Characters are everything. You can’t even come close to a good story without strong characters. Plot comes out of character. Tension comes out of character. At the root of your story is character, character, character.
It isn’t hard to draw a so-so character. Pick genders, ages, ethnicities. Figure out where your characters are from, what they do for a living, how educated they are. Describe their appearance. Give them conflicts—problems to solve, challenges to meet, desires to fulfill—and voila!
But how do you create characters with real depth? What can you do to go the extra step, to make characters who resonate in a deep and personal way with your readers?
One often neglected way is to explore your characters’ spirituality. Every person on Earth stands somewhere in relation to spirit. An atheist might act out of resistance to it or a clear-headed rejection of it. An agnostic may wonder about it, not sure where she stands, still seeking and learning--or perhaps accepting that she will never come to a conclusion. A person who puts himself in the "spiritual-but-not-religious" category may have individual, relatively secular practices that are deeply personal to him, and one who follows a traditional path may have an abiding faith that pervades her life. Or maybe your character is totally uninterested in the whole idea of spirit and merely shrugs it off. Whoever your character is, he or she has some viewpoint about spirituality.
If you haven’t thought about your character’s spirituality (or lack thereof), you are missing a vital dimension in your writing. Delve into your character’s beliefs, and you may find surprising habits or quirks—and motivations you would never otherwise have discovered.
I’m not talking about writing spiritual stories here. In fact, your characters’ spirituality may never be overtly revealed in the story you are writing. I’m talking here about getting to know your character yourself. About writing outside the scenes that will ultimately end up in your finished work. About getting inside your characters' heads in a way that only an author can do.
How can you explore your characters’ spirituality? Here are several techniques that may yield surprising results.
1. Have your character pray. Your character might be a person who faces each challenge—and each joy—by falling on her knees and begging or thanking god. Or maybe he is someone who has never prayed in his life, but is willing to give it a shot. Perhaps your character is an atheist and only finds herself praying because she is desperate—maybe afterwards, she is ashamed of herself for giving in to “magical thinking.”
There are many shades in between these extremes, and they all have to do with how your character views himself in the world, and what he believes about the Universe.
How does your character pray? Eyes closed, hands clasped, in deep belief? Quickly and unexpectedly as she goes about her business? Hesitantly and with embarrassment?
Does your character expect to be answered? Does he doubt prayer really works?
Answer these questions about each of your characters and see how that deepens them.
2. Have your character argue about religion.
“I’m just saying we can’t be all that sure about anything. I mean, maybe there is something out there we could call ‘god’—some sort of intelligence or something. But how would we know?”
“I feel sorry for you. One day, you’re going to realize it’s too late. You’ll be damned for eternity because you refused to accept the Lord.”
“What on Earth goes through those people’s minds, anyway? These are educated people, yet they believe anything the church tells them.”
“Listen, I’m not even going to discuss this. You have your beliefs, fine. I’ll accept them for what they are. Just don’t try to foist them off on me.”
Have you ever heard statements like these? Generally, it’s pointless for people to argue about religion because argument comes from reason and faith from a different place entirely, but argue they do. Imagine your character getting into a discussion about spirituality with someone who has starkly different views from his own. What would he say? How would he argue? Or would he just remain silent, not willing to get into the fray? Your characters’ willingness to discuss spiritual belief, her skill at doing so, and what she says in that discussion speaks volumes about who she is.
3. Have your character go to a religious service of a type she’s never been to before.
A friend invites your character to a Wiccan sabat. How does she react? Stunned and horrified at the blasphemy? Delighted with the magic and ritual? Amused? Disgusted? Transformed?
Or perhaps your Christian character visits a synagogue for the first time. Is he uncomfortable and embarrassed—or moved by the beauty of the service? Does his eyes open for the first time to the dignity of Jewish worship or does he shut down because the service doesn’t accord with his beliefs?
A first trip to a Catholic Stations of the Cross, a Hindu puja, a Muslim service, or a Zen chanting session is bound to rouse feelings of some sort in your character—and those feelings are keys to what kind of person your character is.
4. Explore how your character reacts when his views are shaken.
A Christian discovers the minister she had deep faith in has been cheating on his wife. A modern-day follower of Zen unexpectedly finds himself drawn to evangelical worship. An atheist has an experience that is so remarkable it almost makes her believe in god.
Most people at one time or other in their lives have an experience that shakes their beliefs. This space is often uncomfortable and usually transitory—but can be transforming. The Christian woman may find her faith renewed by a different church or a different minister, or she may be embittered toward religion for good. The Zen Buddhist might find a starkly new spiritual path in an evangelical church, but is more likely to go back to silent meditation—although perhaps with a slightly different perspective. The atheist will probably get over what she will later view as a momentary lapse—but perhaps not.
In any case, exploring how your characters react to experiences that challenge their beliefs is an excellent way to dig deep into their lives.
These four techniques are exercises. They may never find their way into an actual story—and they don’t have to. They are for you. They are a way to reach deeply into your characters and excavate the most meaningful parts of their Selves. They will help you make your characters real, compelling, and alive, and that is what telling a good story is all about.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...