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September 16, 2016

Getting to Know Your Characters

by Byddi Lee

character development


Engaging characters are the most important element of any story. If you don’t know your characters inside out it will come across in your writing. The reader will find your characters, at best, confusing, and worse, boring. So it is worth taking the time to think about the people in your story. How much you sketch out a character depends on the hierarchy of that character in the story, with your protagonist (i.e main character) and antagonist being the most detailed, less development is needed for the supporting characters, with filler characters, who pop up only once, having only the merest, most relevant details.

In all cases, you’ll begin by describing them physically. Keep a record of this. I find a spreadsheet helpful, especially for small details of features that everyone has such as eye, hair and skin color, hair style, height and stature, date of birth. When you set up a spreadsheet leave plenty of room to extend it so that you can add notes about personality and relationships as you further develop each person in your story.

Nowadays there are a plethora of free resources online for character development. Download a few checklists to get the questions tumbling in your head. Once they begin to rattle around, you can go about your day and let the answers ferment themselves into fruition.

Get to Know Your Characters

Begin finding out who they are and what makes them tick the same way as you would when meeting anyone for the first time. What questions would you ask a new acquaintance? Name, age, where do they live, what do they work at, what are their hobbies?

Then consider what information you would want to glean from a person if you were on a first date. This may be the kind of information that you can’t just “ask” your character/date, such as their politics, or views on religion, how they treat the elderly/children/animals – the general attitude of your character. This is usually derived from the character's background. Create one that will impact the way they behave and that demonstrates how they developed their world view so it makes sense. For example, someone brought up in poverty may grow up to abhor wastefulness; they may value money and be afraid to spend it even if they have lots of it, whereas a character who grew up with great wealth may throw money away on frivolous things and have little respect for its value.

Create Their Backstory

Build a history behind the characters. You may need to begin at birth, conception, or even with the parents before that. A lot of this background will not make it into the print of your story, but if you have done a good job creating a true and interesting character this groundwork will be present in the subtext of your story. This history can account for that scar the heroine has on her leg that means she is too self-conscious to ever wear shorts or a swimsuit. Perhaps it is an emotional scar that prevents the hero from committing to the woman he loves because his mother abandoned him as a young child. So long as you can justify it, your only limitation is your imagination!

Without knowing where your character came from, it is impossible to know where that character is aiming to go. What are his goals? How difficult will it be to achieve them? Without this information, a reader is unable to cheer when the heroine prevails. The more the reader emotionally invests in the character, the more the reader enjoys it. Always remember the reader is your customer, the end user and the person you have to please! That may be a controversial sentiment amongst the “writing for art’s sake” writers, but I’m firmly in the “writer that aims to entertain” camp.

So before we can explore where the characters are going, and knowing where they came from, we can focus on the nuts and bolts of where the characters are right now.

Fill in the Details

Keep your main characters interesting with a unique or quirky trait, maybe have them wear an unusual item of clothing, for example, color coordinated braces and a dicky-bow tie. My father always wore ankle boots. I have a male friend who always wears acid-bright colored socks and my husband will wear any color of clothing - so long as it is black! Be a people-watcher and you’ll pick up great tips.

Perhaps your protagonist or your antagonist is obsessed with something, for example, butterflies, mermaids, or a country and culture – like Ireland! Give them a pet hate, or a phobia – when it comes to making your characters suffer (and you must make them suffer a lot) you will be very glad of these.

What motivates your character? Love, greed, compassion, loyalty, and how do these play into what moves your story along? How does your heroine approach her obstacles? With fear, anger, humor, curiosity? Even if your story is plot driven, the actions of the characters must be true to how you’ve painted them. A timid girl is not doing to beat up the bad guys in the first round – she might do so after a few rounds of hard life lessons, but her transition is what will captive your reader.

Think about how your characters will interact with the people in their lives. What are their relationships with others like? Are they warm and chatty? Are they reserved and shy? Do they have an accent? Are they funny, sarcastic, grumpy, mean? Do they think one thing but say another? You can have a lot of funny contrasting inner dialogue with what is actually said.

Well-Rounded Characters are Best

Try to make your characters as rounded out as possible. Sure, we need to love your hero, but give him a “forgivable” flaw. No-one is perfect. He’s over-protective, he likes to be in control or maybe he never apologizes for anything. This will come into play when you hit the climax and your character needs to change.

Likewise, work on making your villains sympathetic on some level. Somehow in the background of this vile person, she was once a good human being who experienced something so terrible it changed them into a monster. Even Darth Vader was lovable once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away!

Byddi Lee, features writer. Byddi grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled around the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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