Jeff Gerke’s book Plot vs. Character has some fabulous information to build believable characters, and I’m offering most of that wisdom to you, free of charge. If you want it all, you’ll have to buy the book. In the last post, we discussed the physical attributes of your character. Today we’ll look at the natural attributes, or those things your character was born into or with, things like gifts, talents, and background.
Family of Origin
First, think of your character’s family. What kind of family is it? A person growing up in a house with seventeen kids and three generations will be different that an only child with a single parent. Consider the house: a shack, a mansion, a castle? Were the character’s parents married when she was born? Did they stay married, or did they remarry and blend two households? Was the home stable and happy, or depressing and forgettable? Was there privilege or poverty, food stamps and welfare, yacht clubs and nightclubs, food kitchens (on either side of the serving tray) or church potlucks? All these things influence your character’s personality.
Birth order can also play a factor. Is your character the first-born or the youngest of six? The only female in a house full of boys? If the oldest, was she responsible for caring for all those younger than her? Or was there a nanny involved? A mean baby-sitter? Was she a latch-key kid (home alone until the folks came home)?
Did your character have a parent with an exceptionally strong personality? Kids of drill sergeants grow up in a different environment than kids of hippies, and it impacts personality. Where did your character grow up? Military kids move around a lot. Farmers stay in one place. Did he grow up in the big city or in a rural community?
How well educated is your character? Grammar school or grad school? Was it a high-quality education or street smarts, Ivy league or correspondence courses? How high did your character want to go in her education? Did she get there? Did she settle for less? Did she study what she wanted to study, or did she study what she was expected to study? Also, how intelligent is your character? Measure both mental acuity and common sense when determining how smart she is.
Gifts and Talents
What is your character good at? We all gravitate toward the things we’re naturally gifted in, and so will your character. The highest goal is to join the things we’re good at with the things we enjoy doing and turn them into something we can make a living at. Did your character succeed? Or is she a graceful dancer going to med school because her daddy wanted her to? Does she have a knack for fixing things? An ear for foreign languages? The uncanny ability to express thoughts verbally? A gift for teaching? A way with animals? A natural-born talent for spurring others on to virtuous works?
What does your character enjoy doing? Does she love throwing parties? Reading books all day long? Working crossword puzzles? Singing in jazz clubs? Sometimes what people are good at and what they enjoy doing are two different things. Your character may love to sing but be tone deaf. He may love kids but he ends up scaring them away.
These are factors in your character’s personality, so know them well. In the next post I’ll discuss love language, one of the most meaningful sections in the book (at least, it was to me).