When I build my characters, I like a full picture. As I practice this craft, I get better at it. My pictures are more complete each time, and one reason for this is Observation.
Observation teaches two things. First, it shows me actual characteristics, physical and mental, that I can use to build my characters. Appearances, mannerisms, vocal traits, behaviors, they all add to a complete portrait. The second thing observation teaches is types. Yes, I’m sorry to say, but people generally can be classed into types.
Understanding types is important because, when I go against type, I want to know it.
Example: by and large, men are more into sports than women. Yes, I know…some women are sports nuts and I’m not saying they aren’t; I’m saying that, in general, men are more likely to have an interest in sports than women. So, will I never write a female character who’s into sports? No, I might do that in this next book. But if I do, I need to know that the characteristic puts the character in the minority. Why? Because if a character is in the minority of her peers, that might shape her, one way or another.
To this point, an interesting characteristic has been discussed on a couple of boards. It’s a characteristic I hadn’t thought of before, but it’s an important one. I’d like to share it with you, and get your feedback.
It has to do with men and women and the friends they have.
The question has been asked: Do you usually make friends of the your same gender, or of the opposite gender? The answers were split evenly three ways–those who had friends mostly of the same sex, those who befriended the opposite sex more often, and those who had no preference or predominance– so there wasn’t any generality or trend to be divined, at least not until the follow-up question: Why?
In response to “Why?” a common thread popped up in those who more easily made friends with the opposite sex. In short, people who did not usually befriend their own sex claimed it was due to competition. It was the same for men as for women. Neither of them liked the intra-gender competition, and thus mostly befriended members of the opposite sex because their intra-gender competition didn’t affect the cross-gender friendship.
Of those who befriended members of their own sex or who didn’t have a preference, there was no distinct reason.
Men do compete with one another. The whole Alpha Male thing is alive and well amongst men. And women compete, as well. Watch any episode of any reality show and you’ll see that women do compete amongst themselves, and often it’s more cutthroat than among the men. Naturally, these behaviors change with age–women at 20-something behave differently than a post-menopausal group–but the trends are still there.
So, a male character who isn’t the Alpha Male type…is he going to have a lot of male friends? If he does, how does he deal with always being lower down in the hierarchy? Does he have one area in which he excels (say, poker night with the guys), or does he just admire the Alphas and Betas in his social circle? Was he driven into competition by his father? Does he inexplicably feel more competent when he puts on his glasses? Does changing to contacts suddenly change his demeanor?
It’s all part of building a fully realized character that is believable to the reader. Sure, you can write a character without these traits, without this depth, and for lots of walk-on characters, I won’t bother. But for my main characters, if I can make them more realistic, more believable, why wouldn’t I?
As always, your comments are encouraged.