Characters and Their Surprising Attributes

Sometimes characters traits appear random, especially from a retrospective point of view. Rion has one arm. Agnetha is claustrophobic. Charles is not as much a bachelor as the term suggests…

I swear I didn’t plan those things. Right now, as I edit, they are known and integral attributes of the characters, but I suspect that to begin with I had a conscious point in giving my character them. Though Rion’s arm is mentioned, and Agnetha’s claustrophobia makes her logical mind a mess of emotion, neither of these things are vital to the plot. They just happen to be those decorations and side-effects that come with having a three-dimensional character (I hope *crosses fingers*).

The thing is, I never intended for my characters to turn out that way.

I mean, sometimes those points arrive more due to closing one’s eyes to the characters beforehand. In my recent (ie. this year) rewrite of OJAP, I realised that both the DCI and Agnetha’s school-friend Vera are people of colour. In fact, Vera is gorgeous:

On the other hand, the point I’m raising today is when one knows there might have been a reason at the very beginning of a story conception for certain characters with certain features, but it’s been lost to the canon and myth. Isn’t that a fun phrase to think of? “lost to canon” *dreams*

Looking around the internet, you’ll find various posts and articles about character traits – some focusing on big commercial and popular fiction, eg. Disney and green-eyed villains; others with a view to the more subtle references that less-well-known authors make.  Sometimes we writers do that, slipping in references, ‘Easter eggs’ for readers to squee at. I’m not going to elaborate on that, since many others already have.

As a writer, though, I do wonder where some of those “lost to canon” ideas stem from. If they’re not vital to a plot, what is the point in having them in the first place? To develop a character. In the same way that we ask ourselves the silly questions: “what would your character have for breakfast?” In the same way that I know Agnetha “hates cheese and likes puzzles”, a facetious homage to me, though one that started as a joke and stuck. In the same way, Cait at NotebookSisters runs the monthly Beautiful People link-up to let us delve beyond what is needed for the people in our fiction.

Just as with worldbuilding, characters are icebergs. Luckily, they’re not going to hit you in the face with their surprises–uhh, don’t hold me to that. Mostly not. Often sometimes. Yes. Let’s just say that if a character reveals something to you whilst you are writing:

a) you’re not paying enough attention to them in the first place (see my point above about missing the fact my characters were better as POCs).

b) your writing’s going to be better off for it.

and c) you’re probably going to realise that the character was meant to be that way in the first place. Hence my first protestation that the character-icebergs you hit are very less likely to dent your story than fantasy-world-icebergs.

One’d think that once one comes up with these specific traits, assigns them and folds them into a character’s life, that’s the end of it. Well, maybe so – but I was hit by the thought that I have traits that I love the characters for, but never consciously assigned to them.

How does that crazy thing happen? I guess characters pick up these things and hit the ground running with them.

So, maybe, despite what I’ve said, it’s a combination of the writer understanding that something extra should be added to the character and the character bringing surprise to the world themselves.

Nevertheless, even if you never include more than a glimmering shadow of these traits, every writer should attack their first drafts with a green pen for character enhancement. Give them something quirky, regardless of the setting. Jess and Laurie are in the uni caving society. Aidelle makes tomato soup with sharp herbs and spices. Christophe reads poetry in his spare time. And maybe one day, you’ll look back at your work and forget, in but a blink, that these characters never had those traits, and they’ll become part of their original shapes.

Okay?

I have had that meme in my head these last few days.

What about you? Have you ever written character traits and then come back to them with no idea of their origins?

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4 thoughts on “Characters and Their Surprising Attributes

  1. I think for me they may start off random and seemingly purposeless, but then after those traits have revealed themselves, I try to weave them in to make subtle sense to the story. But I think having pondered those things definitely makes characters much stronger.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the show Farscape, but one of the reasons I like it so well is they’ve so well defined each character that you can almost predict how they are going to react, though in a good way.

        • I am so behind on all these classic shows. I still need to get the Adventure Time boxset and watch things in order! Maybe I’ll ask for it for my birthday and watch it over summer when I don’t have uni work.
          And Firefly. I should continue watching Firefly. *quiet moment of sadness for them never getting a second season*

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