Let’s talk about characters today. We all know that we generally want our major characters to be fleshed out, round people. For those uncertain, I define major characters as the recurring characters whose attitudes and actions have a major impact on the narrative. These include the protagonist(s), sidekicks, mentors, love interests, antagonists, and villains. Minor, incidental characters can be flatter or maybe “typed,” but they can also benefit from being well-rounded. And there are a lot of ways to do this, but planning a character’s ideals, bonds, and flaws provide a shortcut to rounding out their personalities.
I’ve taken this idea from Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition, and it works to describe a character far better than alignment does. In D&D, these character traits arise from a character’s chosen background, and as a fiction writer, this is where we look to a character’s past to help determine their core personality. Ideals are those lofty values by which a character lives their life. Bonds are the people/things that have had a major impact on the character’s life. And Flaws are personality traits that can easily cause trouble for the player. Let’s go through these in relation to my main protagonist, Samantha (Sam) Hain, and how they impacted her in Liam’s Doom (minor spoilers ahead).
Samantha is youngish (twenty-nine) when the book starts. She’s been a private investigator and supernatural “fixer” for almost ten years officially. She has three stated ideals within the text: (1) Supernatural beings are people just like us; (2) Solve problems without violence whenever possible; (3) Keep both humans and supernatural beings safe.
She’s young, and she has her ideals. She recognizes that supernatural beings have problems, and sometimes they need help solving them. She doesn’t want to set human/non-human as a binary of opposition, believing all can work together and all can be helped at the same time. Her second stated ideal is to set her apart from the various Veil Watcher groups who have no problem protecting the truth of reality and the human race through killing. These are the principles that guide her life and inform how she interacts with others.
As she moves throughout Liam’s Doom, she tries to cling to all three of these, but her antagonists place her in a position where she has to choose one of her ideals to keep, one will need alteration, and one must be sacrificed.
Bonds are people, objects, and goals that connect a character to the world around them. These can be people the character must protect, feels loyal to, or seeks vengeance against. Objects a character seeks or seeks to protect and other goals/personal quests can bond a character to their world.
Samantha has several bonds, but let’s talk about the ones that really anchor her and help define her. She is bonded to three individuals above all others (Destiny Grimm, Carmilla Karnstein, and her late mother, Amelia Burnside-Hain), but these bonds connect her to the world in different ways. Destiny Grimm is Sam’s best friend and business partner. As a former Veil Watcher, she connects Sam to those resources, but she grounds Sam and provides advice, love, and emotional support. The vampire Carmilla Karnstein is a former lover and current friend who connects (and at times taunts) Sam with the world of her own emotional desires as well as helps her keep one foot in the world of supernatural beings. Sam’s late mother, Amelia, is someone whom Sam misses; her loss left a huge hole in Sam’s heart, a loss that led her to make a hasty bargain with the Devil himself, offering him a blank check in exchange for a one-hour conversation each year on Sam’s birthday. Of course, that contract looms over her head.
Her father, Arch Magus Donal Hain, is an example of a negative bond. They have a contentious relationship. He expects obedience and respect from her, even though he has been largely absent from her life. To his credit, he tries to be involved and, to an extent, protect her, but he expects things to be done his way and only his way; of course, that doesn’t sit well with Sam. And then, when she encounters him on Old Tom’s Hill, any chance of reconciliation seems destroyed.
Flaws are vices, compulsions, weaknesses, and other traits that, if the character displayed them in moderation, they would not be a problem. Unfortunately, these are traits the character does not display in moderation. As a result, they cause the character problems, incite and enflame conflicts, and generally make life difficult.
Sam’s two big flaws are her independence and her stubbornness. Independence can be a wonderful trait, but Sam’s leads her to refusing to ask for help, even when the situation suggests that she doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to handle her situation. At one point, Sam gets lost in an unfamiliar land, but she refuses to ask for and accept help, believing that she has to do things on her own. Similarly, Sam is stubborn, a trait she shares with her father. Even when she knows she is wrong, Sam’s pride and stubbornness cause her to double down, leading her to say and do things that can harm relationships and herself.
I realize that I could go into more detail, but since Liam’s Doom only hit shelves in March, it’s still a young book, so I don’t want to give too many spoilers. That said, when I sketch a character, I make sure to give them 2-3 notes in each of these categories. They need ideals to tell me what they value and believe in. They need bonds to connect them to the world. And they need flaws to round them out and cause them problems.
My debut novel, Liam’s Doom, is on sale at all major and minor retail outlets from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to Bookshop.org. I request that you support Bookshop.org, as their site supports local and independent bookstores. The eBook is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through my webstore.
Also, you can find the first chapter of my serialized prequel novel Blood/Lust on my website. New chapters go live at noon each Sunday!