Characterization Experiment: Counterfactuals

Many characters are in some way products of their circumstances. Sometimes it was a long-running thing, being brought a certain way by their families or their culture, or adapting to an aspect of their surroundings. Other times it was one or more incidents—sometimes traumatic, sometimes not—that pushed them in the direction in which they ended up going. Maybe it was a source of their power, maybe something to do with their gender, species, location—there are a lot of factors at work.

But the thing about all these factors is that they’re still acting on a person. For a lot of people, it’s easy to just string together factors, meaning that just about everything about a character can be traced back to being, say, a rich boy from a crime-ridden city who witnessed the death of his parents and decided he was going to Do Something about it eventually. There’s not much examination of who the kid was before he saw this happen, aside from making sure he was the type of person who’d react to having seen what he saw in that way rather than a different way.

That’s cutting a little close to stereotypes, don’t you think? I know I get annoyed by a character who just seems to be a laundry list of Things Happening.

So to better understand who the character is, why not see what he’d be like if you change one of those details? Take a look at what you’ve got and find one thing that might be changeable—on the one hand, you might change his economic status or his gender; on the other, maybe it would be interesting to see what would have happened if his parents had died a different way, or if they had lived. It’s probably not going to be easy, particularly if you don’t know the character too well to begin with. Situations like this, positing a situation contrary to the “truth”, are known as counterfactuals.

As you do, ask yourself why. Why this reaction and not another one? Might there have been something else he could have done in this particular scenario? If you get stuck on the scenario in question, see if you can figure out why you’re having so much difficulty, but don’t be afraid to put it aside and try a different counterfactual.

Once you’re finished with the first, if you feel up to it, try a second counterfactual, with a different detail changed. Not only does this give you a new set of reactions to come up with, but you can compare the two and see what elements remain the same. And the more of these you run through, with the more different contexts to play with, the more likely it is that the similar elements will show you the essential nature of the character himself.

Even for characters who are already fully rounded and realized, playing with counterfactuals can be a fun little experiment. Who knows; there might still be some hidden facet of the character that you can learn something from.

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