Good Writers Never Forget about This Part of Characterization

Published about 1 month ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

Here's a tip to make your character seem like a full, complex, robust character.

It seems simple but I've found it's not only a great way to craft a character, but also a great litmus check to see whether your character is too 2-dimensional.

Here it is: Make sure your character exists in all three temporal dimensions:

  1. Haunted by the PAST
  2. Wrestling with the PRESENT
  3. Wary of the FUTURE

This might seem like obvious advice, but the devil is in the details.

1. Haunted by the Past

For example, when it comes to the past, most writers believe that means delivering information about the past. So we know that character X:

  • baled hay
  • graduated from a trade school
  • flunked out of the Navy Seals

But that focus on information can lead to dull exposition.

No, when I'm talking about the past, I mean to have your character haunted by the past.

The past must be a problem for your character.

The past must feel unresolved.

In Claire Keegan's book, "Small Things like These," we don't get a ton of backstory on the main character, Bill Furlong, but we do know he's unsure of his father's identity, and that bothers him.

There's a smattering of information about his past, but the most relevant detail is the mystery of his father. So a chunk of the book is about him trying to discover the identity of his father.

When constructing a character's past, follow these guidelines:

  • Go short on information: condense a whole lifetime into a paragraph.
  • Go long on angst: focus on what continues to plague and haunt your character.
  • The past must spill into the present. The past is only relevant if it currently affects the character.

2. Wrestling with the Present

This seems like the most obvious fodder for narrative, and that's why writers usually get this one right.

Conflict, conflict, conflict, all the writing teachers tell us, and you know what? They're right.

My biggest recommendation is that you should have at least two problems in the present (at least!).

While you can get away with a single issue in the past and a single issue in the future, in the present you should double down.

To draw again from Claire Keegan's book, she offers two present-moment problems:

  • Bill Furlong discovers a young girl being mistreated by nuns (locked in a cold storage shed). What's he going to do about it?
  • He's consumed by work and worried about money. Can he provide for his family without losing his soul in work?

The first is more of an external problem (the mistreated girl).

While the other is more of an internal problem (anxiety, fretting).

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3. Wary of the Future

The future is the time period most ignored when constructing a character. So many writers forget about this part, but I'm sure you won't forget!

Ask yourself:

  • What is your character anticipating?
  • What are they preparing for?

Bill Furlong has five young daughters.

A man with five daughters has plenty to worry about.

He's worried about them "entering the world of men."

Once again, like the past, the future only is relevant in the way that it affects the present.

Because Bill is worried about his daughters' future, it makes his present work and decision about the imprisoned girl more difficult.

The future creates problems for the present in the same way the past creates problems for the present.

Happy writing!

John Matthew Fox

PS. I've been posting writing videos on my Youtube Channel. Check em out!


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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