Characters are central to a story. They need to be well-developed and believable to be considered good characters in a serious story. It’s important to make sure their behaviour is consistent. We’re going back to basics this month, talking about the development of stories. This week, it’s characters.
Jeez, I don’t know… I’m five books into a series, so at this point when I introduce a new character, I usually I have a vague idea of what I need from them (antagonist or ally? from which faction? which gender, which skills?), and then I spin details off of that base, trying not to duplicate traits from other characters. Then I write them into scenes with other established characters and figure out how they interact, and either expand upon them if it’s an interesting dynamic, or keep them sidelined/backgrounded if that’s all they’re good for. As for my main characters… Hell, I don’t know that either, since I first made some of them over twenty years ago. I guess it’s just basic traits + personal quirks + character interactions + developing history and psychology as I go along, until they start to feel like real people.
To be honest, I base most of my characters on real people I know, and sometimes on TV/movie characters that I’ve watched for years and feel I know practically as well as a real person in my life. From there I base the progression of the characters on how I imagine their real-life counterpart would actually react to the situations I come up with for them. Obviously it’s all conjecture, as I couldn’t possibly know how anyone would actually react to something like zombies or being transported to an alternate universe, but it helps me develop my characters by picturing the events happening in real life and running with how my imagination views things playing out among the people involved.
As a tried and true pantser, I start writing a male or female of whatever age is fitting to the story and figure out who they are along the way. I like to get to know them in context rather than on a character sheet beforehand. Though, I did try that once. It was too restrictive. I ended up picking a couple characteristics from the whole sheet and just running with that. He became a pretty cool and loyal supporting character.
In my opinion, characters are composed of details. So I build characters by assembling details, sometimes from my imagination and sometimes from real people (generally strangers, not friends). Every human is a jigsaw of details – nervous habits, catch-phrases, dressing choices, speech patterns, favorite books, topics they talk about again and again, etc. My favorite characters are the ones that feel like real people because they have things that make them them. So that’s what I strive to do with my own characters.
Research. Lots of it. I research where they come from, read blogs if I can find them of where they live or grew up to find local knowledge and build a picture from there. I also use character questionnaires to really dig deeper. There’s other tricks, too, but those are the main ones.
My characters grow organically. Main characters get backstories written before I begin. Others get what I come up with on the fly. It is usually just a matter of asking who is right to see this story through, and going from there.
Not very deliberately. The original concept can be sparked from anywhere, and once a character exists in my head they have a life of their own. Characters created for one simple reason turn out to have depths I didn’t know, or adopt attributes that I had thought belong to someone else. I run scenarios through my head and pay attention to what never changes, and that includes situations I don’t have a reason to write.
My characters often come to me. In my recent release, The Magician’s Curse, a ghost showed up at the door. I have no idea where she came from, but she told me who she was, and ended up being a favourite of some of my beta readers. It’s like that for just about every main or secondary character in my stories. Sometimes they’re inspired by an accent (Stewie’s, from Family Guy for example), sometimes a speech pattern (don’t got no example for that), and sometimes it’s a physical trait in someone I’ve seen in real life. In my current work-in-progress I have a character with a nose so sharp it could cut a cheesecake. I saw him at the mall and thought that immediately.
I’ll be honest, I start with a vague, general sketch, and let the characters just kind of develop themselves as the story progresses. Sometimes, I’ll get a “whoa, that’s awesome!” kind of revelation halfway through, and then I have to go all the way back to the beginning of the story and edit those qualities in. That way, the story and the characters grow together. Besides, I’m way too lazy to generate complex character tables.
I create a thorough backstory for all of my major characters, and try to get at least the basics in for supporting characters. Then, as the story unfolds, the characters reveal interesting bits about themselves that I incorporate into the narrative. Sometimes little of the original background remains, sometimes a lot. The important thing is to be true to the “voice” of the character – don’t try to force it.
I get pretty detailed about my characters before I even start writing. The main characters all get a biography. Not only do I write out their life history, I make note of their appearance, personality, major life milestones, age, birthplace, political stance, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, and more. For dialogue, I want to make sure I have their mannerisms down. This needs to be consistent. They need to sound like they’re all different characters. That’s a major problem for some authors. They create characters that all sound the same. For minor characters, they’re developed as I write, mostly. But sometimes, for both major and minor characters, they take on a life of their own. They go a little different direction that I first intended, but this usually works out and makes them more realistic.
How about you?
If you’re an author, how do you develop your characters? Let us know in the comments section below.