The following is an excerpt from a post I wrote back in May, 2013: Developing Characters Part One: Getting to know you
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.