Monday, July 18, 2011

Character Building Solutions

Today we're talking about how to get to know your characters. My characters are my best friends, I know everything about them. I firmly believe the more you know about your character, the easier it is to write from their point of view. That way you can drop your character into any situation and know exactly how they'd react. But the question is, how does one get to that level with their characters? Sure, you can character sketch, but that really only helps you shift through the physical stuff. You want to go deeper than that.

If you're like me, your characters talk to you. If this is the case, you should LISTEN and talk back. Yes, have a conversation with your character. Seriously. Try it. It's great. But sometimes characters don't talk. Maybe they're shy or just stubborn. Whatever the case, there are ways to get into their heads.

Bellow are six lessons/exercises to do with your character. You don't have to use any of this in your actual story, but boy does it help with those stubborn or underdeveloped characters!

(I copied and modified this from a workshop I took on which was modified from the book "Characters and Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card.)

Lesson 1: Character bio
Character Name:
1) Age:
2) Birthplace:
3) Marital Status:
4) Children and ages:
5) Living arrangements (i.e. lives with wife and three young children, rents a ramshackle apartment alone, has a tent in nomadic tribe with three concubines):
6) Occupation, including name of employer if applicable:
7) Degree of skill at occupation (beginner, really competent, experienced but a bumbler, etc)
8) Characters feeling about his occupation (loves it, hates it, regards it as “just a job”, has mixed feelings, is actively seeking other employment, etc)
9) Family background (whatever you think is important: ethnicity, siblings, parents, social status, clan affiliation, total repugnance toward everybody he knew before the age of twelve, etc)
10) What three or four things does this person value most in life? (i.e. Success, money, family, God, love, integrity, power, peace and quiet)
11) What three things does he fear most?
12) What is this person's basic underlying attitude about life? (i.e. "things will usually turn out all right," or "they're all out for themselves," or "it's best to expect nothing because then you won't be disappointed," etc.)
13) What does she need to know about another person in order to accept that other as "all right" and trustworthy?
14)What would cause this person more pain than anything else possible?
15) What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to him?
16)What three words would she use to describe herself, accurate or not?
17) How accurate is his self-description?
18) What organization most embodies this person's values? (i.e. Mensa, Daughters of the American Revolution her church, Aryan Pride, PTA, etc)
19) Does he belong to this group? Yes / No. If not, why not?

Lesson 2: The “Why”
Go back to questions 10-15 and answer WHY your character feels this way.

Lesson 3: Character Introduction
Pretend your character is introducing himself in front of a large group of strangers. What does he say?

Lesson 4: Stereotypes and assumptions
List 2-3 examples for each of the following:

1. A Character is what he does. You see a guy at the party who spills a drink, talks too loud, and makes rude remarks. You form a judgment. You tell a friend a secret, and in a few hours everyone seems to know it. You’ve learned something about your friend. Show your character stealing, the reader will think “thief”. This is the easiest form of characterization: have you character  DO something that demonstrates his nature.

2. Motive. This is more powerful than action – it trumps it. What if you knew that the drink spilling rude guy was trying to attract attention on purpose, in order to keep people from noticing someone else in the room. You impression of him changes. How about a character who tried to commit murder, but failed? You still think him a murderer even though he never actually succeeded in his task. Knowing why characters do what they do, reveals them to the reader. We will cover this A LOT later on, as well.

3. The Past. Knowing a person’s past, revises our view. You’re sitting at a dinner table, getting to know Pete. What if before hand, someone whispered to you that Pete was a POW for 7 years and escaped through enemy territory? Or that he just caused a corporate merger that resulted in thousand of workers losing their jobs? Does this effect your impression?

4. Reputation. This isn’t just for legends and heroes, this is for everyone. “Don’t bother asking Jeff to contribute, he’s such a tightwad I heard he would not even help buy flowers when Dona’s father died.” Same in fiction: you readers will likewise form opinions about characters they have not “met” yet based on what other characters say about them. Use it to your advantage.

5. Stereotypes. Paint half a picture, and you can count on your reader to fill in the other half. “The old man was wearing a suit that might have been classy ten years ago when it was new, when it was worn by someone with a body large enough to fill it. On this man it hung so long and loose that the pants bagged at the ankle and scuffed along the sidewalk, and the sleeves came down so low that his hands and the neck of his wine bottle were invisible.” Got the picture? This narrative relies on your stereotype to work. As a writer, you can use this one of two ways: either let the stereotype stand – sometimes very useful in creating minor characters who must not upstage the action … or, use it to surprise the reader.

What if the passage above was followed by:
“Hey, old man,” Pete said. “You’ve lost some weight.”
“It wasn’t the cancer, Peter, it was the cure,” he answered. “I’m glad you are here. Come upstairs and help me finish this Chablis.”
6. Network. We act different around our mother than we do around our coworkers than we do around our friends. So should our characters. Take your character out of one setting and put him in another, and see different aspects of their personality rise to the fore.

7. Habits and Patterns. She carries a Mace with her everywhere she goes. He always parks across the divide to take up two parking spaces, so his car does not get dented by the other car doors. Or just general habits, that clue us in to the character’s mind. He always taps his finger when he’s worried. After a while, the finger movement alone will clue us in to his mood.

8. Body. This one is tricky, because it is so easy to overuse it. Your reader will picture your character more through knowing her motives than through her looks (although knowing whether one is generally attractive or grotesque will influence this to a degree). So, does it matter what length fingers, color eyes, or size of breasts your character has? Maybe. It matters if it means something beyond mere fact. For example, in Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s poor eye sight (he wears glasses), his asthma, and his weight play a role in the story. His hair color does not.

Lesson 5: The Way I See It
Find a random image and write a short paragraph describing it as you would in your character’s POV.

Lesson 6: Emotional Stakes

1) Suffering. A character’s pain, whether emotional or physical, increases the reader’s emotional involvement. Note, however, that a character’s grief does not make the reader grieve any more than a character’s cut makes the reader bleed – it is the character’s reaction and feeling about their suffering that engage the reader. Intensity counts. Too little (a paper cut) won’t get you much bang for your buck. Too much (ghastly torture) and it becomes unbearable to the reader, so he distances himself. Frequency is also an issue. The first time a character gets hit on the head, we wince for her. The fourth time, we think of the Three Stooges.

2) Sacrifice. Pain and suffering also increase emotional stakes if the character has a choice in the matter. Nora setting Pete’s broken arm has less impact on the reader than Pete deciding to set it himself, making painful choices will each movement. This also works on the villainous side of things: Pete accidentally hits a child with his car vs. Pete does it on purpose. The reader may hate Pete for the latter, but the reader will care.

3) Jeopardy. This is the anticipation of pain… think of waiting to see the dentist. Put a character in a situation where great pain is upcoming, and you’ve got the reader’s attention.

4) Symbols. You can increase a character’s importance by connecting the character to the world around her, so that what happens to her seems to have a greater reach. As King Lear reaches madness, a storm breaks out. Oedipus’s sins cause a famine, which does not end until he pays the price.

Readers, what types of fictional characters draw you into a book? What's the one thing every hero/heroine needs in your opinion?


  1. Great and thorough article, JD. I took notes.

  2. Thanks Mary. :) I actually do refer to the lessons on this post on a regular basis.

  3. Lots of great advice. I copied and sent it to myself to file in my Great Advice for Writing fiction file. Thanks!

  4. Great advice. I do remember this info from Orson Scott Card but had forgotten about it. Thanks for reminding me.

    I'm to the point where I've got so many characters I need to work more diligently at making them separate people.

    Keep up the advice.

  5. Nancy - I'm glad it was helpful.

    Greg - I'm in the same boat. Need to remember to make all my lead characters distinct. Happy to hear my post could help you.