A hopefully helpful guide to getting to know your characters
Hello everyone! Today, I’m going to talk about how to approach fleshing out a character. One of the best parts of writing a story is planning out the plot. While having a solid plot is great, having solid, realistic characters is so important as well. I write stories predominately in first person so if you’re looking for some help about writing in 3rd person, you’ll unfortunately get no help here. I don’t know how people stick to one POV while writing in 3rd person! I get too into every other character’s head.
Before “Years Apart” (which is hopefully a placeholder title), I had “Value” (which was supposed to be a placeholder title, but it kind of stuck). “Value” has a TON of characters, and as I wrote and rewrote the story, I found that I wasn’t connecting with the main character as much as I was when I started dreaming of the plot and characters. “Value” has seen three main characters come and go throughout the ten plus years I’ve been working on it, and at some point last year I decided to put it on the shelf and give it time to breathe.
Because of that whole struggle, I have actively tried to flesh out characters I’ll be using long-term since I put “Value” on the shelf. I’ve seen a huge difference in how I approach telling stories because of this.
I usually try to avoid writing multiple POVs at once within a story, but in my recent idea I realized that in order to get the plot across, I have to dip into two character’s brains and tell their stories side by side. I haven’t done this in years, if at all, so I’ve found myself really taking the time to get to know my new characters.
“So,” you may ask, “what’s the point in telling me all this??” Well, lemme tell ya!
Being able to tell a story is one thing. If you practice hard enough, you can write anything. Being able to tell a story through the eyes of another person is something different all together. If the character has the same traits and interests as the writer, it makes it easier. If you have multiple characters, it becomes that much harder to write believable characters if they all like the same (or similar) things. If they all approach life the same way, it becomes boring to read.
For example, look at the characters in “Harry Potter”. They’re all so different! Let’s look at Harry and Ron.
Harry is sassy, kind of lazy, and generally indifferent to school. He’s also a very driven, curious, and selfless person. The way he approaches everything in the story isn’t very calculated, but he does hesitate before acting a good amount of times. Then you have Ron. Ron is just as lazy and just as aloof about school as Harry is (if not more so). However, Ron is insecure, hot-headed, and quite impulsive. He also is intelligent about things he knows (Quidditch, Wizard’s Chess, etc.) and will defend his friends and family to the death.
The similarities make it believable to assume that Harry and Ron are best friends, but they are different enough that the reader is entertained by their friendship. They are believably different, and I believe if they were either more similar or more different, they would not be as fun of characters to read about.
Characters need to be different from each other in order to be believable. Especially characters that are supposed to be opposed to each other, like hero versus villain.
So how do we start fleshing our characters out? It’s easier than you’d think, but still takes time. The more characters you have, the more time it will take (naturally); however, that doesn’t mean you should fly through this process. Taking the time to learn everything you can about your characters will make it easy to tell their story, and make for a better story for your readers!
It’s Like A Coffee Date
Approaching the character development process of creating a story shouldn’t be overwhelming. Think of it like a coffee date. Grabbing a coffee with someone you kind of know gives you a reason to get to know them better! It’s the same with the characters you’re experimenting with. Sitting down and listing out things you want to know about them is one of the best ways to approach character development. Questions come naturally if you think of it as more of a hang out or a date than an interrogation.
When I start this process, I start with the physical features. It’s easy for me to picture what a character looks like, so starting there helps me decide what their personality should be based on how they look. For example, Luke leGrange, one of the two main characters in “Years Apart”, is shorter than the average male. He makes up for his height by staying fit, and one of his biggest features is his (not so) hidden physical strength.
Based on his physical features, I wanted to make him more outgoing and a little in-your-face at first. Once I developed the plot of the story, however, I realized that that personality did not fit his story. Instead of making him loud and crass, I flipped it so that Luke is quiet and introverted. I think readers will love his inner monologue when the story tilts to his POV because I loved the idea of the quiet guy secretly observing and judging everyone.
Luke leGrange is different from the characters I’m used to writing. I usually write about people with somewhat outgoing personalities because I have an outgoing personality, and it’s easy for me to relate. I wanted to challenge myself to write a shy character, so Luke is that character.
What’s Your Social Security Number?
When you’re developing characters for your story, you need to know EVERYTHING about them. How they get along with their family, if they’re allergic to dogs, what kind of tea they like to drink, I’m talking EVERYTHING.
It’s hard to write a story if you don’t have as much background knowledge of your characters as you possibly can. Most of what I learn about my characters doesn’t ever see the drafts, let alone the final product. However, it’s still important to know what their favorite color is, or what they like to do on the weekends, along with anything else you can think of.
Knowing all of this info about your characters might seem like overkill, especially for the minor characters, but it helps to create a believable world when you do have all of the info in one place.
When I do my little coffee date role play (for lack of a better term), I really do ask as many questions as I possibly can. Each character can have similarities in the basic things (hobbies and interests, living situations, etc.), but the differences in personalities really come out when you dig deeper into the character’s psyche.
No one in the real world likes all of the same things as each other, and everyone has had different upbringings and life experiences that have shaped them. Fictional characters are no different. Just because two characters both like video games, that doesn’t mean that they both had the same opportunities to play. One might have been better off financially and had more access to video games, where the other had to go to arcades or beg their parents for the newest consoles only to not get them. Simple differences like this that people overlook while character developing make or break how characters interact and how they approach the conflict in the story.
So please, take the time to dig deep into your character’s psyche! Your story will almost tell itself if you do.
It’s Okay To Cut It Out
One important thing that I want to talk about is how characters interact. When you’re developing characters, you want them to do what the plot dictates they do. Depending on how you shape your characters, the way they react might not fit with the story. It’s okay to tweak your plot to fit your characters, or vice versa. It’s not okay to do so in a way that takes away from the quality of the story being told.
For example, back in the “Value” days, I had a character named Dan. He was the main character Erin’s best friend from school, and he stood by her side for the entire story only to betray her at the end; he loved her so much, but she didn’t feel the same. He ended up betraying her and the rest of the group because she refused him, ultimately going over to fight with the villains.
Once I finished the first draft and moved on to the second, I realized that this whole idea didn’t make sense. Dan was the most negative character in the story, and almost ruined the plot because I accidentally made him a bigger villain than the actual villains. So, I tried and tried to tweak his character to fit into what I needed from him, but nothing worked.
I ended up cutting him from the story for multiple reasons. He was one of three (three!!) love interests for the main character, he was negatively affecting the flow of the story, and he was a very stagnant character. While it’s good to have static characters, the way Dan acted in the story just didn’t fit anymore.
Elements from his personality were blended with other characters; Erin’s brother got Dan’s extreme loyalty to her, Wolf (her main love interest) got Dan’s moodiness, and Freddie (Erin’s new best friend and other love interest) got Dan’s not so secret need to be in Erin’s good graces.
Infusing Dan’s personality traits into other characters gave them more negative traits, which was much needed. “Value” has always been my baby, but the beginning of the development process showed off the fact that I had no idea how to write a fully fleshed out character. Too many positive/negative traits is a bad thing! It’s not believable to have such a one-sided character.
Get Outside Help
I have a very basic setup for character development. Many other writers have much more in depth and complicated ways of developing their own characters. I found that Frankensteining different processes together helped me develop my own way of approaching the world building aspect of writing. Unfortunately, the specific processes I’ve used ideas from are lost to time (I have been writing for most of my teenaged and adult life, after all).
While I can’t remember where I learned how to develop my characters, I do have my writing Pinterest that I save new ideas on. Seeing new ways to go about fleshing out characters breathes new life into the development process, and I think if you have no idea where to begin, looking up character development on Pinterest is a good place to start.
Writer friends can also help a lot. After all, who better to help you write than a writer? I have a handful of people I can go to with questions about writing, and I follow NaNoWriMo on Twitter. They retweet lots of good writing advice!
What if you don’t have writer friends in real life? Honestly, Facebook might be the place to look for them. There are TONS of groups on Facebook. Finding a group of writers you vibe with might be easier than you think!
Please, Don’t Forget the Little Guys
I can’t tell you how many times I disregard the side characters because “they don’t matter, they’re minor”. Don’t be like me. Take the time to learn everything about them as well, even if it’s just a one-scene character!
Should you do into an in-depth analysis of the barista that calls your character’s name out when their latte is done? Maybe not, if you don’t plan on using him for more than one scene. Should you at least know what they look like and what their basic personality is like? I say yes. For me, it’s easier to write when even the most minor of characters has been examined and fleshed out. You may have to go back to that coffee shop later in the story; if you forget what that barista was like the first time, you’ll forget how to write them this time.
Of course, there’s the “well, that barista is off today, so it doesn’t matter” or the “well, they’re so minor that no one is paying attention to the fact that it’s a different barista this time”. You may be right! But I fully believe that every character in a story has a purpose and a drive for something or someone. That barista’s main goal is to get your character to come get their coffee. How busy is the coffee shop? Are they slammed? The way that barista calls your character might be a little more stressed than you would think it would be for just a black coffee.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to matter. There will always be a reader who overanalyzes. Sometimes, I’m that reader! I love seeing that a writer has taken the time to not only meet their main characters, but the minor ones as well. It makes the story feel fuller to know that the plot isn’t the only thing affecting a character. The environment in which a scene is taking place affects everyone in that scene.
To me, it’s important that a story based in a realistic setting feels realistic. You’d notice if your barista was a little stressed out, wouldn’t you? You might say “thank you” a little sweeter than if it was a slow day. Maybe your character isn’t as nice as you, and doesn’t say thank you at all for their coffee. Maybe they’re too sweet, and they lay their appreciation on a little too thick. Little things like that make a story feel bigger.
So, How Do I Do This?
Creating a character should be a challenge. Getting into someone else’s head is difficult sometimes, especially when they live in your own. Taking the time to sit down and put yourself in your character’s shoes, or letting yourself feel silly by role playing a coffee date, or even just brainstorming how their personality should flow with the plot makes all the difference. I can always tell when a writer doesn’t take the time to learn their characters well.
While character development can be hard work, it shouldn’t be stressful. I always take plenty of time to listen to what the character wants, and how that relates to the story as a whole. Taking that time seriously helps you develop the plot, the setting, and the characters in a harmonious way that can’t be achieved if you speed through the process.
Start with the physical attributes, like eyes, hair, ethnicity, and the like, then move on to their personality, their mental state, and the pros and cons of it all. Giving your character a family background (or lack thereof) helps as well, even if you never meet their family in the story. It gives them history and makes them feel real.
Another step is to figure out their morals. Things like how they approach religion, politics, and other big ticket topics might not come up in a story, but they do help give your character a set of morals that can influence their decision making in the story.
Finally, once you throw your characters together in the plot and setting you’ve established, see how they work together. If something or someone isn’t working, tweak as needed…and if all else fails, it’s okay to cut a character if they don’t work. Don’t be afraid to put them on the shelf for a different story idea later on down the line; I’ve done that plenty of times!
At the end of it all, your story and your characters are yours. If you like what you’re writing, keep it up! If your characters blend well together and keep your plot moving, don’t fix what’s not broken. However, if you’re stuck in character development Hell, hopefully this helped give you some things to think about and apply to your next development session!
Thanks for reading this week’s blog post! Lately, all I’ve been doing is developing all the characters for “Years Apart”. So naturally, I wanted to write about how to actually do that! Hopefully it helps some fellow writers out there start the process of creating something great!
If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter for daily Mary shenanigans. Next Monday, I have to get a root canal! My very first dental issue (if you don’t count braces and wisdom teeth, anyway). I’m going to do my best to get a post done for next week before the busy weekend in front of me (weddings, in-laws, root canals…oh boy!), but as always, I’m playing it by ear.
Either way, thank you so much for reading! I hope I’ll see y’all back here next week!