–Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads
Particularly in genre fiction, building complex characters can be complicated because of the formulaic nature of the writing. We might be tempted to plug in the typical caricatures—the luckless heroine, the tortured hero. Likewise, readers often expect flat characters in novels and novellas, which are meant to be consumed rapidly and leave no aftertaste.
But, I think we can agree the books that resonate most are those that introduce us to people instead of characters. There’s a reason the world mourned the death of Severus Snape, (the character and the actor who played him.) He was better than a villain; he was human.
You may feel you lack the talent and/or patience to create a world like Harry Potter’s, but you do have what it takes to deliver believable, intriguing characters that will leave readers with a sense of wonder. The key to it is knowing your cast as if they are close friends.
There’s a game that floats around on Facebook that challenges friends and family to prove how well they know you with questions like, “What’s my favorite candy bar?” and “What’s my middle name?” Anyone who has ever played it quickly discovers certain details simply aren’t common knowledge, but often enough someone gets all the answers. In the game of character development, as a writer you want to be the person who gets all the answers.
You’ll need to spend a lot of time with your cast to make them come alive on the page. To illustrate the process of character development, let’s pretend you’re trapped with them in various uncomfortable situations that will force you to dig deeper into their identities. Start by figuring out if the people you’re writing about are worth your time in the first place.
Ready to get trapped with your characters?
Step with me down the corridor to the elevator straight ahead where you’ll be meeting your main characters of your next book for the first time. You don’t know them; they don’t know you. Now, the group of us are about to squeeze our way into a tiny carriage going up. Obviously, we can’t all fit through the elevator doors at once. (Not with these hips of mine.)
Which of your main characters is quick to issue an apology for bumping into others? Who barrels past the rest to enter the elevator first? Who holds the doors? Are you developing a mental image of these people, yet? If not, don’t worry. We’re inside the elevator together now, so you can be as rude as you like and stare as hard as you need in order to formulate an opinion about them based on how they look and behave.
As we settle in for the long ascent to the top of this steel and glass high-rise building, I want you to pick up as many details about your characters as might be possible in such a scenario. Pay particular attention to their physical traits because elevators are great places to innocuously watch people, but also jot down the scent of their cologne/perfume, what they’re wearing, their manner of speaking. See if you can peg their socioeconomic background. While you’re at it, are they chatty or distant?
There needs to be something about this bunch that immediately piques your interest enough to make you wonder about their inner workings. Chances are, they’re not interesting enough to be your main characters if you can step out of this mental elevator right now and walk away from them without a backwards glance. So, use this time trapped going up to make them uniquely memorable.
Do you want to know more about these people? Would I want to know more about them? Be brutally honest with yourself about your characters. We can stay in this elevator as long as you like until you get them right.
Physical traits like an odd birthmark or a missing thumb might do the trick. Or, you might consider going the other end of the spectrum and making someone strikingly, otherworldly beautiful, which isn’t quite as intriguing as someone perfect but for a chipped tooth. You could give a character stilting, uncertain speech that sounds as if every statement is a question. Or, are they stoic and laconic?
By the time you’re done with this phase of the experiment, you should have a clear idea of your characters’ physical appearance; tone of voice, inflection and pacing of speech; socioeconomic background and a rough idea of their level of education. You may come away with even more details than that, but right now you have a meeting to get to, and you’re late! Who told you to stick around in the elevator for so long? D’ah, well…
Come with me. Right this way. Make a right up ahead. Ah, here we are! Isn’t this a lovely lobby? Now, go check in with the administrative assistant at the front desk, and do be kind. She looks like she’s having a rough day.
We’re told to wait. Typical, isn’t it? Luckily, look at who else is in the lobby with us—your characters! Assuming all of them passed the elevator test and made it out without getting chopped, you’ve injected enough attention-grabbing details into their make up to be pleased as punch to discover we’re stuck in another room with them. Let’s chat it up and make their acquaintance.
Don’t be shy. Pretend you have no qualms about being nosy. Ask whatever you like. What’s their sign? (Important thing to note. It’ll save you a heap of time trying to figure out the particulars of their personality later on.) How old are they? Where’d they go to school? What did they study? I’d like to know if they have any pets and what their family is like. Siblings? You know, birth order says a lot about a person. I’m a middle child, myself. Rebellious as hell with the t-shirt to prove it.
You should find out the relationship status of your main characters and how they interact with each other, as well. Remember, you plan to put these people into a book. They should have some chemistry—whether romantic or fricative.
As you soak in background information, try to ensure the new matches the old. For example, if you’ve envisioned Mr. Tall, Dark & Handsome as the baby of his family, he probably won’t appear quite so mature. Should he maybe be the eldest or an only child? I told you birth order says a lot about a person. 😉 Likewise, his word choice and dialogue should match his educational level, and his academic resume should pair well with his current profession.
All of that flows quite predictably. Why not shake things up a bit? Let’s say he’s dressed like a million bucks but speaks like a backwoods farmer. Let’s say he struck it rich with a lottery ticket. Well, obviously, you don’t have to give him that exact backstory, but do you see where I’m going?
To develop a better understanding of your characters, give them a past that explains who they are in your story, and the more surprising their history, the more complex the character. I’ll sit with you in the lobby while you tinker with finding out more about your people.
When you’re done with this part of the exercise, you should know the family history (including names of parents, siblings and pets, if they have them); educational and work history; relationship status; and, maybe even a few quirks and mannerisms.
Backtrack to that question you asked about their astrological sign. Here’s my pro-tip. I use the stars to guide me in building believable characters. A quick Google search will divulge a wealth of information on the personality traits of any given zodiac sign. It helps me to use that information to fill in the gaps. Fire signs are brash, ambitious leaders. Air signs are indecisive social butterflies. Water signs are moody, sensitive empaths. Earth signs are grounded, analytical observers.
If you’re having difficulty envisioning your characters as people, then try using their astrological sign to see them clearer.
Looks like your meeting is about to take in. Say goodbye to our new buddies. Was it fun hanging out with them? Again, be brutally honest with yourself: Do their histories offer enough substance to take them from two-dimensional to jumping off the page at you? If you’re still stuck with slightly interesting but not intensely captivating characters, tell the administrative assistant at the front desk to give you a little more time. Just ask nicely. She looks very annoyed about our lively conversation over here.
Now that you know more about your characters, you should be at least marginally invested in what happens to them next. I’m even a bit invested in them, myself. As you step up to the front desk, the administrative assistant suddenly yells, “I have HAD IT with this BLASTED JOB!” And, to show she means business, she yanks a water gun filled with what smells like bleach out of her purse and levels it at her computer!
You might want to get back. I can see this going all wrong for that outfit you’re wearing.
Gesturing with the weapon, she forces us all to sit back down and be her hostages. She’ll gladly bleach the tattoos right off your motorcycle crush’s beefy biceps if we don’t do what she says. I think we better listen to her demands. Ah, she just wants a vacation! Well, this dramatic workplace tantrum gives us more time to be with our new besties. Fun times!
As we bunch together to come up with an escape plan, I think all of us are thinking about life and death. I know I am. I don’t think my cellphone will survive a direct hit from that water gun of hers. The introspective train of thought leads to answers to some deep, burning questions you’ve had about your characters.
What are their darkest fears? What do they want in life? What are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What are their secrets—things no one else knows about them that further explains who they are and why they do what they do in your story? What traumatic life event made them into the person they are in Chapter 1?
The details you’re seeking aren’t arbitrary, so don’t just plug in random answers. Instead, think of this segment of character development as the “before” to the “after” you plan to write. All good stories are about transformation. For example, if by the end of your book, you want your characters to fall in love and ride off into the sunset, then the answers to the above questions should be why they don’t want that to happen.
To put it another way, tension in a story comes from conflict. Your characters need secrets, fears and weaknesses that will deter them from their end goal until at last they are forced to change to acquire their happily ever after.
As another computer bites the dust, and this rampaging administrative assistant runs out of ammo in her water gun, you should have down your characters’ innermost workings, motivations, stakes and the catalyst to why they belong in your story. If you don’t have that, just hop up and tell that secretary there’ll be no vacation days so you can figure out what drives your characters. Or, ax them. Everyone might not make it out of this round.
Congratulations, we made it! Let’s account for all your characters. By now, you should have everything you need to write a story about real people who mean something to you and will mean something to your readers. You have no excuse for forgettable faces after an ordeal like that one. Hopefully, you took notes, but if you didn’t, that’s okay. You can go through the entire process again and again by simply scrolling back to the top of the entry.
I had a blast getting trapped with you. Won’t you please tell me in the comment section below if all your characters made it out okay? Happy writing!