This post was originally published on Write Anything, October 20, 2008.
Excellent. Today, let’s talk about developing characters.
For me personally, this is one of my favorite aspects of writing. I heart characters. Though ironically, I don’t spend a lot of time developing them. I tend to just throw in a vague caricature, a stick person with hair and eyes really, into the story and see what sort of personality develops through interaction.
Though fun, I wouldn’t recommend adopting this haphazard method of creating your characters as they tend to emerge more like (pretty) cardboard cutouts as opposed to something tangible and believable. Readers tend to not care about characters that look, and act, like paper dolls.
Me, Tammi, Dale and Andrea all participated in the 2007 Blog-a-thon together and Tammi posted quite a few character sketches in her posts. (Look in our July 2007 archives, category Blog-a-thon 2007, for more character sketches). Not only did she post them, she posted them “on the fly.” She’s quite an expert at developing interesting characteristics quickly and efficiently. So Tammi, if you have any tips for our readers on filling out character sketches, please share them with us!
I love this opening line in Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop about character: “Most people read fiction not so much for plot as for company. If a character matters so much to the reader, it matters even more to the writer.”
Characters become readers’ friends, they become aspects of ourselves. A great character will stay with us for a long time – mainly because we can relate to their struggle in some way.
But where do you find fictional characters?
The ideal method is “You can completely make them up, using psychology textbooks, astrology charts, mythology, the Bible or, simply your imagination,” says Novakovich.
Another method is the autobiographical method where you project your own experiences into the fictional character, though this is not necessarily one you should use most.
Biographical method is when you use people you have observed (or researched) as the starting points for your fictional character. Novakovich says, “using the biographical method, writers often compose their characters from the traits of several people … this is the fusion approach: you fuse character traits the way you fuse atoms.”
Another way to compose characters is the mixed method. In essence, you take a mixture of the approach approaches and make a potpourri of characteristics that blend nicely and are pleasing to the reader.
Karen Wiesner, First Draft in 30 Days, has some great advice about making character sketches:
When you flesh out character sketches for your story, write down everything that comes to you, no matter how trivial. Remember to give all your main characters (including the villains) internal and external conflicts.
Wiesner also recommends cutting pictures of interesting people out of magazines and keeping a notebook to help you visualize your characters. I personally used this method last NaNoWriMo and found it INVALUABLE; seeing pictures of my characters helped me stay true to my character’s personalities, goals and conflicts.
“If you can picture your characters clearly (says Wiesner), actually see them, chances are you’ll write about them in a more intimate, comfortable way – as if you know them well.”
To help you get a better feel for the type of information that belongs in a character sketch, consider the following sections when making your character sketches:
- Physical Description – age, race, eye and hair color (and style), height/weight, skin tone, physical flaws, disabilities, mannerisms, etc.
- Personality Traits – happy, somber, bookish, strengths, weaknesses, vices, hobbies, kind of entertainment and food, colors, etc.
- Background – “Background is very important to defining a character and making her three-dimensional,” says Wiesner. “[It] can include information on the character’s parents, siblings, relatives, friends, old lovers, pets, life-shaping events and their long-term effects, etc. Did this character have a good home life during her childhood … what kind of schooling did she have? Was she popular, unpopular, in-between?”
- Internal Conflicts – emotional turmoil.
- External Conflicts – outside or situational conflict that’s preventing your character from accomplishing her tasks.
- Occupation / Education – “A character is defined by what he does (or doesn’t) do for a living.” (Weisner)
From Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters:
Now that your hero stands drawn before you, she needs to have her personality colored in.
What does your character care about? If your character was stranded on a desert island, what are the three things he would want to have? Each character has a different set of values that dictates what these things are.
What does she fear? What would give her nightmares? Ask yourself what happened to this character at a young age to create this fear … then sprinkle this information to the reader along the way.
What motivates her?
- Safety and Security?
- Love and Belonging?
- Esteem and Self-Respect?
- The Need to Know and Understand?
- The Aesthetic? (Need for balance, a sense of order, to being connected to something greater than ourselves).
- Self-Actualization? (to communicate who we are, to express ourselves).
How do other characters view her? How do your character’s clothes and desires fit in? What do other characters say about him behind his back?
Schmidt goes on to list, and explain, 45 master characters from mythic models- these are great springboards for developing full, rich characters. Here are a few examples:
Aphrodite: the seductive muse and the femme fatale.
Hera: the matriarch and the scorned woman
Ares: the protector and the gladiator
Poseidon: the artist and the abuser
Remember, readers want to identify with the characters they are reading. “It is what they do that makes them interesting,” says Nigel Watts, Writing a Novel. “A fascinating character is made fascinating, not because of who he is, but because of what he does. Looking into this matter further, we see that the interest in the character’s actions is not so much in the action alone, but in the anticipation of action: now what are they going to do?”
Identifying with characters happens two ways:
Empathy – recognizing something of yourself in the character
Sympathy – liking what you see … identifying the nice bits of yourself with the nice bits of others.
And lastly, writers need to care about the characters they create.
If you want to move people, you have to move yourself first. You must care about your characters in order for your readers to care about them. That means you should sympathize with them as well as empathize. You must have some sort of affection for your characters, particularly central characters, otherwise your disapproval will infect the story and your readers will be repulsed by them. Make your protagonists bad, by all means, fallible, two-faced and self-centered, but don’t despise them. (Watts)
Here are some exercises to help you get to know your characters better from What Would Your Character Do? by Eric and Ann Maisel.
** Family Picnic: Your character spends several hours at a family picnic attended by parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles and other extended family members. Does she enjoy the event or spend it hiding in the bathroom?
** Poolside Encounter: Your character is on vacation and while sunning herself by the pool, has an encounter with a stranger who asks a too-intimate question. How does she respond?
** Stranger in Town: Your character finds himself a stranger in a seemingly sinister town. Does he keep moving or try to investigate?
** Poker Night: Your character finds himself in his first high-stakes poker game. How does he play at the beginning? When he’s winning? When he’s losing?
** Stalked: Your character is being stalked. What hidden aspects of your character’s personality does this bring to the surface?
A little extra work goes a long way toward developing well-rounded, and interesting characters. Have fun!
Next: Point of View