Craft Chat CRAFT CHAT: Character Development

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Carol Rose

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CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

This is a long post. I debated whether to cut this in two, but it’s such important stuff, and I believe it is the backbone of everything else you write in your story. So I decided to make it one long post. Unfortunately, it's too long for the server! LOL! I can only post 20,000 characters in one post, so this one is continued in the first comment. Hang in there with me.

In the previous CRAFT CHAT post on Backstory, we touched on character development when we discussed how an author will always know way more about their character’s past than the reader. Several of the links I posted in that thread gave suggestions of how much backstory should make it into the novel. The actual percentage isn’t important.

What’s important is that you understand and know your characters as well as you know close friends and family members in real life. As well as you know yourself. How else can you expect to write a three-dimensional person if you don’t understand who they are, what shaped them, and what they want out of life? You can’t. You’ll end up with the author’s worst nightmare – a Mary Sue.

Why is it important to develop my characters before I write them?

Because no one wants to read a two-dimensional character who thinks and acts like everyone else in the book. Even more vital is that if readers aren’t invested in that character, and care what happens to him, they have no reason to keep reading your book.

You want your readers completely immersed in this character’s life, needing to know what happens next, and how this person will get out of the mess you’ve written him into. If they can’t feel the emotion or sense the conflict, why on earth would they keep reading? Would you?

So how do you accomplish this all-important task? How do you develop your character into a real person on the page?

You start by writing a character profile, at least for each of the main players in your story. And I’d strongly suggest the prominent secondary ones as well. You may even find yourself needing to do this for certain tertiary ones. Certainly if you plan a series, with books that focus on any of the secondary or tertiary characters in your current novel, you will want to do their character profiles up front. This will avoid detail inconsistencies in future books, and will give you more well-rounded secondary and tertiary characters in your current novel. You do that, and readers will beg you to write that character’s story next.

Trust me on this one. I’ve had readers tell me they want so-and-so’s book next, when I didn’t even realize they grew that invested in a secondary or tertiary character. I’ve also read books where I thought the author did a much better job at writing a secondary or tertiary character than she did writing her main characters. You can tell when an author gave more than a passing thought to a secondary or tertiary character. It makes for a more interesting story.

Just as we discussed in the Backstory Craft Chat post, people come to the page with a past. They have lived a life for years or decades already when you drop them into the present day. That’s why you need to know them before you write. A lot of that (most of it) will never make it onto the page, but you will know it as you write that character’s story. You’ll never be sitting there for hours, days, weeks asking what would this character do or think in this situation? You will already know it.

I know authors who love to resist this idea. They like to see where their character leads them. While I do understand their thinking, and I’ve had my characters lead me down trails I never thought of for them in plenty of books, the main difference is that I first had done their profiles, so I knew them as people. I went along with the unplanned changes because I knew it would work. I knew it would make the book better.

But to trust in that, to be able to change an outline like that and know it will work, you first need to understand how your characters will react in any given situation. You need to know how they speak to others. If you watch people in a group, you’ll see what I’m talking about. No two people in any group will react verbally or non-verbally to the same thing in the exact same way. Watch carefully, and you will see small differences. Nuances of body language, expressions, and spoken reactions.

We’re individuals.Your characters need to be as well, otherwise they all end up reading the exact same way. Same speech patterns, same reactions, same thoughts, same actions. Boring!! Two-dimensional!! That’s not what you want.

Okay. I get it now. But how do I write a character profile? It sounds like too much work!

It is, but it’s also the most important work you will do for your story. There are many ways to accomplish it. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as you’re comfortable with it and can use it to your full advantage. You may even choose a different way when you write a different book. Not all of them are applicable to all types of novels.

Start by Googling “Character Profile” and have fun browsing. As I said, there are many ways to do this. Explore them all and choose one that you like best, and that you feel best suits the book you’re writing. Also, Scrivener and other apps that help you organize notes, backstory, and characters are great for this.

And now I’ll tell you my secret.

I’ve written well over one hundred books and have ninety-five published titles, and the only thing I ever used to write my character profiles were Word documents, and THIS BOOK. Unfortunately, you can no longer get the printed edition directly from the publisher’s website, but there is a Kindle version on Amazon which isn’t ridiculously expensive.

Plenty of people have blogged and written their own craft books based on Deb Dixon’s GMC – Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. And with good reason. It’s the building block of any character profile. Doing their GMC will help you fill in every detail for the rest of that profile that you will ever need. It will give you a guide or a roadmap for the entire book. It will keep you on track with each scene so your story doesn’t wander off down paths you can’t even follow, and which you can’t write your way out of.

I’m fortunate to have two printed copies of her book, one of which is signed. I met Deb when she came to speak at our local RWA chapter meeting, very early in my writing career. Once she explained GMC, I finally understood what I’d been missing in my own characters.

She’s not a romance writer, so don’t be thinking this only applies to the romance novel. In fact, in the book she uses popular movies to explain GMC. It applies to any work of fiction. Any genre, any type of character, any plot.

So what is GMC?

Without conflict, you don’t have a story. Without some change in your main characters, you don’t have growth. Without growth, you have at best a memoir or a vignette, but you do not have a story. Readers want to see the people they’ve invested in get something out of the story at the end. They want to see them grown and learn, just like we do in real life when face with a conflict. That’s why we read. It’s the journey we enjoy.

GMC is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

I’m going to borrow Deb’s example of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz to explain this.

Goal: Characters can have more than one goal per story, but the main goal is the one that drives each scene, each reaction, each action. In the movie, Dorothy’s first goal is to get the heck off that farm in Kansas and see something outside her narrow world. Then, once she’s transported to Oz, she wants to get to Emerald City to see the wizard, so she can get back home.

Every scene in the movie revolves around Dorothy’s goals. The people she meets along the way, and who end up sharing her journey have goals of their own, but they all in some way relate to Dorothy’s goal of getting to the wizard, so he can help her get home.

Without Dorothy’s goal, and the driving force that makes her react, act, and speak in the ways she does toward the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda, and the Wizard himself, the story would make little sense. It would be about a teenager’s bizarre dream and her meanderings through that dream. But because each scene leads us further toward Dorothy accomplishing her goal, we feel on track with that common thread.

This is an important point. I’ve seen this so many times. Some writers don’t understand the need to have scenes fulfill a purpose, so the story wanders off down tangents and side roads, with no real tie to prior scenes. It’s disjointed. The reader can’t work out why this scene is here, and the story falls apart for them.

When we read, we suspend our disbelief to enter the world the author created for us. We become invested in the character’s journey. It’s the reason we turn the page. What will happen next? How will she overcome this next obstacle? How will he get out of this mess?

The reason we care about what happens to Dorothy is two-fold. We can all identify with our mundane life and wanting to see other places. Wanting to see what’s on the other side of that rainbow. We can also identify with wanting to go back home when we find ourselves in a terrifying, unfamiliar place. Especially one we appear to be trapped in. She certainly wasn’t going back the way she came to Oz. That point was made clear early on.

As the movie progresses, we want Dorothy to get home because she’s scared and homesick. We also come to love her three friends, and wonder what will happen to them. But there are no wasted scenes in this story. Every one drives Dorothy closer to her goal, and has a reason for being there.

Motivation: Your character’s goal should be one that has high stakes, like Dorothy’s did, or the motivation for accomplishing that goal will seem trivial or forced. Like you’re trying to make a problem out of something inconsequential.

Dorothy’s motivation was clear cut, and it made sense to her goals. Unless she found a way back to Kansas, she was trapped and would never see her family again. And unless she did it before the witch got her, she’d die.

Your character needs a goal that is not easily reached, or is truly life and death, like Dorothy’s was. Otherwise, the motivation to seek it falls flat. If it’s a goal someone can easily reach, you’ll have a tough time building a story around it, or making the reader believe in the motivation for it. A goal that no one really has to work hard for is boring to read about. No one will turn the pages to find out if she accomplishes it.

Conflict: As we said, it shouldn’t be too easy for your character to reach her goal. Otherwise, why is a reader going to trudge through tens of thousands of words to see if he gets there? Would you? At the same time, you don’t want to get ridiculous and toss in roadblocks simply for the sake of them. They should make sense to the story, otherwise your readers will see right through your ruse.

Dorothy’s conflicts made sense to the story. The witch was after her because Dorothy’s house killed the witch’s sister. She wanted to punish Dorothy, even though it wasn’t her fault. The witch didn’t care about fault. She wanted revenge. That need to hurt Dorothy is consistent with her character. That’s another important point. Any conflict brought on by another person should be consistent with that person’s character.

That’s why you need to make sure you understand your secondary and tertiary characters. Make sure you understand your antagonist, too. Villain is not synonymous with inconsistent, clichéd character. Don’t be tempted to use your antagonist in a way that makes it easy for you to invent conflict. And by that I mean, their character should be as three-dimensional as all the other main or secondary characters in that story. Otherwise they come across as clownish, or as a plot device.

The witch was ruthless and unforgiving. We were shown that up front. There was no compassion or understanding in her. Her personality stayed consistent throughout the movie. If she’d grown soft or was moved by Dorothy’s tears or pleading, that would have been inconsistent with the character we’d been shown up to that point, and it would have made her no longer believable as a mortal threat.

The people Dorothy met on the way to Emerald City added some conflict as well. She defended them when the flying monkeys came, adding to the witch’s anger. She enlisted their help which made her less vulnerable, and that angered the witch as well. She outed the wizard as a fraud, causing him to leave Oz. He ended up leaving without her, though, and that led to what some writers call the black moment. That point where it seems impossible your hero or heroine will reach their goal.

By that time, we were so invested in Dorothy and her friends, that it was a toss-up between them telling her if she stayed they’d take care of her, or hoping she’d still somehow find a way home. We didn’t want her three new best friends sad, but we also didn’t want her without her family for the rest of her life.

And that brings me to the next point about character development. This is THE BIGGIE. Creating emotion. If you do not do that, none of the GMC stuff you worked so hard on will matter. Why not? Because your readers won’t give a hoot about that person and won’t care what happens to them.

How do I show that emotion? How do I make people care about my characters?

I’ve been asked this question a lot. Because one consistent thing I read in reviews of my books, and that readers were kind enough to tell me on social media, is that they were always invested in my characters. That they ran the gamut of emotions as they read my books. That they cared about what happened to my heroes and heroines.

How did I do this? Well, I started with all the stuff up there I told you about. I worked hard on building that person into a real one. Who are they? What was their childhood like? What are their favorite memories and why? What type of music do they like? What are their artistic pursuits, or if they aren’t artistic, what makes them happy and feel fulfilled? What do they do for a living? Do they like it, and why or why not? What would they do for the rest of their life if they never had to worry about earning money? What do they dream about? Do they dream in color? What do they daydream about? Do they like to be outside, and if not, why not? Do they like big cities or small towns, and why? What kind of car do they drive? Do they have pets? How do they feel about rainy days?

This is only a partial list. And yes, I do that for every single main character in each of my stories. If I start writing and a secondary or tertiary character catches my eye, I stop and do it for them, too. Especially if this is a long series I have planned, and I have a feeling this other character will play a part in it. Or I already know they will.

I have series ranging from three books to fifteen, and all but a couple of them have running themes or threads through them. The same secondary and tertiary characters appear in each of the books. And in more than once instance, those characters ended up with their own book in the series. My readers loved that.

After I build them into a three-dimensional person with a past and a personality, I do their GMC for this story. Deb’s book is next to me when I write. It’s marked up inside with highlighted passages and notes I took when I heard her speak about GMC all those years ago. Because I’m not only using GMC for the person. I’m using it to make sure every single scene in that book relates back to those goals.

As for the emotion, it comes from inside me, and it comes from my understanding that I’m writing real people with real problems. That’s what readers want to read. They have real lives, they live in real places, (and by that I mean even if you make up a town, it needs to be “real”. We’ll talk about that in a moment) and they have all the same crap going on in their lives that we each do.

Well, you write romance so that’s easy, no? Their goal is to fall in love.

Not all the time. It’s not that easy because the romance of today isn’t as simple as the heroine wants a husband, or doesn’t want one, and he wants a wife, or doesn’t want one. Readers today want more substance than that. And as a writer, I’ve never been happy writing a fluffy book with marriage as the only goal. I like to make things complicated.

Creating emotion is a difficult concept to explain. I think for one thing, you have to be fearless when it comes to how much angst you’re willing to write. You have to forget about being cautious and simply let the emotion pour out of your psyche and into your fingertips as you type. Reach down deep. We all have crap in our past that lurks there, dark and angry. It makes us cry and scream. Well, you need to use that as you write. You need to infuse that into your characters.

Am I saying make your characters angry or anguished all the time? No. I’m saying use the emotional reactions of your own past traumas, or truly happy experiences, and let them come out in your characters. Don’t be afraid of the feelings. These are real people you’re writing. At least, to your readers they will be. So you need to give them real emotions, and real reactions to those emotions.

If you can do that, if you can make people laugh, cry, get angry, get sad, smile, whoop with joy as they read your books, you’ve done it. You’ve won their hearts. They will read everything you write.

THIS IS CONTINUED IN THE FIRST COMMENT BELOW...
 
You mentioned the place they live…

Yes. The place they live. You need to treat it like a character, especially if this is a planned series and all the stories will be set in that same general place. My longest series to date is called Racy Nights. It’s a fifteen-book series whose series title is a play on words. Racy is, of course, another word for sexy, daring, or erotic. I write erotic romance so… It’s also a play on where this fictional town is set. Indiana is known in the USA as a state dedicated to racing - cars, that is. The Indy 500 is held here in the capital, Indianapolis.

Fictional Racy is in northwest Indiana. But I wrote the town so well, and included in the books its history, stores, schools, businesses - there was even a tornado that did a boatload of damage in one book - that I had readers telling me they wanted to live there. They could see it in their minds as they read. I included the wind turbines that line Interstate 65 in that part of the state, and built a town and a fictional power plant that used the wind energy around them. Lots of characters in the stories worked at the power plant in various capacities. Those miles and miles of wind turbines were the inspiration for the series.

Make sure you treat the place where your story is set as a character. If it’s a real city, and you’ve never lived there, research it. How do people speak? What do they talk about? What are some of the local foods they eat? What are some of the historical references people would expect your characters to understand? Make sure you include real businesses, even in passing, or well-known landmarks. If you use street names, make sure they actually exist.

This is why it’s usually easier to make up a place, but you can get away with setting your story in a real town if you’re true to its ambiance. Because people will know if you’re not. I’ve set books in places I’ve never lived, but I’ve been there and I’ve talked to people who live there and grew up there. Truthfully, I prefer to make up a place. The world building is easier because I don’t have to worry about referencing something that doesn’t actually exist, or that does exist but I got it all wrong.

For your fictional town, give it the same history and landmarks as any real city would have. People who live there need to work and go to school. They need to mail letters and buy food. They need tradespeople, attorneys, and places to buy other things. They need churches. They need recreational activities. Build your town as you would a character profile. Not only will this add a layer of depth to your stories, but it will help you stay on track with details and timelines.

This sounds like a lot of work…

It is. But it’s also essential work if you’re to have three-dimensional, believable, consistent characters who evoke emotion in your readers. If you’re to have a place where your story is set that comes alive for those readers. I still have people send me pictures of wind turbines they see on trips. Not kidding here. And the last Racy Nights book was published five years ago. That’s how much of an impact my fictional town made on them. Of all the series I’ve written, and all the fictional places I’ve set those series in, Racy is still my favorite.

How do you keep track of all the details? Well, that’s up to you. As I said up there, the only thing I ever used were Word docs. But there are all kinds of apps and software programs you can use, if that’s preferable and easier for you. It all depends on how you work, and how you like to organize notes. Some people write them out long-hand or use a whiteboard. Everyone works differently. And the how of it isn’t important, as long as it works for you. These are your characters and your setting, so keep track of all those details in whatever way is most efficient for you.

That’s it for this Craft Chat post! I know this was a long one with a lot of detail, and I thank you for sticking with me.
 
Words have escaped me for a few moments, but I applaud: this is so clear that I'm tempted to run around in circles dancing like a dervish.
I'm one of the people who can't write romance or comedy. Not for the reasons most people will think - it's because it always looks easy. Anyone can laugh, anyone can get the joke, but when it comes to maintaining that taste of humour and building on it beat for beat to the climactic moment, for the length of a novel, novella, or even a novelette ... well, it takes so much more work to make it look as easy as it needs to read for the right effect at the right time.
Same goes for romance. So much work goes into getting the reader fully invested in something everyone experiences, everyone knows what it feels like, but this time it has to be different enough to keep them reading for the whole story. Enthralled, excited, concerned, fully involved in how it all comes out at the end. That takes investment in the characters and the emotional context.
Fear and suspense I can do, but romance and laughs? Not so easy for me.

The interplay and interaction between the players on the field make the difference. There is no story without character (yes, including setting; talking heads don't make a story either). Plot events are based on the needs of the character as they fight to achieve something and have to interact with people and places on that journey.
And if the characters aren't real enough for the reader to invest in - and yes, every character with a speaking role of more than two sentences (at least enough to make them visible to the reader) - then the story will fail.

Thank you for the depth of this discussion - I love it, wish I'd had this when I was starting the journey ... but would I have had the experience to be able to understand it at the time?
 
Words have escaped me for a few moments, but I applaud: this is so clear that I'm tempted to run around in circles dancing like a dervish.
I'm one of the people who can't write romance or comedy. Not for the reasons most people will think - it's because it always looks easy. Anyone can laugh, anyone can get the joke, but when it comes to maintaining that taste of humour and building on it beat for beat to the climactic moment, for the length of a novel, novella, or even a novelette ... well, it takes so much more work to make it look as easy as it needs to read for the right effect at the right time.
Same goes for romance. So much work goes into getting the reader fully invested in something everyone experiences, everyone knows what it feels like, but this time it has to be different enough to keep them reading for the whole story. Enthralled, excited, concerned, fully involved in how it all comes out at the end. That takes investment in the characters and the emotional context.
Fear and suspense I can do, but romance and laughs? Not so easy for me.

The interplay and interaction between the players on the field make the difference. There is no story without character (yes, including setting; talking heads don't make a story either). Plot events are based on the needs of the character as they fight to achieve something and have to interact with people and places on that journey.
And if the characters aren't real enough for the reader to invest in - and yes, every character with a speaking role of more than two sentences (at least enough to make them visible to the reader) - then the story will fail.

Thank you for the depth of this discussion - I love it, wish I'd had this when I was starting the journey ... but would I have had the experience to be able to understand it at the time?

I’m so pleased you found it so helpful! :)
 
This is great, @Carol Rose. Thanks so much for putting it all together.

I'm having a wonderful time writing my current novel, because I've got to know the characters so well through doing the kind of preparation you outline above. As a result, I'm genuinely enjoying their company. And because I feel like they've become embedded as their own entities within my psyche, they are leading me in interesting directions which are improving the novel. For example, the way my MC reacted to a traumatic situation wasn't something I had pre-planned, but it was entirely consistent with her personality and backstory and sat much better within the narrative as a result. When I read back through the chapter, I thought, "This really wasn't what I was expecting, but it feels like exactly the right thing."

In other words, for a reader, I suspect her reaction will be more interesting because it's not immediately predictable, but it is nonetheless entirely believable. I don't think that would have happened without the GMC type approach you describe above.

Coincidentally, a series of online tutorials in which I'm currently participating is covering character tomorrow. I'll share any nuggets of information that can usefully be added to what Carol's said above.
 
This is great, @Carol Rose. Thanks so much for putting it all together.

I'm having a wonderful time writing my current novel, because I've got to know the characters so well through doing the kind of preparation you outline above. As a result, I'm genuinely enjoying their company. And because I feel like they've become embedded as their own entities within my psyche, they are leading me in interesting directions which are improving the novel. For example, the way my MC reacted to a traumatic situation wasn't something I had pre-planned, but it was entirely consistent with her personality and backstory and sat much better within the narrative as a result. When I read back through the chapter, I thought, "This really wasn't what I was expecting, but it feels like exactly the right thing."

In other words, for a reader, I suspect her reaction will be more interesting because it's not immediately predictable, but it is nonetheless entirely believable. I don't think that would have happened without the GMC type approach you describe above.

Coincidentally, a series of online tutorials in which I'm currently participating is covering character tomorrow. I'll share any nuggets of information that can usefully be added to what Carol's said above.

That would be awesome! Thank you!
 
Fantastic post, Carol, as always, detailed, insightful and hugely useful. :)

I wanted to talk about, and try to add something positive to, this observation:
[Y]ou need to know [your characters] before you write ... I know authors who love to resist this idea.
I agree completely. You need to know your characters before you write. And there may be authors who resist this idea. Good luck to them. But I can't help feeling that it's not the basic idea that many authors resist. It's the idea that we have to write lists. Writing lists for many people is the epitome of boredom. It simply doesn't work for some and will turn them off the whole process before they get started.

"I don't want to write lists!" they will cry. "I want to write scenes!"

Fine, says I. Write scenes.

Let me explain. The article says,
[O]ne consistent thing I read in reviews of my books, and that readers were kind enough to tell me on social media, is that they were always invested in my characters ... How did I do this? Well, I started with all the stuff up there I told you about ... As for the emotion, it comes from inside me, and it comes from my understanding that I’m writing real people with real problems.
I'm one of those readers Carol mentions. She be kickass at character. Her story people have made me laugh aloud, quiver with anticipation, and shed tears of grief.

But, for those wishing to replicate these feats, there's that reference to lists again: How did I do this? Well, I started with all the stuff up there I told you about...

And this part... As for the emotion, it comes from inside me... sounds like black magic (or at least it sounds like black magic if you're tearing your hair out because you don't know how to get it out and onto the page). It sounds like the part that you're "born with" if you're lucky, the part that's raw talent not craft. It sounds like the kind of thing that would make a list-hater give up writing and go back to flipping burgers.

But it doesn't have to be. There is a way to tap into that emotion. It's to write scenes. These scenes almost certainly won't end up in the story, mind you. They're simply a way to get to know our characters. They are a form of discovery writing, and they can be written in place of a list when finding our characters' backstories – and all before the actual story, and plot, is composed. [Sounds like a lot of work. You betcha!]

I think any approach to character building comes down somewhere on the spectrum of nature vs nurture. And for me, the list approach is all nurture. It involves making exhaustive lists about all the things a character has done and that have happened to them, and then building the character from there.

A nature approach, on the other hand, would involve discovery-writing a series of, quite possibly unrelated, scenes that show a character's fundamental nature in key situations – are they stubborn, independent, easily influenced, hard to please, etc? If you have a key event in a character's (backstory) life, you could stick it on a list, or you could write a scene about it. Either way, you will end up knowing your character (once you've written enough drafts of the scenes, or put enough entries on the list). [Sounds like a lot of work. Oh, yes, it is, it really, really is.]

Just like the nature vs nurture debate, I think most would agree that "truth" lies somewhere in between, and perhaps so it is with character creation. If lists are your thing, go for it (and clearly they work – almost all the How To books recommend them). But for those who struggle with that approach, maybe writing scenes will bring you to the same place (the key here being that they're not scenes that are part of the novel, but rather your own voyage of discovery into a character's backstory). For many people, I would imagine some combination of the two approaches might bear fruit.

I think it was Stephen King who said that he doesn't buy into the keeping a notebook by the bed approach to writing, that for him doing so would just produce pages of crap. He prefers his mental notebook, wherein only the best ideas persist – if he's still thinking about it weeks or months later, he knows it's a good idea.

I think there are many of us who don't like writing lists, who don't like keeping notebooks. But I do think there are ways for us to develop strong characters. I think everything Carol says above is fantastic advice. We really do need to know our characters inside out. But perhaps there are alternatives to the exhaustive writing of lists to achieve that.

Now, go write a scene.



[Full disclosure: I have been known to make a note of something I'd rather not forget, and perhaps occasionally those notes might resemble a list, from a distance, if you squint. But don't tell anyone, all right?]
 
Fantastic post, Carol, as always, detailed, insightful and hugely useful. :)

I wanted to talk about, and try to add something positive to, this observation:

I agree completely. You need to know your characters before you write. And there may be authors who resist this idea. Good luck to them. But I can't help feeling that it's not the basic idea that many authors resist. It's the idea that we have to write lists. Writing lists for many people is the epitome of boredom. It simply doesn't work for some and will turn them off the whole process before they get started.

"I don't want to write lists!" they will cry. "I want to write scenes!"

Fine, says I. Write scenes.

Let me explain. The article says,

I'm one of those readers Carol mentions. She be kickass at character. Her story people have made me laugh aloud, quiver with anticipation, and shed tears of grief.

But, for those wishing to replicate these feats, there's that reference to lists again: How did I do this? Well, I started with all the stuff up there I told you about...

And this part... As for the emotion, it comes from inside me... sounds like black magic (or at least it sounds like black magic if you're tearing your hair out because you don't know how to get it out and onto the page). It sounds like the part that you're "born with" if you're lucky, the part that's raw talent not craft. It sounds like the kind of thing that would make a list-hater give up writing and go back to flipping burgers.

But it doesn't have to be. There is a way to tap into that emotion. It's to write scenes. These scenes almost certainly won't end up in the story, mind you. They're simply a way to get to know our characters. They are a form of discovery writing, and they can be written in place of a list when finding our characters' backstories – and all before the actual story, and plot, is composed. [Sounds like a lot of work. You betcha!]

I think any approach to character building comes down somewhere on the spectrum of nature vs nurture. And for me, the list approach is all nurture. It involves making exhaustive lists about all the things a character has done and that have happened to them, and then building the character from there.

A nature approach, on the other hand, would involve discovery-writing a series of, quite possibly unrelated, scenes that show a character's fundamental nature in key situations – are they stubborn, independent, easily influenced, hard to please, etc? If you have a key event in a character's (backstory) life, you could stick it on a list, or you could write a scene about it. Either way, you will end up knowing your character (once you've written enough drafts of the scenes, or put enough entries on the list). [Sounds like a lot of work. Oh, yes, it is, it really, really is.]

Just like the nature vs nurture debate, I think most would agree that "truth" lies somewhere in between, and perhaps so it is with character creation. If lists are your thing, go for it (and clearly they work – almost all the How To books recommend them). But for those who struggle with that approach, maybe writing scenes will bring you to the same place (the key here being that they're not scenes that are part of the novel, but rather your own voyage of discovery into a character's backstory). For many people, I would imagine some combination of the two approaches might bear fruit.

I think it was Stephen King who said that he doesn't buy into the keeping a notebook by the bed approach to writing, that for him doing so would just produce pages of crap. He prefers his mental notebook, wherein only the best ideas persist – if he's still thinking about it weeks or months later, he knows it's a good idea.

I think there are many of us who don't like writing lists, who don't like keeping notebooks. But I do think there are ways for us to develop strong characters. I think everything Carol says above is fantastic advice. We really do need to know our characters inside out. But perhaps there are alternatives to the exhaustive writing of lists to achieve that.

Now, go write a scene.



[Full disclosure: I have been known to make a note of something I'd rather not forget, and perhaps occasionally those notes might resemble a list, from a distance, if you squint. But don't tell anyone, all right?]

Fabulous way to look at this from another approach. Thank you, @Rich.!
 
When writing the character sheets for my current WIP, I ended up essentially writing a summary of the story but from each character's point of view, including their off-stage action and experiences which impact the novel without the reader knowing in detail what they are.

I must confess, I got enjoyably carried away with writing the other characters' stories...no lists at all. And having those parallel threads written down has been a great help with writing the novel from the MC's POV.
 
When writing the character sheets for my current WIP, I ended up essentially writing a summary of the story but from each character's point of view, including their off-stage action and experiences which impact the novel without the reader knowing in detail what they are.

I must confess, I got enjoyably carried away with writing the other characters' stories...no lists at all. And having those parallel threads written down has been a great help with writing the novel from the MC's POV.

I love this idea!
 
Another great Craft Chat! Thank you Carol. Your pen must be smoking.

Fantastic post, Carol, as always, detailed, insightful and hugely useful. :)

You need to know your characters before you write.

But it doesn't have to be. There is a way to tap into that emotion. It's to write scenes. ...

I think any approach to character building comes down somewhere on the spectrum of nature vs nurture. …

A nature approach, on the other hand, would involve discovery-writing a series of, quite possibly unrelated, scenes that show a character's fundamental nature in key situations – are they stubborn, independent, easily influenced, hard to please, etc? If you have a key event in a character's (backstory) life, you could stick it on a list, or you could write a scene about it. Either way, you will end up knowing your character (once you've written enough drafts of the scenes, or put enough entries on the list). [Sounds like a lot of work. Oh, yes, it is, it really, really is.] … For many people, I would imagine some combination of the two approaches might bear fruit. ....

But I do think there are ways for us to develop strong characters. I think everything Carol says above is fantastic advice. We really do need to know our characters inside out.

[Full disclosure: I have been known to make a note of something I'd rather not forget, and perhaps occasionally those notes might resemble a list, from a distance, if you squint. But don't tell anyone, all right?]
And all this above.

Maybe I have a strange approach to character development. The approach I tend to use is, obviously, rooted in my acting training (and by the way, I only do this for my main character and his/her antagonist.) Yes, I make some notes. Brief ones. I write down their goals, motivations, character traits, like for example self-destructive, or over-sensitive. It gives me a basic idea of who they need to be for the story to work. I might even write down how I would show a particular character trait and what kind of scene I might need. That's my springboard.

Then I jump and let the characters into my bones. I try to feel them, feel their energy, their essence. I try to find them somewhere inside. It's like having a colour spectrum inside of me. The character is a colour and I don't yet know which colour he/she is. I then feel my way along that emotional character colour spectrum until I find them and until they sit right (a bit like being in a different mood). It might take days, maybe weeks. But I want to feel them. They may even change (they will change as I write the novel). I then let them write the novel while I keep an eye to keep control (in acting that's called the third eye - you let the character play but you keep the ultimate control and guidance), and I then use various tools Carol mentions.

An acting teacher once told me we could be anyone, and that anyone and everyone is somewhere inside. When I take on an acting role, I get a first feel for a character during the first readthrough of the play. I get to know them during a rehearsal. So for me it's a matter of finding the character inside, within me. I open up, let go, then let myself feel them and what they feel like, or what it would feel like if I were them. - No idea if that makes any sense. It's something I've never consciously analysed before so this might have been a load of waffle.

Anyway, that's the start of my characters. I then I get more analytical and purposeful, again like Carol says, and let them play in the framework of the novel.
 
Another great Craft Chat! Thank you Carol. Your pen must be smoking.


And all this above.

Maybe I have a strange approach to character development. The approach I tend to use is, obviously, rooted in my acting training (and by the way, I only do this for my main character and his/her antagonist.) Yes, I make some notes. Brief ones. I write down their goals, motivations, character traits, like for example self-destructive, or over-sensitive. It gives me a basic idea of who they need to be for the story to work. I might even write down how I would show a particular character trait and what kind of scene I might need. That's my springboard.

Then I jump and let the characters into my bones. I try to feel them, feel their energy, their essence. I try to find them somewhere inside. It's like having a colour spectrum inside of me. The character is a colour and I don't yet know which colour he/she is. I then feel my way along that emotional character colour spectrum until I find them and until they sit right. It might take days, maybe weeks. But I want to feel them. They may even change; they will change as I write the novel. Then when it comes to writing they write the novel while I keep an eye to keep control (in acting that's called the third eye - you let them play but you keep the ultimate control and guidance), and I use various tools Carol mentions.

An acting teacher once told me we could be anyone, and that anyone and everyone is somewhere inside. When I take on an acting role, I get a first feel for a character during the first read through of the play. Then I get to know them during a rehearsal. So for me it's a matter of finding the character inside, within me. I open up, let go, then let myself feel them and 'what they feel like', or what it would feel like if I were them. - No idea if that makes any sense. It's something I've never consciously analysed before so this might have been a load of waffle.

Anyway, that's the start of my characters. I then I get more analytical and purposeful, again like Carol says, and let them play in the framework of the novel.

And obviously it works for you!! Thank you for sharing such an awesome process.
 
And obviously it works for you!! Thank you for sharing such an awesome process.
Well, once I've got the character, I then apply various other things, like advice I've had from you @Carol Rose over the years, and kind of make a cocktail of it all. Especially this following:

Your character needs a goal that is not easily reached, or is truly life and death, like Dorothy’s was. Otherwise, the motivation to seek it falls flat. If it’s a goal someone can easily reach, you’ll have a tough time building a story around it, or making the reader believe in the motivation for it. A goal that no one really has to work hard for is boring to read about. No one will turn the pages to find out if she accomplishes it.

You've mentioned this before at some point in our various discussions and I found it immensely helpful. It was a bit of an aha moment the first time you said it.

And so was this:

Make sure you treat the place where your story is set as a character.

That was another epiphany.
 
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There's another way to deepen the understanding of a character - I do interviews and write them up; freewriting, which is similar to letting them write a scene about themselves. I also do a beat sheet for each major character (any of them with a speaking part), and they must all have an agenda or goal for their own story (every character thinks they're the main character, of course). And then there is something I learned relatively recently ...
Giving the character a verb for their inner selves (Damon Suede, I thank you).
For example, one of the current WeesInPee has this main verb for the main character, and the subsidiary verbs for each part of the story:

Verbs: Hound
(1) Gather, pester, (2) annoy, bug, pursue, (3) shadow, stalk,(4) inflict harm.
I've found this helps keep me 'in tune' with the inner core of the character as I go. Putting the synonyms (or occasionally, antonyms) in each part of the story also helps create the build-up to the biggest and baddest verb for the climax.
(yes, I do this for each main player).

And
that anyone and everyone is somewhere inside
that little thing - for acters, it's method acting, for writers, it's method writing - be the force, writer, become.
[it's almost original].

Without a good character, a reader isn't going to invest in the story regardless of how good the idea or concept is.
 
(every character thinks they're the main character, of course)
Totally this.

I must try that verb thing you mentioned. Thanks for that.

that little thing - for acters, it's method acting, for writers, it's method writing - be the force, writer, become.
Yep. I'm a method actor, hence I might as well be a method writer. (No actor emoji here so you're getting Litbot :robot-face: )

Have you heard of The Meisner Technique? It's an offshoot of traditional Method acting but here the tagline is: Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Or in the writer's case Writing truthfully under ... It's fascinating how other art techniques can be applied to writing. Maybe our painters have an angle to character development? There must be something in watering down colour, brush stokes and perspectives that can be applied to character development.
 
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The Meisner Technique
The Stanislavski [?] technique or method is the one I found first, which led onto looking at Meisner and adapting it to writing.
I take it a bit further and use something to indicate the character. for one of the character's who wore a scarf every day, I'd put on 'her' scarf when I started on her scenes, and take it off when not. Bit like a light switch - am char, am not char ... or is that slightly insane? *shrug* whatever works.
 
or is that slightly insane?
Perfectly normal as far as I'm concerned. It helps get into character. Like you say it's a trigger., a costume. It all helps. Do you find it helps you separate writing life from non-writing life so that you don't live the character when you're not writing? I sometimes find it hard to stop the character from 'bleeding' into my non-writing life.
 
Maybe @Rainbird has a painter's angle to character development? There must be something in watering down colour, brush stokes and perspectives that can be applied to character development.
That's just beautifully put :)

This has been great, @Carol Rose , it really made me think about how and why I do things. I would be more on @Rich and @Barbara 's side of the fence. I don't write lists and the thought of an Excel file makes me sweat.

I'm a gatherer of stuff, of visuals, of dreams that I knew were valuable and when I am still thinking about them months later, like Mr. King, I know they are important. I have notebooks and more notebooks, music (lots of it) to add to the stuff and all of this often feels like a bundle of unrelated jigsaw pieces, but this is how I'm creating and understanding my places and people and when I go to write, I have this outwardly disorganised, yet inwardly rich, rich world that only I would understand and can make sense of :)

And YES to this, this is me too:
Then I jump and let the characters into my bones. I try to feel them, feel their energy, their essence. I try to find them somewhere inside. It's like having a colour spectrum inside of me. The character is a colour and I don't yet know which colour he/she is. I then feel my way along that emotional character colour spectrum until I find them and until they sit right (a bit like being in a different mood). It might take days, maybe weeks. But I want to feel them. They may even change (they will change as I write the novel). I then let them write the novel while I keep an eye to keep control (in acting that's called the third eye - you let the character play but you keep the ultimate control and guidance), and I then use various tools Carol mentions.

And back to painting where I began! When I paint I lay down a very colourful, multi layered ground. I spend a long time on this, in itself it could be a finished abstract painting, full of deeps and shallows. When I put structure over it, it is this "undercoat" that vibrates through the painting. I paint landscapes and plants and houses (normal world) but it is the pulses of the base that make it come alive. I think, on reflection, I am striving to do pretty much the same thing in my writing [we shall see if it works, lol!!]
 
There's another way to deepen the understanding of a character - I do interviews and write them up; freewriting, which is similar to letting them write a scene about themselves. I also do a beat sheet for each major character (any of them with a speaking part), and they must all have an agenda or goal for their own story (every character thinks they're the main character, of course). And then there is something I learned relatively recently ...
Giving the character a verb for their inner selves (Damon Suede, I thank you).
For example, one of the current WeesInPee has this main verb for the main character, and the subsidiary verbs for each part of the story:

Verbs: Hound
(1) Gather, pester, (2) annoy, bug, pursue, (3) shadow, stalk,(4) inflict harm.
I've found this helps keep me 'in tune' with the inner core of the character as I go. Putting the synonyms (or occasionally, antonyms) in each part of the story also helps create the build-up to the biggest and baddest verb for the climax.
(yes, I do this for each main player).

And

that little thing - for acters, it's method acting, for writers, it's method writing - be the force, writer, become.
[it's almost original].

Without a good character, a reader isn't going to invest in the story regardless of how good the idea or concept is.

Damon Suede is amazing!
 
That's just beautifully put :)

This has been great, @Carol Rose , it really made me think about how and why I do things. I would be more on @Rich and @Barbara 's side of the fence. I don't write lists and the thought of an Excel file makes me sweat.

I'm a gatherer of stuff, of visuals, of dreams that I knew were valuable and when I am still thinking about them months later, like Mr. King, I know they are important. I have notebooks and more notebooks, music (lots of it) to add to the stuff and all of this often feels like a bundle of unrelated jigsaw pieces, but this is how I'm creating and understanding my places and people and when I go to write, I have this outwardly disorganised, yet inwardly rich, rich world that only I would understand and can make sense of :)

And YES to this, this is me too:


And back to painting where I began! When I paint I lay down a very colourful, multi layered ground. I spend a long time on this, in itself it could be a finished abstract painting, full of deeps and shallows. When I put structure over it, it is this "undercoat" that vibrates through the painting. I paint landscapes and plants and houses (normal world) but it is the pulses of the base that make it come alive. I think, on reflection, I am striving to do pretty much the same thing in my writing [we shall see if it works, lol!!]

We’re all different. We each have to find what works best for us. :)
 
Perfectly normal as far as I'm concerned. It helps get into character. Like you say it's a trigger., a costume. It all helps. Do you find it helps you separate writing life from non-writing life so that you don't live the character when you're not writing? I sometimes find it hard to stop the character from 'bleeding' into my non-writing life.
It's a technique I learned when I had three jobs - and each req'd a different mind-set. It works to separate my ITRW life from the (much more interesting) story life. A switch. I think I learned about it from a counselling course, how to turn off a trigger - but it also helps to turn it on!
Life is so interesting - or is that the curse?
 
I like to find pictures of my characters on the internet, then I compile them to a Pinterest board. It can be very helpful to have a visual fix on a character (seeing as I'm not an illustrator...if you are, you can draw your own, of course!)

You could also create a pinterest board for individual characters, sharing images and ideas that seem pertinent to them.
 
I promised to share useful nuggets from my course, so here goes...

This week, the discusion focused in particular on character agency.

Basically, the most beautifully crafted, exquisitely described 3D character in the world will fail to engage a reader (or movie-goer etc.) if they are devoid of agency. The tutor used The Matrix Reloaded as an example of this: the protagonist, Neo, lacks agency throughout (he isn't proactive) and as such, we the audience are not invested in what happens to him.

She recommended these resources:

Stephen King, On Writing

YouTubeYouTube | Ellen Brock
7 Reasons Readers Don't Care About Your Novel's Characters

writersandartists.co.uk
writersandartists.co.uk
Why characters are the heart of your novel - & how you can write them effectively

Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds
Just What The Humping Heck Is “Character Agency,” Anyway?
 
A short extract from the Chuck Wendig blogpost above:

"..the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.

Characters without agency tend to be like little paper boats bobbing down a river of your own making. They cannot steer. They cannot change the course of the river. The river is an external force that carries them along — meaning, the plot sticks its hand up the character’s cavernous bottom-hole and makes the character do things and say things in service to the plot.

Because characters without agency are really just puppets."
 
I like to find pictures of my characters on the internet, then I compile them to a Pinterest board. It can be very helpful to have a visual fix on a character (seeing as I'm not an illustrator...if you are, you can draw your own, of course!)

You could also create a pinterest board for individual characters, sharing images and ideas that seem pertinent to them.

I know a lot of authors who do this!
 
A short extract from the Chuck Wendig blogpost above:

"..the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.

Characters without agency tend to be like little paper boats bobbing down a river of your own making. They cannot steer. They cannot change the course of the river. The river is an external force that carries them along — meaning, the plot sticks its hand up the character’s cavernous bottom-hole and makes the character do things and say things in service to the plot.

Because characters without agency are really just puppets."

Great stuff and SO true! Thanks so much for sharing this!! :)
 
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