We started with the heart of the character, that being their core personality type. Then we added the skin which is made up of physical appearance. Now we need to start adding the bones and muscle that will make our character move and breathe.
Natural environmental factors such as birth order, family issues, education, talents, love language, and self-esteem are critical aspects to consider when you are creating a character with depth. As we look at each of these new layers, remember to go back to the core personality and see how this individual would be affected by the new layer.
Let’s start with birth order. Volumes of books have been written on the subject of family dynamics and the personalities of specific birthing order. Suffice to say that there are well-documented personality characteristics based on when a character joins the family unit. The oldest child tends to mirror the parents. Some call these children the golden children. The middle children tend to be adaptable and are considered the diplomats. I call them spies and instigators. The “babies of the family” tend to be overly indulged but are usually charming and … unusually handsome. 😉 Sorry, couldn’t help myself. These are very broad statements and are not carved in stone. However, they can be used to assist in developing how a character reacts to authority or a subordinate.
What kind of family dynamic the character was brought up in can have a huge impact on their abilities to cope with outside influences. Was the character an only child of a drug addict mother and an abusive father? Or, was it fourth out of ten kids with a family that was close-knit and fully supportive of each other? Remember to consider the character’s core personality. How would each of these family situations affect the personality you chose for your character.
How would the Twilight saga have changed if Bella Swan, the protagonist, had been the youngest of three children in a family that did everything together? Would she still have felt like she was born to be a vampire? Perhaps and perhaps not. However, the story would have been quite different, don’t you think?
How much formal education does the character possess? Did they graduate from the sixth grade or do they have several PhD’s from MIT. Perhaps the character dropped out of eighth grade and has been living on the streets of a major city until the age of twenty. They probably have street smarts galore instead of being book smart. This could have its advantages. Once again, look back to the core personality. What is the effect on the character.
Does your character have any special talents? These can be story related or not. An assassin who is also a cello virtuoso. Or, a coal miner who paints portraits. Or, from real life, a homeless man with the perfect radio personality voice. Talents can be obvious or hidden. They can be a driving force in the story or a side note. However, a special talent can and usually does have some impact on character development. For example, the shy stutterer that becomes the country music superstar when he learns that doesn’t stutter when he sings. You’re a writer, use your imagination. This alone can be the genesis of a story. For our purposes though, a talent adds depth and realism to a character.
A while ago, I was reading “Plot versus Character” by Jeff Gerke. In the section on character building he talked about a layer called Love Language. This one was new to me, but after reading this section a light bulb came on for me. I saw how it would affect my characters, but also how I am affected. Mr. Gerke referenced Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory that there are five love languages. They are: “Words of affirmation”, “Quality time”, “Receiving gifts”, “Acts of service”, and “Physical touch”. Each person has preferences as to how they give love and receive love. A quick definition is in order.
Words of affirmation – These people say the words. the feeling of love is spoken.
Quality time – These people show love by providing complete and undivided attention. They set aside special times to be with those they love.
Receiving gifts – These people show their affection by giving thoughtful gifts.
Acts of service – These people show love by doing things that they feel help their loved ones. Such as, cleaning the dishes, vehicle maintenance, watching the kids.
Physical touch – These are the huggers, the touchy feeley people. You know someone who always touches your arm when they talk to you or hug you hello and good-bye versus and wave or a handshake.
People can use any and all of these to send and receive feelings. However, each of us has a preferred method to send and a preferred method to receive affection. They are not always the same. Mixing and matching these can be fun. I am thinking of the lumberjack who gives everyone he meets a bear hug, being introduced to the British Queen. That would be interesting to watch.
Each of the layers we have discussed can affect and be affected by the core personality. Each of them will have an affect of the character’s self-esteem. How the character sees themselves may be very different from how others see them. Do they like themselves? Do they feel incomplete? Do they loathe who they are but feel unable to change? Very powerful stuff here. Take your time and think this through.
If you’ve been taking notes about your character as we go, you should have a number of pages filled with ideas. Your character is beginning to take shape, move, and breath. Next time we will add layers relating to life experiences and the external environment.