Thursday, January 7, 2010

Character Development

Writers come up with many interesting ways to develop a new character. Techniques I've explored include filling out character questionnaires, interviewing my characters, and sketching pictures of them. Sometimes the inspiration for a character comes from a word or phrase, but I'm a very visual person so more often than not, I see a person in my mind's eye.

A questionnaire is a useful tool for making decisions on what I'll call the character's "surfaces," their external and internal "shells." The character's name is very important to me, but I often can't name the character until I know other things about him or her. A questionnaire directs my thinking about the character's "outer shell": How old is this character? What color hair and eyes does she have? What's her physical stature? What's her ethnicity and religion? From contemplating and deciding these things, I can better answer questions further down on the list. For example, what are her physicality traits? Is she graceful or awkward? How does she move her body when she's relaxed? When she's stressed? Does she appear introverted or extroverted?

A questionnaire also helps me gather information about the character's "inner shell" that may move the story in interesting, unexpected directions. Is she single or married? Does she have children? What was her upbringing like? Does she have strong ties with her parents and siblings? What's her education level or profession? Does she live where she grew up, or did she move far away when she left home?

I found this free worksheet on the Web. Check it out: Character Development Worksheet

Another good technique for developing a character is to interview her. I, the writer, become the interviewer. I follow a formal list of prepared questions, and I let the character answer each one. Like any good interviewer, I listen closely to her answers. If something she says triggers another question, not on my list, I go ahead and ask it, noting both the question and the character's answer. It's important to let the character speak freely during this exercise. Don't censor her. And don't be shocked by what she says! Sometimes I have to remind myself that she isn't me. If she doesn't like babies, or chocolate, or if she's carelessly promiscuous, that's neither a reflection on me, nor on my likes and dislikes, or my personal code of ethics.

Laura Cushing and Rich Taylor have come up with a list of 100 great questions to ask your character. Check it out: Character Interview Questions

As I worked through the first draft of my novel, I was struck by the similarities between developing a character and meeting a real-life person. When I'm introduced to someone for the first time, I note their name and their physical appearance. I hear the person talk and gather information throughout the conversation, from the person's speech patterns and word choices, facial expressions and gestures. But first encounters don't tell you that much about a person. People are on their best behaviors when they first meet, their conversations are guarded and polite, and oftentimes people mirror each other's mannerisms and body language. The initial steps in creating a character for fiction are very much like being introduced to a person for the first time.

If you spend time with a new acquaintence, you learn more about him or her. Guards come down as people develop a sense of trust and security with one another. Moments of stress or challenge reveal the inner workings of a person's psyche, and over time you find out what really makes them tick.

As I wrote each chapter and I put my characters into diverse situations where they were faced by conflict and personal demons, I was often amazed at how they acted and reacted. I realized I wasn't really writing them, I was channeling them. It was a fascinating revelation, one that represented a turning point in my journey from the short story genre to that of novel.

With the desire to push that revelation to new levels of understanding, my newest trick for discovering how my characters think and what makes them tick involves this blog. I plan to do this: one day a week I'll give the keyboard over to one of my characters. Every Friday, I'll take one character on an outing. I may run errands, go to the gym, or just go for a walk. During that time, I'll observe the world around me through the eyes of that character. I'll think like he thinks, perceive each moment through the filter of his prejudices and life experiences. When I blog about it, the entry will come through my fingers but from the lips of that character.

I can't wait to get started tomorrow. I hope you'll join me to hear what my first guest blogger, Julie Knotts (protagonist of "Overcome" [WIP]; click here to read the novel's synopsis and an excerpt) has to say.

Until then, what's your favorite method for getting to know your character? I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't.

Thanks for reading, and have a pleasant day!