Where psychology tracks with the character’s inner life, sociology defines how he navigates the outer world.
Family: This is the crucible in which much of psychological life is forged. Many of one’s fears, wants, humiliations, etc., trace back to some episode with a family member. (This means some of the scenes that help you flesh out your character’s family background will almost certainly “double up” as scenes that help flesh out her psychological nature.)
- Picture a crucial scene between your character and her father that shaped her view of authority, responsibility, integrity. Or pick a scene when she learned once and for all if her father respected her, or when she discovered she was stronger or smarter than the old man.
- Imagine a scene when your character needed comfort, support or understanding from his mother—did he get it? Why or why not?
- Did your character’s grandparents actively engage with her, perhaps offering wisdom? Did they poison the atmosphere by finding blame with one or both of the parents? Again, think in scenes.
- Which brother(s) and/or sister(s) did the character see as an ally, an enemy or competitor—for a parent’s love, or respect at school or in the neighborhood? Picture the moment that sealed the alliance or antagonism.
Friends: Friendship is chosen freely, sustained only through mutual consent, and unadulterated by family obligation or sexual desire. Who is your character’s closest friend? When was the friendship most severely tested? Did it survive? How? Why?
Class: How does your character interact with people of lower or higher social/economic standing? Is she comfortable? Resentful? Is she invited in or kept out?
Work: What was your character’s best day on the job? Worst day? What happened at work recently—today—that tested his resolve to stay? What was the most life-changing interaction with a superior or a subordinate or a customer?
Religion/Spirituality: Whether your character is a believer or not, you need to know what forces shape her conscience and her sense of purpose in life.
- What values inform the way of life she hopes to live, the kind of person she hopes to be?
- What sins does she regularly commit?
- What sin has she never committed but might if the circumstances were right?
- What sin would she never commit?
Education/intelligence: Your character has to interact with people he considers his intellectual peers, his betters, his inferiors.
- How does his education level affect the people he talks to at work, the TV shows he likes, the jokes he tells?
- Did he have a teacher who made a difference in his life? Imagine the moment(s) when that occurred.
Home: Where does your character feel she belongs? Picture a crucial scene that conjures for your character the sense of belonging she identifies with home. Does she live there? If home is elsewhere, does she long to go back? Or has something happened—a scandal, a tragedy, a loss—that bars her return forever?
“Tribe”: Consider the group of individuals—the “tribe”—with whom your character identifies: his office mates, congregation, fellow volunteers, neighbors. Who is his closest ally in the tribe? His staunchest enemy? Imagine a scene that tests his allegiance, or where he betrays, defies or even leaves the tribe.
In conclusion, compare this:
Avery McNaughton is 22 years old, 5-foot-6, smart and a little overweight, with chestnut hair and green eyes. She was born in Boston but now lives in Houston, working as a lawyer. She dresses sensibly, lives in a two-bedroom apartment overlooking the ship channel, seldom socializes and reads voraciously.
Avery McNaughton almost died from pneumonia when she was 6 after an ice-skating accident. Her older brother Mark read to her when she was bedridden. That’s when her love of literature began. Mark died in a car accident at age 22, and Avery’s terror at “falling through the ice” returned. She’s never felt safe in the world since. She moved from Boston to Houston to escape her memories—and winter. She has no friends, wants none and dresses as though trying to be invisible.
Which one gives you a better start on a story?