What Is Your Default Character?

Only one time have I ever looked at my character and said “they’re perfect”. That character wasn’t mine; it wasn’t somebody else’s. It was my personal character. And I was wrong.

I thought I was all right because I didn’t see my flaws. After all, if I don’t see my own flaws, who am I to think that I have any?

I obviously don’t. (/sarcasm)

So when we see our characters leaning towards a certain personality, but we don’t think of any other personalities, why should we expect to see the flaws in the lack of diversity of characters? The flaws in our writing? The flaws of our story’s world being too dang consistent?

I’m not talking about being consistent in following the rules of your story’s universe- you need to do that for a believable story. But I’m talking about consistency in people and personality- because we are all different and we are only the same in specific points, and even then we tend to be those ways because of different aspects of ourselves and different experiences.

Billy and Bobby might both love to talk about the fence at the end of the street around Old Man Johnson’s house, but Billy is an engineer and Bobby a troublemaker. (Yes, I know the two are certainly not mutually exclusive) Billy wants to know why and how the fence was built, and Bobby wants to knock if over.

Billy and Bobby love to talk about the fence, but their motives are different. Because they’re different people.

When we see others act as we act, our assumption tends to be that they’re doing it for the same reason.

Do you go to a religious establishment? Ask yourself why others are going there. Perhaps they are devout like you; perhaps they are confused and aren’t sure what to do with their life; perhaps they met a man or a woman they really like and want to date, and they’re there to get their notice.

Do you buy videogames? Ask yourself why others do. Do they enjoy the games? Do they like building up a collection? Do they do it to fill empty time, or maybe to try to make empty time full?

Do you eat sushi? Ask yourself why others do. Do they enjoy sushi? Do they think it’s healthy? Do they tolerate it for their spouse? Maybe they are even allergic but they just don’t want to admit it!

I’m not recommending you become suspicious of everybody’s behavior; but I’m recommending you be aware that you don’t know the motives, and that you have these default assumptions that pour into the characters you create.

You can’t assume the “why” behind what other people do and be very consistently right, but we do it all the time (or at least I do). And the “why” is the most important part in character development.

Because the “why” gets to the core of who the character is and allows us to get to know them better. I go into the “why” question in this post, so I’m not going to belabor that here. Suffice to say that “why” is important, and thus assuming the “why” leads to bland characters.

But what really makes a character “bland”? One of two things: lack of flavor or lack of uniqueness, both based on our personal experiences.

We all have interesting character traits, it’s just a matter of if we expose them or not. You don’t have to like every trait in everybody, but you do have to understand that things that aren’t interesting to you, you can still find interesting in concept. I may not get involved in conversations about makeup, but I may find somebody’s fascination and study of cosmetics interesting in what it means to them or as a topic.

If all of your characters love potato chips, perhaps that becomes a bland trait. If only 1 character loves potato chips and all of your other characters hate them with a passion, that one who loves potato chips stands out.

This is based on our own experiences. If I live in America, people from another country coming in are going to interest me a lot. Because, to me, they are unique. “You eat that?” “You say that?” “You do that?” But I, going to their country, would be just as interesting, and I would be just as unique.

This has a lot of different elements, and sometimes trying too hard to make interesting characters gets us in trouble (when we put trying to be interesting over consistent character or characters who will drive the story forward, or really delving into who the character is without those traits). But be aware of your default assumptions and the default traits that you plunge into whenever you create a new story.

Defaults aren’t bad. But they’re meant to be overridden.

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