When reading a novel or short story of any genre I always find that one of the major pit falls is characterisation. If the character is poorly established, poorly named and/or difficult to relate to, then I don’t get past the first chapter, unless of course the plot line is immensely intriguing.
One of the first things we learnt about in my novel writing module at University was the grand trio. This is the basic foundation to building and establishing your characters and their believability in your story. Without solid characters, even the most amazingly well written story can seem tedious and dull. Your characters are the main focus of your story and therefore time and attention must be taken on each one to ensure that they have a purpose and a reason within your plot (even the most fleeting characters that are just passing through must have reason to be there).
When first considering your characters, you must put into place the foundation of who they are and who they will become as the story progresses. Forget picking out a name for the moment. There is no point having a beautiful, whimsical name just because you like it when it actual fact it doesn’t suit your character. To start establishing your characters you should put into place the grand trio, which is as follows.
The Basic Need – this is the source of all motivation. This usually relates to “old stuff” , needs and wants relating to experiences in childhood or adolescence. This can be anything from being loved, to be in control or being accepted.
When considering your character’s basic need, think about the circumstances that may have created this basic need. I always find that writing a one off scene featuring your characters in the past help you to understand a little more about where your character has come from. By creating these snapshots into the past it allows you as a writer to really understand your character a little more, making them a lot more dimensional. You can come to really understand what has shaped him or her into becoming what he/she is at the start of your story. For example if the basic need of your main character is to be loved, then perhaps this need is created because of some form of abandonment in their past.
Now I am by no means saying you should do this for each and every character in your novel, however I recommend this process for each character that plays a significant part in the story, as it really helps you to understand them and develop them to the extent where you have created a living breathing person who lives inside your novel. If you as a writer understand your character and can relate to them, then it’s easier for your readers to do the same.
The second part of the grand trio is the Fatal Flaw. This is the first layer of ambivalence. This is a personality trait that is rooted within the basic need. If allowed free reign this could potentially destroy the character’s life. The fatal flaw can be anything from stubbornness or rage to obsession or recklessness.
Following on from the example above, if the basic need is to feel loved due to being abandoned early on in life. The fatal flaw of this character could be passivity or people pleasing to such an extent that she allows people to control her and walk all over her.
When considering the fatal flaw think about which one gets them into trouble most often, what exacerbates small problems into larger ones? Think about if they are aware of this flaw within themselves or whether they do it without realising. Do they seek to limit their flaw or do they consider it a virtue?
Again writing short one off scenes that show the fatal flaw in effect is a must and also helps to identify where in the novel the fatal flaw can come into play and really show off how much of a problem it is even if your character never realises it before.
The final part of the grand trio is the greatest strength. This is the second layer of ambivalence. The same principle as the fatal flaw, the greatest strength is again rooted within the basic need but this time when it comes into effect it can save the character from his/her fatal flaw. This can be creativity, intelligence, courage or anything that will allow your character to be given the strength to persevere and grow within the story.
Carrying on with my previous example, the character’s basic need was to feel loved due to abandonment issues, the greatest weakness was people pleasing/passivity. In this case her greatest strength could be empathy.
When considering the character’s greatest strength, think carefully about what strengths your character will have, something that constantly redeems them, rescues them from difficulties. Again think about if they are aware of this strength within themselves or does it come through only when they are confronted with difficulty.
When your character is presented with a complication or crisis within your story then the basic need will kick in and at this point they will resort to either their fatal flaw or their greatest strength. Depending on how the story is to end for your character you get to chose which wins out in the end.
Of course characters are more complex than this and will have more than one strength and more than one flaw. However once you have this foundation in place then you will find that other character traits fall into place a lot easier.
This is where naming your characters come into play. Once you have built up a personality and a grand trio it is a lot easier to find a name that suits your character. If you have a fairly mundane character then there is no point in calling her something exotic because her character will never live up to the expectation that the name brings.
If you build this foundation for each character that has a significant role in your story, writing short snapshots into their lives as you go then you will have folders (whether virtual or solid) full of information that really bring your character to life making them a lot more three dimensional.
Once you have your characters in place then you can start considering their grand trios and how they relate to the plot line and the story that you want to tell.