Throughout my undergrad and postgrad studies, many lecturers and tutors treated characters as collections of symbols used to comment on something outside the story, usually after taking the step of conceptually breaking a society into categories - the most common categories being race/nationality, gender and socioeconomic class - and treating people like empty vessels into which combinations of these categories converge to play out a conflict between the conceptual categories, rather than between characters.
When a character is treated as a collection of orientations to a selection of categories, rather than as a fictional person, and a story is treated as a conflict between conceptual categories, rather than as a conflict between characters, character behaviour often then becomes treated as expressions of different magnitudes of orientations to categories, rather than the results of a fictional person functioning in the full context of being like a non-fictional person, and plot is often then treated as a series of fluctuations in orientations to categories, rather than showing the journey of a fictional person striving to achieve a psychological and physical goal.
Two common issues with characters-as-symbolic-tools kinds of approaches, other than that most readers treat characters as fictional people, are 1) that the resulting characters and plots are often disjointed and abstract, with little story momentum, and 2) that so many people tend to focus on such a small selection of conceptual categories for dividing up a society, and on so few orientations to these categories that huge numbers of stories cover the same ground and writers struggle not to produce another clichéd rehashing of the same subject matter people have experienced many times.
Lajos Egri, in his influential playwrighting book The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its basis in the creative interpretation of human motives, suggested taking into account biological, psychological and sociological factors when thinking about a character as a fictional person. A character’s biology includes such things as congenital physiology (physiology stemming from genetic characteristics), physiological changes over the course of the character’s life (for example, a character might exercise regularly and have a toned physique whereas another character might lead a much more sedentary lifestyle for years and have a pot belly, or a character might be an active and skilled thinker with a greater concentration of more highly connected neurons in their brain than a character who has built up fuzzy and passive thinking habits), changes in body chemistry due to diet and factors in the character’s environment (for example, a character who has low potassium levels while doing delicate surgery would be at risk of their hands shaking more than usual, or someone who has worked through the night in dark conditions and slept through the day for several weeks might have a higher than usual sensitivity to bright sunlight, and the brain and body chemistry of someone who just finished their sixth cup of coffee for the day will be noticeably different than if they had not drank any coffee for several days). A character’s psychology includes things such as sensation, perception (unconscious cognition), conception (conscious thought), memory, learning, motivation, intelligence, development over their lifespan, and so on. A character’s sociology relates to how they interact with other people (for example, how they interact with their family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, clients, social media contacts, random people they encounter in public, and so on). The cumulative effects of biological, psychological and sociological factors are inextricably intertwined and continually affect a character as a whole, rather than each area having its own isolated development in a character's life.
Treating characters as fictional people, coupled with a sophisticated knowledge of people, will naturally infuse the stories you write with coherence and sophistication without a lot of effort, allowing you to focus on the big decisions. Some of the best books I have come across for building skills in character development are psychology textbooks.
(Writers who are averse to examining scientific methodology, which is necessary to understand what has actually been observed and what reasoning has been used to infer things from that, preferring to just read conclusions and subsequent commentary, put themselves at a huge intellectual disadvantage. Inability to competently examine the methodology upon which conclusions are based will lead to encountering conflicting claims and not having any effective means of differentiating between them, with the result often being that people defer such judgements to other people then become susceptible to overt and covert campaigns of groups with vested interests in advocating some beliefs and discouraging other beliefs. If you want to create original and compelling characters as fictional people, it is advisable to have a sophisticated understanding of psychology, including biological bases of experience and behaviour, and how psychological factors can influence interactions between people.)***
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