I can’t remember when I first decided I wanted to write. I just always liked to tell stories. I enjoy world-building most of all, setting up a scene and giving my characters a place to reside. I enjoy introducing the reader to this stage, describing almost unnecessary details, down to the position of the sun in the sky, or the gritty feel of sand on bare feet.
But then it gets hard, because the characters have to do, and be, something.
I’ve been reading the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In chapter three, it discusses “the many aspects of the human person.” My issues with characterization were the first thing I thought of.
The Church’s social doctrine stops to dwell above all on the principal and indispensable dimensions of the human person… In the past there has been no lack of various reductionist conceptions of the human person, many of which are still dramatically present on the stage of modern history… The common denominator among these is the attempt to make the image of man unclear by emphasizing only one of his characteristics at the expense of all the others.
My issue with characters is the same issue we have with human beings in general: they’re reduced to a singular character trait, or function, and we don’t see beyond that. Or the fictional character has no substance. We’ve all seen stories that fall victim to the “single trait” character: this is the science geek; the brawn and no brains; the voice of reason. When I write a story, I love for my protagonist to have the “outgoing best friend” or the “platonic boy friend.” But these characters have little depth. i.e., the best friend has no personality beyond “outgoing.” What are her interest? What would cause her to not be outgoing? We do this to the people around us, too. We don’t stop to consider their inner selves.
Reducing others to a singular character traits dehumanizes them. This is the origin of stereotypes, and we base entire groups or cultures based on that one (often misplaced) trait: Asians are smart. Engineers are socially awkward. Catholics are… I don’t know. Pick one. There are a lot. We only see the surface, ignoring the deeper character—the true character—that makes them human.
The Compendium goes on to say
The Church’s social doctrine strives to indicate the different dimensions of the mystery of man, who must be approached “in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being”, with special attention so that the value of the human person may be readily perceived.
When we understand the fullness of each individual person, we understand their value. And we understand that people are complex, emotional, and real. I often think of a cashier at the supermarket. Sometimes, she doesn’t say hello. Or even make eye contact. It’s easy to label her as “rude,” but you don’t consider who she is. Maybe she got into a fight before her shift. Maybe she’s struggling with her supervisor. Or maybe she’s just shy. When you consider the depth of each person, and understand that every one us has things going on, and are feeling something at every moment, it humanizes them. They’re developed beyond that singular trait, and not only do we understand them, but we also love them.
Sometimes, when writing fiction, characters get away from me. It’s a lot like getting to know someone—I’ll pause in my writing and wonder why I just made her say something, or why she reacted the way she did. It’s not what I expected. At that moment, she almost becomes human. A good character develops a personality of her own, and it’s our duty as their creators to understand that. We can’t force them into preexisting boxes of expectation. We map out expectations of their personalities, but then let them grow. Over time, we learn even more about them based on their experiences, reactions, and relations with other characters.
We can learn a little something about real people that way, too.