims.

What are the characteristics of mature personality?
Mature people have sense of self, ability to evaluate themselve without bias and are realistic in judging other people and situations. They are emotionally secure, are capable of forming loving, reciprocal relationships and have a philosophy, which gives their life a purpose and allow to decide about their long term goals and behaviour. More on earmarks of  mature personality here. And here you can check how mature is your character.

2. Family
There is a good reason why probably all languages have their own versions of 'Like father, like son'. We learn how to live, interact with other people, think about the world, react to it, etc  from our parents, and other close family memebrs. Even if you do everything to not to be like your father, it's your father's personality that is shaping you.
If you want to have a heroine who has problems in relationships with men, you have to think why she has a problem with men. The most likely reason would be not good relationship with her father.
If you give someone a family where no one is normal and make your character completely normal, you have to give this guy a chance to learn how it is to be normal. Send him to a boarding school or foster family perhaps?
It's the same the other way round - I haven't yet seen a person with serious emotional problems and a normal family.

3. Previous relationships.
In romance it is important that the relationship between your heroine and hero is unique and special, like never before. While they may have (and in typical modern adult romance they even should have) been in previous longterm relationships, this one is unique. If you decide to give them previous relationships, you need to think about the reasons why they have failed.
The trouble is, when you come to a certain age, a string of unsuccesful relationships becomes a pattern and hence a traits of character. A typical example is a woman who gets trapped in a series of abusive relationships (tip: look at her relationship with her father!), or a man who always ends up 'under the thumb' (tip: look at the relationship between his parents)
Generally speaking, if someone hasn't been able to form succesful, longterm (over a year) relationships by the age of 30, there is a good deal of chance that this person have a deep rooted problems with forming loving relationships.
If your character's longterm relationship ended, you have to think about a reason why. In relationships things don't happen without a reason, and 'it takes two to tango'. If one of the partners had an affair, it means something in this relationship was missing, so they needed to look outside.

4. Childhood trauma
If you decide to give your character an experience of childhood abuse, be very, very careful. Not only it's a sensitive issue you need to address within what your genre allows you, but also you may create potential pitfalls for your character development and your ending.
It's probably easier if you write literary fiction or women's fiction, but if you're writing in romance genre, bevery careful. Childhood abuse particularly repeated, whether physical, emotional or sexual, leave effects impossible to erase. 80% of young adults who were abused as children meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder.
Love heals - that's right, but an adult survivor of childhood abuse who has never been able to form a loving, trusting and nurturing relationship will not be able to from one without long term therapy (or a therapeutic relationship, not necessarily in professional sense).
Here you can read more about lasting impressions of childhood trauma and causes and effects of child abuse.

5. Outlook on life
Your character's outlook on life hasn't been born in vacuum either. Whether you believe that your outlook has been shaped by your experience, or that your outlook shapes your experience, you need to make sure these elements are consistent and logical.
Of course, there is the evergreen debate nature versus nurture, but even if you don't want to go that deep, make sure that the way your character perceives life, people and themselve is consistent with their past experience.

These are general rules, as as usual there may be exceptions to them. Remember the more emotional baggage you give your character, the more difficult her/his change will be. When writing romance, make sure that your charatcer has time and opportunity to grow first before jumping into relationship. If there is no change within the person, new relationship itself is not likely to bring about the change. The change has to come from within.

Have you encounter any of these problems while creating your characters? Is there anything else important I haven't talked about? Do you have any more questions?
Please, ask. if not under the post, feel free to email me and I will do my best to answer your question.

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