This continues on from my February 16 post about creating believable characters. There are many factors, both internal and external, which can influence a character’s development and personality, thus altering the way in which that character thinks, speaks and acts, what his wants and needs are, what his vulnerabilities are, what his strengths are and so forth (i.e. the things discussed in my last post).
A character’s appearance can affect not only his view of himself and his confidence levels, but the way other characters see and treat him and how they make use of him.
Physical appearance does not imply only the grotesque or the extreme. Physical appearance includes many things: skin colour or texture (remember, alien races can have other differences in skin besides the hue), disfigurement and deformity, scarring, blemishes, tattoos or sacred/meaningful marks, height (giant or small), weight (from skeletal through to obese), exaggerated or extreme features (e.g. a big nose), beauty, ugliness, use of make-up, hair colour, clothing, the presence/degree of a physical disability (deafness, blindness, muteness, loss of limbs, ambulatory ability, lack of pain or touch senses, no sense of smell or taste), gender and also gender appearance (e.g. masculine-looking women and effeminate men).
Whether a physical attribute is valued or denigrated or even noticed or commented upon by other characters or the character himself in your story depends very much on the cultural norms/expectations of the world you have invented and also cultural history of that world. For example – a society made up completely of dark skinned races probably would not comment much upon skin colour (unless there is status or conflict associated with ‘degrees of darkness or paleness in the skin tone’ or the society had some historical or current association – good or bad – with other-skinned races).
Some cultures place huge importance on beauty and thus ugliness becomes a significant impediment to such things as ambition, advancement, self-esteem and finding love.
Also, cultural norms can change. Beauty, for example, is very subjective from culture to culture and also between different generations and years and also the sexes. In future societies, the loss of a limb (so debilitating currently) may end up being so easily compensated for by artificial limb technology it will barely be noted as an impediment.
Physical features may also be valued or devalued depending on the situation at hand. For example, in a freedom-fighting or war situation, a woman willing to get down and dirty and fight is likely to be better regarded and sought out than a beautifully coiffed princess unwilling to break a nail, yet in a peacetime, the opposite might hold true.
The hobbits in “Lord of the Rings” do not see themselves as short-statured in their own villages – their houses and gardens are scaled to fit them – but do experience difficulties imposed by scale when they enter the lands of taller peoples.
In “Game of Thrones”, Tyrion Lannister is an ugly dwarf (in the HBO show, he is played by the good-looking and well-spoken Peter Dinklage, but in the source novel, his visage is not nearly so pleasant), who happens to have been born into one of the more physically gifted and militarily-talented ‘royal’ families of Westeros. The culture of the writer’s world is such that Tyrion is seen as ugly by other characters and regularly ridiculed and, had he not been born of high-status, with access to considerable wealth (i.e. the option to pay for allies and protectors), it is probable a character like him would have died in this harsh world at an early age. The effect of his physical form on his character is that he has chosen to build his intellect and knowledge of history and military tactics, instead of pursuing the more physical talents of his brother Jaime. He guards himself with an ascerbic and self-deprecating wit and is wary of letting people in. He is insecure around his family, yearning to be loved by his Lord father as his siblings are, even though his father cannot forgive him for his dwarfism and the fact his birth killed his mother. At the same time, having been treated badly, he tends to be kinder and more forgiving of others failings than the rest of the family, having a soft-spot for those who are also unwanted (e.g. the bastard, Jon Snow). Those few friends he does make, he hangs onto and his loyalty to them is absolute.
Another example where physicality plays a role in character and status in “Game of Thrones” is the Clegane brothers – both brutal, war-like men whose immense size and ferocity sees them well-suited as the guards and minders of kings. They see themselves as untouchable and show arrogance and disregard of lesser men as a result, reveling in war and bloodshed. Sandor, the younger, however, has a badly burned face and this manifests as a phobia in battles where fire is involved – thus setting this character up to experience failure and injured pride when he finds he cannot perform his duties.
In “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the mouse captain, Reepicheep, loses his tail in battle. Far from this disfigurement being a hindrance or regarded as a loss of status, the other mice offer to cut off their tails too as a sign of deference and high-regard for their captain.
The status of one’s family can have huge bearing on a character, from how he speaks, to how he dresses, holds himself, his education level, the way he thinks, his regard for others, whether he can get away with having issues (e.g. a physical deformity as seen in Tyrion Lannister) and so on.
Status does not only relate to how the character’s family is seen from the outside world and with regard to other families, but also to where the character fits WITHIN his family. For example, a character could have high status within his family or clan, but the family or clan is small overall in the greater scheme of clans and families.
A character of low-status within a big, powerful family may have fierce ambitions to climb the ladder and seize overall power. Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones” is such a character and his low-status childhood in the presence of the powerful Tully family has fed a hunger to be more, be better, regardless of the means. Having no familial status, however, has meant he has had no powerful family backing him and, working alone in the treacherous kingdom, he has had to become adept at cultivating allies, playing his cards close, scheming and strategic betrayal to move his plans forward.
Note that “repressed” is different to “placid.” Repressed characters (e.g. like Baelish) hold their feelings of anger or resentment in, but their frustration is always bubbling away beneath the surface, creating internal conflict and tension in the character and a reader desire to find out if and how the character is finally going to blow his top.
Order of birth
Only-children tend to be more conservative and achievement-driven because all the family’s prospects and hopes for the future hang from that one child’s shoulders.
This also goes for first children, who tend to have more responsibility placed on them (including expectations to care for younger children) and more expectations. This holds even more if the first child in a culture is the one who inherits the family assets and/or business. Sometimes the older children will resent the later children who have less expectation placed on them and more freedom in the way they act, dress or chose careers.
Parents tend to be more relaxed and less demanding and controlling by the time they get to the second child and beyond. This results in less-stressed personalities in the younger kids, but also the potential for resentment by the first child, who sees the younger sibling/s getting more freedom and less responsibility.
If the first child is the inheritor, however, the younger children may resent the older for this. This can also happen if one or both the parents die when the smaller children are young, leaving them with less knowledge of their parents and the sense of lost time. They may resent their older siblings for the time had with their parent/s.
Some people change character and personality depending on those around them. A woman could be a tough boss in the workplace where she is confident, knows her stuff and is supported by her staff, but be a complete doormat at home. There are just some places/situations where people feel more empowered.
Life experience and history
What the character has gone through in life (including things taught by his parents and teachers growing up) before the reader/writer meets him also affects the way the character behaves. We do not meet Harry Potter himself at the moment his parents are killed, however this loss infuses the whole adventure we follow him along and is present in his character from the first moment we meet him, right down to the living circumstances with the Dursleys he is forced to endure.
What the character goes through ‘during’ the adventure also affects the character and how he develops through the story.
The company he keeps/associates with
A lot can be said about a character by the company he keeps and the quality of his enemies.
Who does your character give his time to? If they are low-born or of low-status (in the context of status in your world), this can say something about the compassion or lack of conceit of the character we are following or, in turn, something about the quality or value of the low-born/status individual. If the company is high-born or popular and your character is very lowly or unpopular, then you need to address what it is about your character or his value that makes the high-born or popular seek him.
Who hates or fears your character? If he is hated or feared by good people, it says something about him, likewise if he is hated or feared by the wicked and powerful.
If other characters are indifferent to your character, that says something about him too.
If news came that your character died, would this be greeted by celebration or sadness in your world? Your character might even be the type scheming and insecure enough to fake his own death just to see who reacts and remains loyal.
The company a character keeps can also influence what he knows or is told and the way he thinks and acts in future (i.e. character growth). A character can learn a different world view and way of acting by associating with people who would be his examples and teachers.
Fears and phobias
Fears and phobias in characters can create opportunities for plot development or drama. For example, a group of characters might have to cross a river to escape an enemy force. If one of those characters cannot or will not swim and at the same time cannot be left behind, this will create conflict for the entire group.
This then becomes either a “character reveal moment” for the reader, where the reader, who until now had thought a cocky character fearless, now realises that how the character had presented himself to the world was not real OR it becomes a moment of delicious tension for the reader, if the reader already knew that the character was scared of water (particularly so if the other members of the group of characters did not know) and is now watching to see how the group will react and solve the situation. Are the group desperate enough and of a disposition to leave him behind? If they can’t leave him (perhaps he is vital to future parts of the mission) what will they do and say to him to make him swim and will he in turn bow to the pressure?
Random cool tip I got from Karen Miller – it is often much more interesting for the reader and the conflict/tension of a situation if a point of narrative hinges on or is decided by a “human element.” It is not interesting if a group of friends are walking along a mountain trail and there is a random rock-fall. It is very interesting, however, if one of the friends was accidentally responsible for the rock-fall (this inserts guilt, regret, resentment) or if, worse, one of the group was not a friend at all and deliberately caused it.
Next post – Point of View.