Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters
Last week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:
- you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
- you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
- you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
- you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
- you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.
If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.
Interview Your Characters
I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.
When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.
Visit Your Characters’ Pasts
Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.
A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.
Role-Play with Your Characters
Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.
As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.
Love this! Thanks, again 🙂
Good ideas. I’ve found it helpful to use Larry Brooks’ 4 quarters of the story idea and see what your character is for each segment of the story and what they are becoming. Some fun ideas came out of that.
Appreciated your comments and suggestions. I recently hired an editor for my book “Strange Flesh” and she was critical of the fact that after I started the book in the present for a few chapters, but then I segued to a backstory for two of the main characters, so that what followed would help the reader peel back the layers of the onion. My current thoughts are to provide this historical information and necessary information as a Prologue and then start the reader to present time.
I like some of those ideas, Erin. Characters have always been my biggest issue, which is why I devote more time studying character development than other aspects of writing. I had a bit of an awakening with the middle-grade novel I recently finished. The mother in the story started out as a typical Navy wife in 1968. She would lose her husband in the story when his sub is lost. But as I began to interview her, she grew a few layers. I decided that she was not happy in her marriage, had regretted marrying so young, and had often flirted with other men, even the abusive next-door neighbor. My story, of course, is told through the eyes of her eleven year-old son. I cannot tell you how much fun it was to write her scenes, describing her behavior and mannerisms through the eyes of her son, who would never fathom a world in which his parents weren’t happily married. It was even better after the husband was lost. I guess my point is that when we take a “throw away” character and dig deeper, the story really takes on new meaning.
Thanks for the post!