Last week I posed the question, “So who is your character again?” Much of the article focused on raising questions to ask as a writer while developing a character. This post will focus on answering those questions.
In general, a writer should know more about a character than ever appears in the book or story. But how do you get to know a character so well? Here are a few of the crazy things that I do:
It’s okay to start with a type. Starting with a type doesn’t mean you’re going to stick with a type. It gives you a jumping off point. So, who are you starting with? A nosy neighbor? Tell me everything you know about this neighbor. Think about appearance, from hair color to her bathrobe. What brand of cigarette do I see dangling from her lips?
Adding detail starts fleshing out a character and stepping away from type.
We’re all history. We have this nosey neighbor. What made her so nosey? Her neighbors think she’s nosey—but what does she think? Does she see herself as curious? Maybe she’s paranoid about violence—and that’s why she’s nosey. A good back story starts to explain those details. We all have a history—just pull out the best, most interesting parts.
Don’t forget: Backstory is a tool. Fill in the details to explain your character’s actions.
Define personality traits: Psychology offers us The Trait Theory. Whether this really explains humans in our myriad complexities is debatable, but is will help you develop a list of traits for your character (i.e. extraverted, introverted, etc.) Here are two links to get you started:
Add likes, dislikes. I once had a friend who was violently opposed to condiments. Yep. You know, ketchup. Mustard. Anything with vinegar. Now that’s quirky (and hard to cook for). Even if your character is never in a situation in your story, you should know what s/he likes. What’s even more fun is to put our ecological, anti-car, mass-transit riding hero in a situation where he must ride in a super unenvironmental private jet. Internal Conflict anyone?
Add contradictions and quirks. We all have them. Those things we do, say, wear, that don’t quite jive with our personality otherwise. Think the life of the party who spends hours alone reading. Think the detail-oriented forensics expert with a filthy house.
Put the e-search in Research. In your new medical thriller, Brain Drain, a world famous neurosurgeon is about to operate on a renowned actress. He’s never lost a patient—but she’s the only one who knows his dark secret. What tension! What’s he going to do?
First, make me believe in this neurosurgeon. If you don’t know one …then read about one! They say, regarding career goals, to look at someone you admire then follow in his/her footsteps. This applies to your character, too. Where was your doctor educated? What charities does s/he support (if any)? What does a general day look like? How many surgeries a day/week/month? But don’t stop there. Look at another neurosurgeon…how are they different? Do they use different techniques? Why? Are there common traits among doctors? …Are they apt to be drinkers? Of what? Top-shelf scotch?
Then research hospitals, operating rooms, etc. Much is to be learned!
Inquiring minds want to know. Have you ever noticed that many people like to talk about themselves? If you get a chance, interview someone you can model a character after. Do you need to interview someone for a class? Use that opportunity! Do you need to model a character after an entrepreneur or local celebrity? See if you can schedule an interview. If you contact a local paper and they are interested in a story, you can get paid to do your research. Just be sure to ask the right questions for the article AND focus on the details that matter to your story. (Such as how does s/he word things, hold his/her body? Is s/he out going? What is his/her motivation?)
People watch. People can tell us much of what we need to know – just by being themselves. Watch the world around you. Study how people interact. Have you ever noticed a friend who acts one way and then totally different with other people? Study him. Figure out why. Watch a liar. A good liar. How does s/he decide what to tell and what to conceal? A trait like this can help almost any plot as well as define dialogue and character actions.
Opportunities to bring characters to life are all around us. The important part is bringing together what we know and realizing what we don’t – and then filling in the gaps.