Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Today, we're talking about one way to create stellar characters. Just one of many, but it's an important one. I use it pretty much every time I sit down to create a character.
Give your character a code of ethics.
Now, phrasing it that way makes it sound like it must be something formal or militaristic, but it doesn't have to be. This is merely something they believe in--or perhaps specifically don't believe in--strongly.
It can be anything. Perhaps they don't believe in abuse, and that's what they fight against. Perhaps they only believe in doing something a certain way. Or perhaps they don't believe in NOT doing something. In that case, they probably have some sort of routine or ritual they do every X amount of time, and they never miss it. If you're writing a middle-grade character or a comedy, perhaps they don't believe in eating pickles. Again, it can be ANYTHING, but it does inform who the character is and how they go about making decisions.
It's also good to tie it in some way to your world. If you create a fantasy world, have it be part of the world in some way. If you write about cops fighting crimes, tie it to their jobs in some way. If it's romance, tie it to their feelings about finding love, or perhaps the world/time period they live in.
Let's look at some examples.
Speaking of romance, once again, Elizabeth Bennet is a great example. She's determined that only the greatest love will tempt her into matrimony. She refuses to marry for money or convenience. And that informs many of her decisions throughout the story.
In Judy Blume's Freckle Juice (a book I read many times as a child) the main character wants to figure out how to give himself freckles. He believes so deeply in this, he'll do anything to make it happen.
There's an old move called L.A. Confidential. It's based on a book but (full disclosure) I haven't read the book. Only seen the film. Russel Crowe's character is a good example of this. He can't stand to see women abused. As the story proceeds, we find out it's because his abusive father killed his mother when he was a child. (And this is a great example specifically because it's extreme. Make this a PASSIONATE code of ethics for your character.) So anytime he sees a woman being even somewhat roughed up, he has a melt down. At one point, he breaks an oak chair with his bare hands because he becomes so irate about it.
Yeah, we LOVE that character.
But what's the point of all this? Once we have the code of ethics established for the character, what do we do next?
Well, this obviously isn't something you HAVE to do, but I would submit that establishing the code of ethics (and establishing it VERY well) and then taking the character to the place where they break that code of ethics, often constitutes a stellar character arc.
For more detail on how to do this, plus more examples, including LOST and We Were Soldiers, give this podcast episode a listen: