How can you take a flat, rigid and unnatural character and give their personality an extra layer of believability? With a little something called ‘personal concerns’.
When designing character personalities, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of hammering out characteristics and keeping them consistent throughout the story.
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. You don’t want your characters to undergo sudden personality changes and start acting out-of-character, after all (unless that’s part of your plot).
It’s important to remember, however, that humans are flexible. While the very core of your personality—your traits—is relatively stable, how those traits come across will change depending on a number of factors.
Do you act the same way in every situation? No. And neither should your characters.
Scratching the Surface
In the previous Design a Personality post, Building Rock-Solid Character Traits, you discovered what personality traits your characters are high and low in. Think of these traits as the skeleton of your characters—relatively unchanging, keeping your character from flopping to the ground in a puddle.
Forming a layer over these traits are something psychologist Dan McAdams calls ‘personal concerns’. These are your motivations, your plans and goals, life tasks and coping strategies, all of which make up a person. Personal concerns also change over time, from place to place and between the roles you play.
In terms of the analogy, they’re the squishy layers that coat your character’s skeleton and the clothes they wear on top. Just as their appearance changes over time, between places and for different roles, so can their personal concerns.
Developing Your Understanding
Personal concerns are especially useful when building up a more complete picture of an individual. The first time you meet someone, you quickly glean information about them, like their general traits, and fall back on this when you don’t know much else about them. McAdams describes this as Level 1. The more you get to know someone, the more their personal concerns become apparent, and your understanding of them grows. McAdams describes this as Level 2.
As you learn more about a person, some of your previous assumptions about them will be proved wrong and some will be expanded upon to include ‘conditionals’—this person will behave in this way in this situation. Their actions will still be underpinned by their traits, but now the degree to which these traits are displayed will depend upon several factors: time, place and role.
How a person behaves can change over time. This is particularly relevant to character arcs over the course of a story—readers aren’t interested in static characters who aren’t affected by the novel’s events—but it also applies to the character’s life before the trials of the main story.
Example: a smooth-talking character might have been loud and outspoken in his teens. In middle age, he’s still eager to express his opinion, but does so in a more eloquent way. Having an awareness of this can deepen the character and provide opportunities to create conflict (in the previous example, the middle-aged character may find that his career is threatened when the brash actions of his youth come back to haunt him).
Behaviour can also vary between different environments. (Obvious, I know, but it’s easy to forget this while designing characters.) When in a comfortable, familiar setting, such as home, a character will react to a situation in a different way to a hostile, unfamiliar setting, such as trapped in a pitch black cellar.
If the place is somewhere they associate with certain things, it can impact on the way they act. For example, if a particularly scarring incident happened to the character while in London, returning there might make them behave differently—they could be more talkative to hide their unease, act more warily or recklessly, avoid speaking to people or asking for help, and so on.
In their youth, an extroverted character might have been rowdy and boisterous while with friends, but more restrained with parents, because they were assuming different roles with these people—’friend’ and ‘child’. Consider this when writing the character’s scenes. It’s unlikely they’ll act in the same way with their friends as they would with their parents, and the scene should reflect this.
But why consider time, place and role in the first place? Why not just stick to simple personality traits and leave it at that?
In the words of McAdams:
“As one moves from Level 1 to Level 2, one moves from the psychology of the stranger to a more detailed and nuanced description of a flesh-and-blood, in-the-world person…”
Simply put, understanding your characters at Level 2 gives you much deeper knowledge of them. They are no longer flat strangers, but dynamic, intriguing individuals. It makes them more interesting to you and your reader, gives them depth and realism, and allows you to communicate all their layers to your reader.
But don’t stop at Level 2. Dive even further into your character’s psyche for a complete understanding of their past and present.
Knowing Your Character Deeply
The final level of understanding a person (and, in your case, understanding your character) comes from their personal narrative. Weave together everything you’ve learnt about your character’s personality traits and personal concerns with the story of their lives, as told from their perspective. This will give you a deep understanding of who your character is and let you see how their personality is pushed and shaped by their experiences.
Applying Theory to Fiction
Getting to know your cast
Knowing what makes up your character’s personality from the foundation up gives you a wealth of knowledge about them—their past experiences, their actions and reactions in the present, and the course they’re likely to take in the future. If you’ve just created your cast or don’t know them deeply enough, explore their personality from Level 1 all the way through to Level 3. By the end of it, you’ll have a detailed understanding of what makes them tick.
Adding realism to your writing
Having an awareness of how a character’s behaviour can change over time and between places and roles can make their interactions that much more realistic. Tailoring their responses to fit the time/place/role adds depth to your character and makes them more interesting to read about. Just remember to bear in mind their underlying traits.
Cooking up conflict
Shifts in behaviour can also be a great source of conflict. How a character acted in the past can directly or indirectly affect their present, just as a character’s activities changing between different places or roles can cause conflict, especially if their actions appear contradictory to the other characters around them.
Not sure what your character sounds like? Or maybe you’re worried your character’s narrative is too bland? Use what you’ve learnt about their personality traits (Level 1), personal concerns (Level 2) and experiences, as told from their perspective (Level 3), to create a unique voice that saturates your character’s narrative, thoughts and dialogue.
Want to develop your characters even more? Hop on over to the Mind of the Character and go exploring.