Where do you find great characters? Simple answer: Everywhere.
I met Sergei at a fast food restaurant in the Salt Lake City airport. If you have spent as much time in airports as I have, you soon learn that this is where you will find the least friendly and least attentive service. The folks behind the counters generally could not care less about you. After all, they will likely never see you again. Their only concern is how much time remains on their shift and how long it will take them to work through the twenty or so customers behind you.
Not so with Sergei. Sergei made eye contact with me and assisted me with my order. He didn’t act rushed or seem impatient with questions he must hear hundreds of times a day. I liked Sergei and took a seat across from his station so that I could observe him. Sure enough, as I suspected, Sergei’s mission was to ensure each customer with whom he came in contact had the best possible dining experience.
Now, I’m sure Sergei recognized that he did not work at the top of the employment food chain – pun intended. But clearly this didn’t matter. He was in America and in America you can be anything you want. And it appeared to me for the next half-hour while watching Sergei that what he wanted was to be the best fast-food worker he could be. Sergei was attentive, courteous and a good bit older than his colleagues… and he took his job seriously — surprisingly so.
Sergei was not a snappy dresser. His dark pants were worn and his shirt a bit faded, but he wore his white smock with pride as if he were the restaurant’s executive chef. The only thing that really stood out about Sergei’s clothing was his shoes. They were a tricked-out, two-hundred dollar pair of sneakers that seemed remarkably out of place with the rest of his clothing. The shoes seemed to say, “Hi. Look at me. I belong to Sergei. I’m a new arrival to America and I’m going places.”
Are you feeling a character coming on? Good. So, how do we take this few minutes of observation of Sergei and build him into a full-fledged, I-want-to-spend-time-with-this-guy, character?
NAME: Okay, let’s give Sergei his name. Let’s call him. Sergei Pavlovich. But what does this name tell us about Sergei? Nothing, right? It’s just a name for our character. Notice that Sergei does not have a middle name. Everyone he knew growing up had at least three names. Sergei always felt badly about this – that his parents didn’t care enough to give him a “decent” Russian name.
OCCUPATION: What is Sergei’s occupation? Fast-food worker. Got it. But what did he do before this? What if he was a former hitman for the Russian mob? Let’s work with this for a moment.
WHAT IS THIS CHARACTER’S MAJOR GOAL? He wants to escape the Russian mob and he wants to become a ‘good’ American. He wants to start over.
WHAT ARE THIS CHARACTER’S MAJOR PROBLEMS? Let’s assume his former employers are looking for him. Let’s say Sergei was a ‘moral’ hitman … only killing people who deserved it. He screened the assignments his anonymous clients gave him. (We’re stealing a bit from the movie, True Lies. When asked by Jamie Lee Curtis if Arnold had ever killed anyone his response was, “Yes, but they were all baddd!”)
HOW WILL SERGEI’S SITUATION GET WORSE? Well, the Russian mob could find Sergei, but let’s put that on hold for a moment. Let’s say that Sergei has found out he was tricked into killing an innocent man. How would Sergei react? Notice that we are moving into plot, but that’s Okay. Let’s say that Sergei decides to seek out his deceitful employer and take his revenge.
As a hitman, Sergei brings to the role a set of skills. He also brings baggage. For example, I used to work with a guy who at one time belonged to … let’s just say a clandestine service. Frank (not his real name) did things for our government that our government claims we don’t do. Frank was deeply disturbed by things he had done. After a few drinks one evening he confessed to me he was going to counseling. I’ll never forget his words. He said, “I just want them to put me back together… like I was before.” The look on Frank’s face and the obvious pain in his voice were haunting and tragic. Sergei will likely carry similar burdens.
WHAT DOES SERGEI CARE ABOUT? Sergei cares primarily about two things – starting over and his daughter (more on her later). How do we make readers care about Sergei? Easy, we show Sergei as caring about something other than himself.
Now, what do we know about Sergei so far?
Birthplace: Russia – But where in Russia? Moscow? Nah, too easy. Let’s say he is from Czernowitz in the Ukraine. Now this town is mostly Jewish, also poor. Let’s say that Sergei is not Jewish, so he grew up as an outcast in this community. This made him hate religion. In fact, it was this hatred that led him into the “hitman business.” Perhaps he took assignment to take out a problematic Rabbi who got in the way of mob business.
What else do we know? Well, we have lots of character contrast going on. Sergei is a killer, but he’s likable. He is a killer coming from a religious community and has moved to one of the most religious parts of America. But he absolutely hates religion, and he cannot escape it in Salt Lake. This probably makes Sergei tense. Tense is good. We like tense. Maybe this is why Sergei took the job in the airport – to get away from the heavy Mormon influence in Salt Lake.
You will (hopefully) remember from the first posting on ‘Building Character’ that we said we want characters that react to each other, but it is also helpful to put your characters in situations in which they are uncomfortable and in environments in which they stand out.
Let’s move on. Married? No. Children: One daughter, age 17. What other key relationships does Sergei have? Where is the mother of his child? Is his daughter with him? Does she know what he does? Is he a loving father? What are his plans for his daughter? (Fathers always have plans for their kids.)
What we are looking to develop is not just an understanding of Sergei, but a history that contributes to his motivations, desires, fears and dreams.
Would Sergei work as the main character of your story? Yes, but it will be difficult. While there is a lot to work with character-wise, Sergei has, after all, been a bad guy for most of his adult life — a conflicted bad guy perhaps, but a bad guy nonetheless. The challenge will be to make him sympathetic enough that a reader could get past the fact that he once killed people for a living. His desire for moral redemption is a positive.
As an author, it would be fun and interesting to see how Sergei evolves. He wants forgiveness. He may not know it at first, but he does. He may turn to religion. If so, this could be a way in which Sergei grows as a person.
Think about Sergei. Obviously, we have not ‘colored’ him in at all. We need to decide upon his physical attributes: his hair color, body build, height, weight, etc. He is far from fully developed, yet there is a lot here with which we can work. Just as characters are illuminated and revealed by other characters, they are also illuminated and revealed by elements of plot as well.
If you are thinking about the plot, that’s great. Maybe you’re thinking the mob wants Sergei back in the fold and they’ve kidnapped his daughter. If you are thinking about Sergei tomorrow, that means the character outlined here is memorable. That’s good, too. That means I’ve done my job… and that maybe you’ve been bitten by the writing bug. When the voices begin in your head, you’ll know you’ve finally succumbed to the writing infection. 🙂
Wow! Very well done, great break down of the process of building a fully realized character.
The depth of a character, as you illustrate, makes writing so much easier. With everything we know about Sergei, if something happens to him or someone talks to him, writing a response is not work, it can just come. And as you say, once fleshed out, a strong character can help one plot out an entire story.
Another attribute that can help in making a character feel real is giving him/her inconsistencies. Real people are complex and can have conflicts within themselves on their views and issues. Also, it can lead to humor and help endear a character to readers/viewers.
Once again, excellent. I do full character profiles as well, and you illustrate the process fairly well.
Using a few points from some “cliche” characters make your illustration of the process much better.
2CCP: Thank you for the kind words on my humble attempts to ‘pay back.’ Any chance you might volunteer to tackle a topic? 😉