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Get intimate with your characters

I recently picked up a book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. Not only did it sound interesting, but I figured I could pick up something that would help with characterization. While the book wasn’t quite the field guide to which traits certain bits of “behavioral residue” were linked to that I expected, I still gleaned plenty of useful and interesting ideas.

One of my favorite sections was about a series of studies done by Dan McAdams to determine the requirements for escalating intimacy. That is, what kinds of things do we need to know about another person to feel like we really know him or her? How do we move into those deeper levels? And can we move through those levels in a matter of hours or days instead of months or years?

Aha, I thought. This applies to me.

In a romance, we're often trying to throw the hero and heroine together and get them to a happily ever after in a few days or weeks. It's always a challenge to make it believable. This is why reunion romances are popular. It's easier to believe a person would fall quickly in love with someone she already knows, rather than a complete stranger.

So here's the payoff for sticking with me this long. According to McAdams, there are three layers of identity, each one providing a deeper level of intimacy with the other person.

  1. Traits. These are the basic, outward manifestations of personality that are fairly easy to spot. The five he uses are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. When describing someone’s traits, you might use words like kind, honest, smart, sexy, fun, loud, lazy, moody, or shy.
  2. Personal concerns. These include the person’s values, political beliefs, goals, roles, regrets, and skills. She might be a wife, mother, and writer. She may want to be published by age 40, lose 10 pounds, and spend more time with her kids. She may value things like peace, family, and health.
  3. Identity. This is the inner story of the person, her past, present, and expected future as she sees it. If she strongly identifies herself as a computer expert, she’ll do everything in her power to maintain that identity, even go back to school to ensure that she’s always on top of the latest technology. If he identifies strongly with being a successful executive, he may struggle with more than just he bills if the gets laid off and can’t find equivalent work. This is why people kill themselves when the stock market crashes.

So if my characters are forced into a situation where he reveals his integrity and she proves her kindness, then they move on to scenes where their personal concerns are illuminated, and finally are thrust into circumstances that challenge their very identities, they might be able to develop a believable level of intimacy in a short span of time.

Now I just need to figure out what all of those illuminating situations are going to be.

Want to read more about characters and personality? Try these posts: