Characters, Writing Tips

Character Development: The Basics

Today’s blog post is the first in my character development series. I’ve talked before about how to give your characters dimension, but throughout this series, I’m going to walk you through my personal character development process from beginning to end. I’ve discussed one of my favorite tools, The 100 Most Important Things to Know About Your Character before in this post, and how the questions in it helped me create my personal character sheet.

If you haven’t created a character sheet before, this post is designed to give you a crash course. I’m going to go through 10 of the questions that I picked out from The 100 Most Important Things to Know About Your Character one by one and explain how they help me flush out my cast.

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    What is your full name?

            Nicknames

At first, this one may seem obvious, because how can you tell a story about someone if you don’t know their name?  But depending on how you choose the names, they can actually have a lot of meaning when it comes to a character’s personality. Along with telling you the meaning of a name, the website http://www.sheknows.com/baby-names/ also gives personality traits one with that name may poses. Putting my middle name, Claire, into the search engine for example, tells me that I have

“a deep inner desire for a stable, loving family or community, and a need to work with others and to be appreciated,”

and that “people with this name tend to be creative and excellent at expressing themselves. They are drawn to the arts, and often enjoy life immensely,” among other things.

On the whole, a lot of the description and it gives do not accurately represent my personality but some of them do. You don’t have to search the etymology of every single character’s name in order for it to fit them, but doing so is a good place to start if you were a little lost on what kind of personality such a character might have.

Nicknames can also play a factor in determining no only what kind of person your character is, but how they interact with the people around them. I know some people who were fused to use nicknames for their children. They prefer the full name because they think it’s sounds more professional. For me nicknames represent how close one may be to another person, but the use of them can meet a number of things to different people.

  1. Where and when were you born? (Month, Date, Year, Place) This may seem like another hour you swim, because in order to write a story about someone you have to know how old they are. But in this case, because you’re writing for a specific audience, it’s not just about the end of the characters, but the age of your ideal readers. If the concept of your book would be most interesting to a teenage audience, you probably want to have a teenage protagonist. Likewise, someone who is 25 would not deal with the same problems or talk with the same dialect as someone who is 12 or 10 or even 18.

Early on in the revision process of my current work in progress, my critique partner tried to convince me to turn it into a young adult novel because he thought it would sell better. I did contemplate this for a brief amount of time, but ultimately realized that doing so would mean looking at this story I wanted to tell from a completely different angle. Well that in and of itself is not a bad thing, I knew that I wanted to tell their story in the original scope that it came to me. That meant keeping the characters older to ensure authenticity.

  1. Who are/were your parents? (Know their names, occupations, personalities, etc.) I already analyzed this in my previous post, so I won’t say much about it here. The only thing I want to add is that this is very much a nature versus nurture situation. This is the time to figure out what kind of support system your character has and how that has impacted their personality.
  2. Do you have any siblings? What are/were they like? Similarly, thinking about whether or not your character has siblings as well as whether or not they appear or a mentioned over the course of your book, will tell you a lot about how your character relates to those around them. For example, I am the oldest in my family, and thus am very protective of my younger sister. I feel like I developed some motherly tendencies earlier in life because of my desire to keep her safe. An only child or younger sibling probably would not view the world the same way. An only child may take longer to learn how to work with others and split their time among people who are important to them. A younger sibling might be more willing to take risks because they want to be noticed or have the chance to do something first before they’re brothers and sisters. Tendencies like these might not be the case for your particular character, but knowing their family circumstances will undoubtedly have some effect on the way they see themselves and interact with the world.
  3. Where do you live now, and with whom? Describe the place and the person/people. So, at this point it may seem like the question are getting a little bit redundant. However, I think it all depends on how you look at it. Is your character 25 years old and still living with her parents? Is he 18 and newly married? Is she 21 and headed away from home for the first time? Does she have the worst second floor neighbors? I hope you see though these questions that even something as simple as setting has an opportunity to create conflict and make the story that much more interesting. I think a lot of people are looking setting because it’s just a place to put the story. But have you ever considered how different something like The Help would be if it wasn’t set in 1950s Jackson, Mississippi? Or, how about Lord of the Rings, but in the modern-day Amazon. What if The Hunger Games wasn’t set in Panem, but on a secluded desert island? He probably end up with Survivor or Lord of the Flies. It’s true that setting doesn’t make the story, it is a vital element that cannot be overlooked.
  1. What is your occupation? Imagine for a minute what The Devil Wears Prada would look like if Anne Hathaway’s character came to Runway’s office looking for a modeling job instead of taking an assistant job as a steppingstone to her ride her career. The entire fish out of water element would be gone, taking a majority of the conflict with it. Occupation, much like setting, is something that a lot of others think of it as an opportunity to create tension between characters. It doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic, like in Two Weeks’ Notice or Me Before You, it can be circumstantial as well. Think about Interstellar. If those characters were anything other than space explores, the main conflict of the movie wouldn’t exist. The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, works the same way. If Watson’s character didn’t work in customer service, she would’ve never gotten the job with the company and the plot would’ve gone in a completely different direction.
  2. What is your earliest memory?

This is always an interesting question for me to ask because I feel like it can reveal a lot about your character. For example, my earliest memory is a simple one: I’m sitting in my highchair while my mom is stirring a silver pot on the kitchen stove and my dad is making silly faces at me.  It’s the house that I lived in until I was 10 and my mom is in a loose weight T-shirt with her hair pulled up, and my dad is wearing black slacks and a crisp white shirt that’s tucked in.  I’m not sure quite honestly how much of that memory actually happened and how much of it came from my imagination but it’s in my head nonetheless. Even writing it down taught me that I have a knack for remembering details.

  1. To which social class do you belong? Titanic just wouldn’t have been the same if Jack and Rose had been born to the same social class. For that matter, neither would The Notebook. Yet another opportunity to introduce conflict, social class is something that can create a lot of strife and even help shape a character’s personality. Maybe you’re writing a romance and the female protagonist is a successful but uptight businesswoman who has an encounter with a young man who works at the amusement park her company is trying to buy out in order to secure more land for yet another factory. She looks down at their circus shows as frivolous and doesn’t understand how anyone can be happy working in such a second-class environment—but that’s only because she never got to do such things for herself. On the opposite side, maybe the male love interest looks at her life as a glamourous and glorious dream that he will never get to experience because his parents are going through something traumatic and he is stuck working three crappy jobs to pay his way through school while raising his younger sibling. That’s just something I came up with at the top of my head based entirely on social class and each character’s perception of it. Already you have internal and external conflicts that could be used to create compelling characters.
  2. What’s your greatest fear? A character’s biggest fear does not necessarily have to appear as a conflict in the novel, however, if used correctly, it can be an opportunity for enormous character growth. If your screen-writer protagonist is deathly afraid of letting others get close to him because something tragic always happens to people he falls in love with, then that can create a need to oppose his want. If he wants to shut others out of his life—well then, his new director for his movie passion project is going to make that next to impossible, and he’ll have to learn to open himself up again if he wants to reach his goal of winning an award in the romance category in the next Sunrise Festival.
  3. What’s your Zodiac sign and how accurate is it? This is by far my favorite question. If you’ve gone through this entire list of questions and are still staring at the screen wondering how the heck you’re supposed to get started creating characters out of thin air, this is a great launch pad. My favorite site to use is http://astrostyle.com/zodiac-signs/. If you know the month that you want your character to be morning to go down to the appropriate zodiac sign and start reading through it to see if any of those great match your character’s personality. If you don’t, just start at the beginning and slowly work your way down. Even if one of the zodiac signs sound absolutely nothing like what you want for your character, you already know more than when you started.

For example, my zodiac sign is the Scorpio.  A quick breakdown of what the site tells me I am like according to that sign:

Favorite Things: Underground music, spicy food, an air of danger, one-of-a-kind objects, wireless devices, organic ingredients, vinyl
What You Hate: Simple-minded people, insincere flattery, personal questions, living at someone else’s house
Secret Wish: To have complete and total control
How to Spot Them: Intense eyes, a hawk-like gaze, smooth movements
Where You’ll Find Them: In the studio producing a platinum album, sitting at the corner table of an underground bar, taking things apart and figuring how to put them back together again

Not all of this is accurate, but a surprising amount of it is. I don’t like insincere flattery. I love being in control and the places where you’ll find me completely describe my personality in a nutshell.

The great thing about this website is that they go into detail about each one of these quick summary items. Click here to see what I’m talking about.

Question of the Week: If you could ask your characters anything, what would it be? Let me know in the comments!

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As always, keep making magic, word weavers!

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