Like life on earth, characters are found – not created. Even in cases where you’re going into deep sci-fi or fantasy and you’ve got characters that aren’t remotely human of appearance, you still need them to reflect human traits back at anyone who explores them in your writing. We’ll get back to that.
Writers, like all storytellers, have one major thing in common – we’re observant. We take in everything around us. We might forget someone’s name, but we’ll remember the way they carried their centre of gravity, if they didn’t swing their arms as they walked or they had some idiosyncrasy, like talking out of the side of their mouth. These are things that people don’t generally notice unless it’s pointed out to them. When your character does it, they’ll see traits that they’ve seen out and about but maybe can’t quite place and that’s when you know you’ve got an endearing character. There is a whisper of humanity in there that makes it fictional but familiar.
Peter Sellers always looked at real people for his characters. Inspector Clouseau was a waiter somewhere in Paris – the slight squint, the narrowed lips and the tone of voice all came from someone Sellers met in a restaurant. As absurd as Clouseau is, he still reminds us of someone. He is real. Just not in the material sense.
You find these little quirks and traits as you go through life – people’s lip placement as they speak, the amount of times they touch their face during a conversation, the way they pick something up – and you infuse them where they make sense with characters. But do not make it obvious! One of Marlon Brando’s few admitted self-criticisms was his performance in The Wild One. He’d decided Johnny was apelike and infused ape like traits and idiosyncrasies into his performance, but didn’t cover it as well as he’d have liked (it’s still an amazing performance) – never make it obvious. Remember – most people don’t notice these things. If you mention in passing just once, that’s enough. The reader will pick it up.
Mannerisms are different to idiosyncrasies. They’re more obvious and are influenced by outside forces. For example, a tradesperson carries their hands and wrists differently to an office worker. They might be slightly curled inward. Slightly less dexterous. They’ll definitely be harder and more calloused. But an office worker stands differently. How’s their back, after years of poor ergonomics?
Then there’s how recently they worked. A tradesperson’s hands feel differently of a Sunday evening to a Friday afternoon. Maybe they like to nurse a cold beer for a while after a week of work because the cool surface is soothing on their palms?
Another important factor is tribe. The late Billy Stoneking used to go on and on about tribe when it comes to character development and he was absolutely right. It’s not just our cultures that influence our idiosyncrasies and our mannerisms, it’s the people we roll with – if any. Being a loner has an effect on someone’s behaviour as surely as anything, but life is never so simple as say, Mexico’s a predominantly Catholic country so my Mexican character is a Catholic… are they? Really? There are atheists and Satanists and indigenous beliefs and customs in Mexico as well, and in addition to characters who belong to these groups there’s people who grew up around them, people who adopt certain behaviours because they hated their parents… a kid from a happy household will adopt customs and culture native to their tribe, but a kid who was beaten up by their father isn’t going to be so willing. If a father was at church on Sunday after being at the brothel all night Saturday, then his daughter or son might not be so fond of a church that, ‘forgives all this behaviour, as long as you’ve brought your tithe with you.’ It’s not just culture and country, it’s tribe. In a big way.
Laurence Olivier made an amazing point about character when he admitted to finding the kinds of shoes they would have worn and walking around in them. Of course – they have to walk in these shoes. You can’t just think all of the above and hope it manifests somehow in your manuscript – you have to get it out of your head and find it in your body. If your tradesperson’s hands hurt, what do they do about it? What do you do about it? Run a rope through your palms a few hundred times and figure it out – don’t just think it. Characters behave subconsciously. You have to understand that. OUT OF YOUR HEAD. Walking with a limp changes your posture, your physiology – everything. Don’t just think “limp” – get out and walk with a limp for a month. How does it feel? What behaviours do you discover? And remember, nobody goes around showing off their oddities. How do you try to disguise your limp from other people? How do you hide your sore hands?
It’s like emotion. None of us go around trying to show people our emotions – we are conditioned to hide them. Same goes with idiosyncrasies and mannerisms; the second you point out to someone that you’ve notice something they do; they try to hide it. Your characters are the same.
If you want to know if an inhuman character can do that, look at animals. Animals, of course, do have a heretofore unexplored spectrum of emotions and personality traits that change drastically from being to being. And like the Enigma, every time you change species, the rules reset, and you have to start again; but humans seek what reminds us of ourselves in an animal. That might be parental instincts, it might be the need to connect with others of the species, and it might be hunger or the need to survive. Even Great White Sharks experience that. Once you establish the primal instinct, work your way out. How does is this need helped or hampered by the creature’s physiology?
You can get physiology from how you imagine their home environment. What is the composition of the world they’re from? The environment? Earth has existed in almost any form you can imagine a planet sustaining life – you can research the various animals of the various geological epochs to get a sense of what a creature looks like under such conditions as hyper-oxygenated air (big insects) or huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the air, stable climates, unstable climates… life on earth has been as weird as anything you can imagine. The pre and post Mesozoic eras were especially tumultuous and there are a wealth of strange animals with strange lifestyles to be found there to serve as composites or inspiration, but they all have those same things in common. They need to live, and there are things that get in the way of that and things that help them do that.
That’s where your drama comes from.
Then there’s the social aspect. Triceratops had three horns on its face and we assume that they were for self-defence because triceratops lived in an extremely harsh and dangerous environment, BUT you can’t forget that such an impressive display serves a social purpose amongst many animals as well.
When I was working on Mary, I had it pretty easy because elephants are extraordinarily intelligent in the human sense. Their intellect is such that certain behaviours parallel humans – we bow or shake hands as a sign of respect, they blow air on each other’s faces through their trunks. It’s different, but not more different than some human customs are from each other. When you’re discovering a fictional species, you add credibility and improve relatability but understanding how customs and behaviours are influence by intellect among animals, as well as physiology (if it has a trunk or a crest or a horn, does it serve some social custom?). It’s enlightening. You realize how animal we humans really are!