Developing a strong character is key in the creative writing process. In nearly every story the general plot will follow lines similar to other stories, for example: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, something keeps them apart, boy battles something, they are reunited.
One of the most important factors in making your story stand apart from the other nine billion out there is a strong character. But you may be asking, how do you develop a strong character? Every writer will develop their own process and that is ok! Even recommended! What follows are some simple processes I have seen in my creative writing classes, various books, and have developed on my own.
Character Development Sheet. We have all seen them come in through our emails, many of you will simply hit the “Delete” button, but I say think outside the box! The next time you get one of those “100 Question Surveys” from your friends asking what color pants your wearing, whether or not you’ve ever been in love, or if you are a current fan of the president, instead of not thinking twice about it as you send it to the recycle bin, think about it from your character’s point of view! Answer the questions from their mindset, what color is their hair, what color pants are they wearing, are they happy with their president, king, ruler?
Develop your own Description Page based on the principles of the “100 Question Survey” spam mail, keep the questions that apply and discard what doesn’t. This page will be a long list of simple questions followed by equally simple answers, unless of course your character has strong political views in which case feel free to add an entire dissertation on the next page!
Some questions you should definitely include:
~How old is your character at the start and end of your story?
~What do they look like? Eyes, hair, scars, tattoos, height, weight, muscles, etc.?
~What is their standard temperament? Are they easy going, hot headed, flirty, a smarty-pants?
~Whats their driving force? What does the character want? What would he do anything for?
~What is his family life like?
Alternatively: If you don’t recall ever seeing one of these emails you can build your own or google “Character Development Sheet” for some good ideas on questions to ask your character.
Play With Your Character. This one may seem odd, but I mean it literally. If you have kids pretend that you’re the evil Count Van Coupe character you have been developing. Play with your voice, does it sound evil? Does he sound very nice and sneaks up behind them? If your character carries around a sword take a stick and weave it through your belt. Let your children dictate the circumstances, but act the way your character would in that situation. For example the fort they just built is his castle and it just caught on fire – what would be his reaction? You’d be amazed how quickly your character will come to life or fall flat. If he falls flat maybe you need to get to know him some more. If you don’t have kids, and the idea of dressing up doesn’t appeal to you simply try to put yourself in the mind of your character while your doing something mundane – like cooking dinner. Perhaps the Count has never cooked himself dinner and feels it is beneath him, what would he be saying to you right now?
Also get your hands on authentic things. If your character wields a huge gun and is constantly shooting it, take a course on guns. Go out and shoot one! The first time I ever swung an authentic sword I was surprised by how comfortable it felt, which I learned from its owner was because it was balanced properly. I didn’t know there was such thing asa proper balance. Believe me if you have never shot a gun and your character is shooting all the time, your gun wielding audience members may see some easy-to-fix flaws in your writing.
Alternatively you could try playing your character in a round of DND (I have been told this works wonders for one of my friends) or try a role playing activity out with your wife or a friend online. Ask your spouse to pretend they’re interviewing you for something, answer the questions from your character’s mind.
The idea is to really think through your character’s brain!
See Your Character. This is one that I’m constantly surprised by how much authors don’t do, but it is also one I feel all authors should do. Sketch her out! Paint her! Sculpt her! If you don’t consider yourself an artist, make a collage, use Julia Robert’s eyes, Britney Spear’s smile, use whatever you need to get a physical picture of your characters. (If you do make the collage and it distracts you with colors you can always trace over her to “clean her up.”) If you don’t feel comfortable drawing your character yourself then hop online and find an artist at guru.com or deviantart.com, or go to my page http://www.guru.com/freelancers/Child-Book-Comic-Strip-Fantasy-Illustration-Cartooning-Portrait-Illustrator/Colorado/Denver/1191161 you can commission me or other artists to draw them out for you for small fees. (And you can request them to sign confidentiality papers as well.)
I personally have gone so far as to buy a Barbie that looked like my character and using Fimo clay and crafting leathers built her entire barbarian get up. It helped me visualize the character more than writing 100 pages about her could. If you were inspired by a friend for the character’s physical attributes its OK to talk to them about it, perhaps see if you could get your friend to play dress up and take some snap shots.
History. This one is one of my favorites to do because it can be done any way you would like. When developing a character, unless your planning on introducing them as an infant, they will have some history. Start brainstorming to see what they were like. You can sit down and write out a few scenes, Little Billy and the Bullies, or Jimmy’s First Job. Likely these won’t go into your final story, but they can help you see where your character is coming from. You could write this in any format you choose, a love poem from their first girlfriend, a newspaper article about the town science fair, a school progress report. The important part of this is to get your character on the paper and to get them breathing.
Alternatively think about family history. Was your character’s father a general? How did that effect his youth? Was he proud and inspired to pick up the sword? Or was he tired of being an army brat and rebelled?
Future. This one is pretty similar to the history exercise, but in reverse. Where do you want your character to be “in the end?” Will they still be on the battlefield? Will they be sitting in a rest home remembering the good old days? Will they be senile and not remember anything? This is a good way of really pinpointing what you want your characters to learn during their lives. Is it humility? Self reliance? Discipline? Right their obituary. Write their epitaph. Do they even get one? Or do they die alone and forgotten?
I hope this workshop has helped you think more deeply about your character and has helped inspire you to add that depth that makes a character strong. Also, these steps may be used for as many characters as you want, mains, nemeses, secondaries, breath life into all of them and your story will only benefit.