Sunday, December 2, 2012

Character Development - Getting Real

When I get stuck on a draft, sometimes the best way to find a second wind is to work on making my characters come alive. That's because "real" characters will drive a story forward without need for vehicles or plotting tricks.

But how do you make your characters come to life? How do you make them breathe?

You ask the hard questions of them. You get to the core of who they are, what drives them every day, and how the answers to those questions will affect their reactions to whatever is going on in your book.

Starting tomorrow, for the next few weeks at Seeking the Write Life I'll be spending every Monday working through personality questions and backstory exercises to help you get to the bottom of who your characters really are. Head over there every Monday for the subsequent posts and we'll wind it up here at Yatopia next year.

But before we can start answering those questions, we need to make sure we understand a little bit of human nature. Because even if our main characters aren't actually human, they need to encompass humanity for the reader to relate to them.

So, here's some concepts to chew over before we start asking questions:

1. Every person alive has insecurities - even if they overcompensate for their insecurities by pushing themselves out into the world. Every person on earth is afraid of something, and finds themselves lacking in some way. The difference between personalities is how they react to those fears, not whether those fears exist. Consider how you deal with your insecurities (hidden or openly admitted). Look for the ways those fears change your decision making.

2. People also have dreams, and dreams can be just as motivating as fears (or just as carefully hidden). Dreams may or may not be achievements (i.e. become an Olypian). They may be a state of being (i.e. free of fear), or they may be a state of worth (i.e. fame). Dreams are incredibly important to characterization even when the character isn't pursuing them, because the loss of hope is an incredible driver. A person whose lifelong goal may be robbed through unrelated events will be desperate to do whatever it takes to overcome that circumstance (i.e. a boy who wants to become a professional gymnast facing irreparable injury to his arm). Consider how your dreams move your life decisions. Are they the primary question you ask yourself when faced with a decision? Or are they pushed so deep that the only time they come to the surface is a moment when hope rises? Use your own reactions to inform your character's.

3. Subconscious decisions can be just as important as the decisions we sweat over. A person's fears and dreams will drive them in certain directions without conscious thought. For example: A kid who thinks her parents disapprove of her will either be driven to achieve, or driven to rebel. Her decision on a Thursday to hang with her friends instead of doing homework might seem trivial, but it's driven by a much deeper fear at her core: that no matter what she does, her parents will never love her. So she needs to find approval or love wherever she can. Consider the ways your own personal fears and dreams drive your subconscious priorities. What do you do on a daily basis without even thinking?

Give some thought to your own life and how dreams and fears drive you. Look at the way you make decisions and try to identify moments in your life when your fears or dreams moved you without thought. The better you can understand yourself and your own nature, the better you'll be able to pick apart your characters and make them real too.

Your Turn: Any questions? Are there areas of character development you struggle with and would like to see addressed in this kind of series?



  1. I come across a lot of books where the main protaognist is too stupid to live (TSTL) and it's annoying! Why do authors do that?

  2. Excellent question! Unfortunately I think it's a product of authors not knowing how to place their protagonists in whatever position is required in a plausible way... so they just make the protagonist decide to put themselves in the position.

    I too find it frustrating as a reader. But I also know how hard it is to write genuinely well, so....

  3. Ohh, this is great. I love the motivations/dream part, and the insecurities. They can be tied together so easily and marvelously; whose dreams do not involve overcoming deep insecurities? Great, great post! I always forget about the dreams part. Sigh. I'm going to try to force myself to remember as I write for now on!

  4. Character development is very important when writing. Even such things as their cadence can alter a character (y'all instead of you all.) It's one of the aspects of my own book I found to be very important.