Characters: create contrast and intrigue in their lives

the Marx brothersReal people (you and I) form their characters and behaviour over time, but writers are creating ready-formed lives and there is a lot to think about and invent to make your character — and your story — believable in the reader’s eyes.

Let’s take a look at some examples of what I mean. 

Different aspects of personality

Steven — the successful professional — works to a tight schedule and pressured deadlines and wears a suit by day, and plays golf, lounges around in jogging trousers, and cooks in the evenings for his family.

Robert keeps a comfortable home, is a loving partner and father and apparently happy with his lot. He appears to go out to work every day but (unbeknown to his family) gambles all day, is desperately trying to win back the money to pay the mortgage and the bills and doesn’t want his family to find out he has no job and that his life is falling apart.

Jane lives with her parents, works in a care home, has been an outstanding employee for 15 years and is loved by all the residents, but goes home and is demanding, abusive and threatening to her parents.

We can all be different people in different places and situations

The point being that we can all be one person in one aspect of life and another person in another aspect of the same life. We all behave differently with one friend compared to another, or with our bosses compared to our colleagues, and with our parents as opposed to our friends. Different people bring out different aspects of our personalities. All of those aspects are who we really are; we just don’t show all of them to all the people we encounter.

I’m not talking about behaving completely differently to the point where you become some sort of Jekyll and Hyde character (except, perhaps, Jane above); we adjust our behaviour according to the needs, demands, and behaviour of the person, or people, we are with at the time and to the situation we are in.

Create tension and intrigue

Giving our characters different ways of living in the different areas of their lives gives us the opportunity to create tension and intrigue (not all of the ‘other’ person needs to be revealed all at once) and keep the story moving forward. It gives the reader more reason to want to turn the pages and find out what happens next and why.

There also needs to be a reason for those differences. What effect does it have on your story and the characters? How does it move the story along? How are you going to resolve the main points?

How much backstory do you need?

We also need to think about the reasons why our characters behave in the ways they do and what their motivation is. You might want to think about the story behind a character’s life (backstory) that has led them to being the person they are today with all the emotional triggers, let-downs, successes, and expectations they have.

That’s not to say you need to write a complete history of your character, it may be that all you need are some notes with salient points that are going to matter in this story: What pressures does Steven come under at work that will affect the idyllic lifestyle of rounds of golf and home cooking that he has built for himself? How come Robert continues to pretend he has a job but is gambling away the family home, and at what point will he be found out? Why does Jane abuse her parents at home but can be a loving and caring person at work?

Be inventive

Don’t be afraid to be inventive. You are the creator of these people so you can create their backstory. Think about how wild and extreme some turning points in your own life, and the lives of people you know, have been. How many times have you said — or heard others say — ‘You couldn’t make it up if you tried’?

Well, you can!