Building Characters – Disasters

Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character contains tons of excellent information about building believable characters. Today, it’s time to send your character through the wringer.

Every character needs to have a history that includes hardships, perils, life events that he’s survived: the major influences that have shaped his character into something beyond the 16 base personalities outlined at the beginning of this series. They don’t necessary have to be traumatic, but they should be big enough to make an impact.

Think about his home life. Was it a broken home? Did his parent bicker and bribe and beat each other for his attention? Extrapolate from that event, through the character’s childhood, and figure out how they shaped him. How would a character with this temperament and love language react to this situation? How would it impact his self-image and career choice?

Maybe his parents stayed together, but a sibling died when your character was young. Or what if he was born in a military family and every two years got yanked away from his friends? What if an act of God (hurricane, tornado, tsunami, volcano) traumatized his family? What if she’s constantly trying to please Dad, but he’s not proud of anything she ever accomplished? 

As you play with possible major life events, think of positive things that could have had negative effects. Maybe his parents won the lottery, but dealing with new-found wealth can be traumatic for some people. Maybe she was a child star in Hollywood–you all know where that one can go. 

Gerke offers this example from his novel, Operation: Firebrand. Rachel is a Mossad agent. As a little girl, she was in a Tel Aviv hotel with her father when a terrorist detonated a bomb. Rachel stayed with her father’s dead body, surrounded by other dead people, for hours before someone found her. This event forever altered her life. Her innocence was gone. Her convictions that people are basically good were eradicated. Her father and the feeling of always being protected were gone. Rachel’s adulthood was shaped by this event. She seeks protector-type males. She champions children’s causes. She joined a counter-intelligence agency. 

In my latest book, Cassandra’s Curse, Cassie was stalked by an ex-boyfriend when she was in high school. The stalking ended when he crashed his pick-up into Cassie’s car and they were both severely injured. Now she experiences seizures, so she can’t drive–she has to rely on others to ferry her around. She’s terrified of strangers, particularly men. She’s driven to control every aspect of her world. If that stalking incident hadn’t happened, Cassie would have matured into a different woman altogether.

Now think about your character. Do you want him to behave in certain ways for the purposes of your story? Consider what major life event could have impacted him in such a way that he’d naturally tend to do those things. Or maybe she’s spoiled and soft, so that when something major happens to her, she has no resources.

In my story, I had the ending in mind when I made up Cassie’s trauma. The ending of the book takes place in a city 60 miles north of Cassie’s home town. Getting Cassie to that scene was too easy – she drives up and arrives on time. So I brainstormed: how do I make it harder for Cassie to get to the end locale? Take away her vehicle. Better yet, take away her ability to drive. Then I dug deeper. What else could make this journey difficult for her? I made her agoraphobic – she hates to leave her neighborhood. She’s afraid of strangers. She’s afraid of new places and new things. Based on where I needed my character to be at the end of the story, I built her a background that suited her temperament, made logical sense, and added extra tension to the ending of the story.

Gerke suggests a brainstorming session. Come up with at least a dozen things that might have happened to your character in his past. Follow each one through to figure out how it would impact his character now that he’s mature. Then choose the one or two that make it especially difficult for your character to achieve his goals, conquer his obstacles, and survive the journey.


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