One of the pleasures of great fiction comes when a character you love takes an action that you didn't foresee and yet is so right for the character that it feels inevitable. You find yourself saying, "Of course! That's so like her!" The flip side of the experience is the character whose action so surprises you that you scratch your head and flip to the cover just to make sure you're still reading the same book. That's emotional resonance at work (or not at work in the second example.) Character interviews and charts listing personal appearance and habits are an excellent beginning, but how do you move into the realm of what makes a character internally consistent and emotionally true? To get at the deeper character, a writer has to ask herself deeper questions. Here are two to get you started.
What is the virtue that my character's family or friends or community values most highly? What is the worst sin this character could commit in his social circle?
For example, soldiers don't leave men behind. They will risk everything to bring the body of a fallen soldier home. This has been true since Hector and Achilles were fighting at the gates of Troy. The worst shame and guilt that a soldier suffers is from a failure to protect his men, even in death.
This question gets at the heart of what motivates your character's choices, and gives you a basis for escalating the conflict in your story. The more you put a character at odds with his personal moral compass, the more tension you will have in your scenes. It also protects you from unintentionally making a character choose something that is inconsistent with his values. For example a good soldier may well leave bodies on the field in retreat, but he would never do so without exhausting every option and suffering remorse. Having your character's core virtue or sin firmly in mind helps keep that character consistent and emotionally resonant.
Author Bio: Rosanne Parry
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, please consider taking Rosanne Parry's conference workshop Character and the Seven Deadly Sins. Rosanne is the award-winning author of Heart of a Shepherd and two other novels. She has taught workshops at Fishtrap, SCBWI, NCTE and numerous schools and book festivals across the country. She lives in Portland. www.rosanneparry.com