Wednesday, August 12

Learning All Your Character’s F Words

By Bonnie Randall 

Special Guest Author

In my counseling practice, the following F Words are actually called Major Life Areas, but if I say MLAs I either sound jargon-y or like I’m using some sort of strange sports acronym. So let’s stick with F Words (which comes with the added bonus of appeasing the not-so-secret part of me that likes to swear).

When examining a person’s Major Life Areas, we determine their level of function, their level of dysfunction, what they value in life and why. A person’s “F Words” reveal their flaws and lay bare their strengths. In fiction, just like in real life, your character’s F Words will show you how he or she thrives in some areas while struggling in others. Some of his/her Major Life Areas will be over-developed compensators for others that are woefully impoverished and painful for him or her. Difficulty in Major Life Areas reflect both inner and outer conflict—which, in fiction, is gold.

So let’s examine the seven major F Words that construct your characters’ Major Life Areas, and thus have a deeper sense of what drives them.

1. Finances

Flush or feeble? How’s your character set for money? Not many things stress us out like a lack of funds or full-blown poverty. If your character is broke, why? Is his job in a field that pays poorly? Has she made crummy investments? Maybe she’s wealthy. How did she come by her means? Hard work or inheritance? Luck or larceny? Finances drive many of our internal and external decisions. Where does your character land?

2. Field

A cousin to Finances, what does your character do for a living? Has she followed her passion or is she stuck in a dead-end job? What does his work (or career aspiration, if you’re writing a youth) say about his personality? There are values attached to the professions we seek, and their appeal to us usually says a lot about who we are. They say a lot about your character, too. So does how they function within the context of their job: high-baller or slacker? Does she use up every sick day she has coming or drag herself to work when she’s on death’s door? A few questions will reveal a lot.

3. Family

This one is extremely complex. Our families foster the most loving and painful relationships we will ever experience. Examine your character’s attitude about family—does he go home every Christmas, or avoid it like the plague? Was she abused, neglected, or orphaned? Familial relationships, especially with siblings, are often fraught with tension, resentment and jealousies—but also with respect, admiration and protectiveness too. There are thousands of excellent representations of complex family relationships in fiction. Consider the driving motive of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (protecting little sis). Terrier Rand’s ambivalence about his family of thieves and killers in Piccerilli’s The Last Kind Words, or the deep-reaching tentacles of generational alcoholism that create the monster Jack Torrance becomes in The Shining.

4. Friends

Who are your character’s friends? How do they contribute to (or rob from) her life? Are they positive / supportive? Or has she proverbially ‘laid down with dogs and got up with fleas’? Maybe your character has no friends. Why? Has he alienated everyone? Or is he shy / insecure? Examine who your character connects with and also how he connects. I once heard an agent say she will categorically reject any romance novel if the hero and heroine have a relationship only with each other. Why? Because in order for a reader to feel for a character, a character needs to have realistic connections with more people than just who they’re hot for (or have a compelling reason why they are, in fact, friendless).

5. Fitness

Perhaps lesser of the Seven F’s fictionally than in real life, but fitness does bear mentioning—does your character care about fitness? Or is he overweight, out of shape, and on the fast-track to a heart attack? Perhaps he’s like Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard in having a near-obsessiveness with fitness (and deeply laid inner conflicts as to why). Fitness is worth a peek. Check it out.

6. Fun

How does your character define fun? Leisure pursuits speak volumes about people (Ted Bundy enjoyed perusing old noir detective magazines with buxom, bloodied women on their covers. Go figure.) Does your character even know how to have fun? In the novel I am shopping, The Summit’s Shadow, hero Andrew Gavin doesn’t pursue much leisure (he’s far too busy punishing himself with a life of responsibility) but he does teach himself how to play the guitar. Why? He misses his true love, classical guitarist Elizabeth, so in an effort to feel close to her he plays guitar for an audience of only himself. Poignant, a little pathetic, but oh-so revealing.

7. Faith

Spirituality is a powder keg. Few things give rise to more conflict, anger, opinions, and divisiveness than faith and religiosity. How does your character navigate within the scope of this Major Life Area? Do they define faith by religion or by spirituality? Do they even know there’s a difference? What is their attitude toward religions other than their own (or religions at all if they are atheist / agnostic)? What does their faith drive them to do—or prevent them from doing? Is faith life-giving or punitive in their world? Maybe both?

8. *This one’s a bonus!* Food

People have the funkiest relationships with food. From gluttony to anorexia, food elicits extreme reactions and behaviors in people, as food is not only closely aligned with body image issues, but also with our ability (or disability) to self-soothe. So what is your character’s relationship like with food? Do they police their eating? Shovel it in like tomorrow might not come? Is food fun or dysfunctional in their world—and why?

F Words can both reflect and define a character’s personality, and as such will be critically inherent in the goals, motivations, and conflicts that guide their story. I hope that in examining each of these Major Life Areas your character becomes all the more vivid for you.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. This is a great post both creating and fleshing out a character. I write a lot of short stories, and while word count means I can't always include details about all of these areas, in the back of my mind I know the answers. If you can't answer a question about your character's best friend in grade school or his/her FICO score, then it might be a good idea to spend more quality with them. :)

    1. I am the same! My character's favorite food may never make it into the m/s, but I sure know what it is!

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  2. LOVE this post! Knowing all of these helps to form a good round character (esp the food :-D )

  3. Fabulous post - lots a ideas for digging deeper into the character.