Developing Characters Part One: Getting to know you

There's nothing better than a good character; the kind of person you wish you could dive into the pages and buy them a drink, just to spend more time with them. A good character can save the times a plot needs to become tedious, and it can save the writer a lot of work when we have to explain why the Big Conflict is so big. If we care about the character, if we know that what the others want from them or to do to them, we can care about the outcome without a lot of This Is Really Bad explanations.

But, of course, we know this. Every writing book worth it's salt talks about the importance of character, every writing article brings it up.

We get that we need to do it, it's the actual doing that's the issue. It's an art, a craft, one when done right makes the story so much more pleasant to write.

And for some reason, several of you have asked my advice.

I'm not a published writer (yet!), an English major, or any kind of expert. In fact, I feel a bit dumb giving any kind of writing advice like this because I'm none of these things. All I have for credentials is my collection of years writing and reading, and a tenure acting besides (which is helpful for making good characters).

But I've been told I create some good characters, so I'll share how I wrangle the process. Maybe it will be helpful for some – but as always, your own way will be better for you.

Normally, a story will come to me with a character already in tow, one ready to string me along their journey.

But if not, I get casting for the right characters, asking: “What kind of person would be able to handle the story I'm trying to tell?” Someone essentially cowardly and passive won't survive the zombie apocalypse, even with the best weapons and a badass sidekick. A lantern-jawed Scottish hit man named Mikey isn't likely to be the lead in a high school romance (though it would be funny).

I keep looking and thinking and daydreaming until someone rings true–sometimes this may require tweaking the original idea a bit to meet he character, but it's worth it. Then, I start writing.

I write to discover my characters. Sometimes, I start with one character and change to another one. There are false starts, ideas set aside for another idea.

It's like falling in love, in some ways. As I write, I ask them questions, take notes on their histories and damage. And because so much of this being done as I write into my first draft, it's done as I get into the story.

It still takes time, though, lots of time and energy.

Our characters are people – people we're giving free rent to in our heads, sometimes for years. And they ought to be worth that time to create, to find the right one for the right story.

Personally, I get bored with the gorgeous girl who falls in love with the quarterback. If any of my characters are glowingly beautiful, you can be guaranteed they have some nasty scars somewhere. I like characters who live a little left of center, who daydream about owning a bar while pinned down fighting an epic war, characters who wish they were fat, or love the person who most frightens them. I like the smallest character to be the wildest fighter, the one everyone is afraid of. I like a djinn working as personal assistant because their master refuses to use her three wishes, I like vampires who work as priests.

I like my characters to be weird, human, flawed, opinionated. I want them to get on their own nerves and in their own way, to have inappropriate senses of humor, to talk about their friends behind their backs, and to be hopelessly, romantically embittered by their past.

As I get a sense of their shape, I write them into corners. I ask them questions, I take their safe places away.

I want to know things that make them human – not just what makes them pretty or interesting, but if they have any scars of moles and how they feel about them (for extra neuroses, what their parents thought about them). Are they gay or straight? Seeing anyone? Do they like their relationship or not?

I figure out where they grew up, especially if it involved any kind of religion, fictitious or not. I live in a city dominated by Mormonism, and the religion a person is raised with has long-lasting effects, even if they don't believe it anymore; especially if they don't believe it anymore.

Background itself is so important. Our past is what colors our future, what we want or don't. An Irish Catholic will see the world differently than a Boston Jew, a corn-fed country boy will be more open, a man with two moms will be slightly guarded about the subject of his family, a landlocked wild child will yearn for the ocean – probably in Bali or Australia.

It's human nature to carry these things with us, our past fears and superstitions, our present desires, even more so if every effort has been made to distance ourselves from what shaped us early on.

I keep in mind that people always want what they don't have.

What can't they stand in a person, and why? How do they do just this thing all the time and not realize it?

I find out about my character's bodies. How do they feel about them, feel in them? Do they like being taller than other people, or are they afraid of their size? How anout their hair – curly haired people want straight hair, straight haired people want wild manes. If its a man, does he wear a ponytail, a Mohawk? Why? What kind of clothing do they feel most comfortable in? Least? (I'll always get them in this sometime).

Even if I don't mention these things often, I keep them in mind.

Each of my characters has at least one one thing – a place, an object, a memory, that represents them, something they unnecessarily guard against all threats. (Usually to be destroyed and taken away later.)

In one of my favorite series The Dresden Files, the main character, a wizard, says “Stars and stones,” his vampire friend says, “Empty night.”

You can tell a lot about someone by how they swear. If they say “god” or “fuck” or “balls.” Or maybe they say “Gods” or “Hells.” What a person swears on gives tiny, constant clues into what is important to them. I make sure I know – because if I'm doing my job, they'll be saying it a lot.

Then there's what they do for fun. Stay in and read? Beat up on bad guys? Go out dancing and to movies, but only if wearing their special cape? If a person makes food all day for a living, then do they prefer to have someone else make them food for dinner? What kind of music do they listen to?

And so on. As I write, I keep an eye out for clues into my characters, getting to know what they want, what the ystrive for, how they handle themselves. I ask more questions; I try and create intimacy with these people I'm writing, try to know them well enough that our interaction is effortless, well enough that they will tell me when I've gone wrong.

Listing this all out in a row makes it sound like a ton of work. And it is.

It happens slowly, as we go. It happens as I write, as I listen. I'm not just making characters, I'm making people–glorious, beautiful, fucked up, cantankerous, opinionated people. People who will lead me to a better story than I could ever do on my own.

And even better, I start to understand what everyone really wants – not just what I think they want, but the real ,dirty, blood-and-guts-makes-your-heart-squirm kind of want.

Now the real fun can begin.

In part two, I'll talk about how plot and conflict emerge from this preliminary work I've done.

Until then, please check out some previous posts:

Irowboat's Guest Post: Your character may be a mugger if…

And my Living Multiple Realities


5 thoughts on “Developing Characters Part One: Getting to know you

  1. Don’t lead with your left … Your advice stands on its own. (Not that I’d presume to tell you what to do, or even make suggestions – it’s just that if the advice is good, the ‘credential’ is irrelevant. And some might argue that your accomplish last year – just in shear scope – is a credential all its own. Especially when it comes to things like actually doing the work of developing characters.)

    I think your advice is great – I would your characters. And in fact, you are so much more thorough than I often am in ‘getting to know them’ that I’m convinced. So thank you for your helpful thoughts.

    I also imagine this piece says a lot about you as a character. (In precisely the same way what your characters say or don’t says a great deal about them.)

  2. Of course my downright phobia of having actual credentials (quite a few of the people I most respect have none) probably says a lot about me as character …

  3. I really like the idea to get to know your character as you write them. I’m trying to play with mine a little (doing little background snippets before settling in the story itself and make characters sheets with informations about them).
    I wonder, though : do you keep all those informations about your characters somewhere (like having files about them on your computer or pages in a notebook). If so, do you check on it sometimes when you feel you’re losing the character a litlle or are not sure about how he/she would react in a given situation ? Or do you just write them when you feel you know them enough ?
    Another question : do you procede like this with all your characters or just the main ones ? The thing is, sometimes, I feel like I have too many characters to make every single one of them special. And I fear some might thus seem shallow. Any tip you could give me ?

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