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How Well Do You Know Your Character

Now that you've done the work of crafting out who your characters are, how can you make them unique? Or are they unique, and if not, why or why not?

We all know the standard archetypes, we've read and reread those types of characters day in and day out, and sometimes they do have a place in fiction or historical fiction. Sometimes historical romance needs the noble heroic knight to save the day, the princess in the tower, or the aging wise sage, or the comic relief sidekick with an attitude.

But here is the problem... are your character's personalities so archetypical to the point that they are frozen there without any hope of breaking free into something unexpected? Face it, as a historical fiction author, or any author for that matter, you don't want to fall into the oubliette of cliché-ness. It is a deep and dark hole and your reader will shut the door on you before they even have a chance to take a peek over the precipice. When this happens, a big yawn ensues on the part of the reader and they just really don't care what happens to your story at all.

So, how does an author craft an engaging and complex personality? Are you ready? Sit down at your crafting table (hahaha, Minecraft fans) or potter's wheel, and you are about to get your hands dirty in bringing to life your character's personality.

One of my favorite things to do, and yes, I've received some odd looks, is to talk to my characters while I'm alone, driving, or walking in the woods... or wherever is the best spot for you. When you think about the actual people around you and their personality, traits, quirks, worldview, etc., you can actually use this to your advantage in developing characters. Everyone knows that authors use people they know as a basis for bringing characters to life, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland which is a study in characterization, for each of the fantasy characters in Alice's world is based on someone in her life, and then based on someone that Carroll knew in real life. A double whammy!

Some of the best ways, other than using people you know, is to do research on personalities... especially if you are writing about the criminal or warrior aspects and need to know the mindset of Jack the Ripper or Genghis Khan. If you've never taken the Myers-Briggs personality test for yourself, then you are in for an interesting treat, and this is something you can do for your own characters. Answer the questions as your character and see what comes up in the results. It will teach you a lot about the character and how you perceive them. For instance, my main character in “Kingfisher” is an INFP (introvert, dreamer) and is based on myself, and she applies intuition to the information she receives, which does well when she discovers that she is a time traveler, and she makes her decisions based on emotion (fear) rather than logic, while her twin sister is the opposite, using logic instead of emotion and must be coerced using facts instead of emotion. This is what makes each of them unique and yet, supportive of their roles in the story.

To try this out for yourself and for your characters, there are several free tests online, just Google – Personality Tests – and use the free ones instead of the costly one from Myers-Brigg.

After doing this, you should know the following about your character, starting with your main character.

  1. How does your character process information?

  2. How does your character engage with other people?

  3. How does your character make decisions?

  4. Does your character prefer structure or not?

When you know these things about your character/characters, then you've taken a big step in developing their character, and using the things that you've learned will help your write in a way that your character doesn't do something out of character on the page. Unless you want them to with purpose, which needs to be crafted in a believable way. Think back to Frodo. His honesty and goodness are the hallmarks of being able to carry the burden of the ring... and yet, sometimes he does something out of character. Does this mean that Tolkien was not true to Frodo's personality? No, for each time it was with purpose and his inner core reminded him, along with his faithful 'conscience' Samwise, of who he truly was inside. Tolkien knew Frodo as he knew himself, and you must do the same with your own characters.

When writing historical characters, this is even more challenging since you are taking a well-known (or perhaps not well-known) and crafting them in a way that is unique from every other story told about them. How many books are there about Henry VIII? Yet, your Henry VIII needs to stand out in a crowd. I am reminded of Hillary Mantel's books about this famous era, especially with her recent passing, and how she was able to bring Henry, Cromwell, and Anne to life in a style so her own in the vast ocean of books about these characters. You know, when you read her books, that these characters are uniquely Mantel, and that she somehow channeled the real people into the stories. I cannot imagine Cromwell being anything other than how she wrote him – that is a mark of a writer knowing their character well.

Here is a litmus test of whether or not you know your character well:

  1. How would your character handle making a truly difficult decision? Do they think or feel in order to make the decision?

  2. How would your character react to a secret revealed? Are they intuitive or sensing, based on the personality test?

And there are others, and again, doing the test and playing the part of your character will teach you a lot about them which you can use in your story. And what else is great is that you can print off the results and tuck them into the notebook on the page about this character and use them when you run into a snag in the story. The more you know about your character/characters, the more believable you will be able to write them, and your readers will engage with them, and stick with you as lifelong fans.

Next article: The Top 35 Ways to Build Strong Historical Characters (Posting Oct 5 2022)


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Dee Marley


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