The Iowa writer’s class, How Writers Write Fiction, has begun. Appropriately, the first lesson deals with a character in the midst of conflict. This is the beginning of every story, and ironically, my topic last week. Believable characters are the heart of every story, and though I have discussed it many times, the point deserves repetition: without character, there is no story.
So, how does one develop a multi-faceted character that, like real people, is unique? I start with a list of basic attributes: age, gender, height and weight, education, upbringing (orphan, only child, or with a half dozen siblings?), occupation (career or just a job), favorite things, etc. Much of what I list will not enter the story, but it is important as creator that I know these essentials.
Having determined the first glimpses of my character, I start digging into their thoughts. All people are a combination of experiences, emotions, loves and hates, and a varying tolerance level for different things life throws at them.
An example of the questions are:
What is my character afraid of?
What does he/she want? This is the beginning of the character’s inner and outward conflicts.
What stands in the way of the character getting what they want? A plot-type question.
How does my character get dressed? I put on one sock and shoe before the other; many people put on both socks (left or right first?) and then the shoes. Small items such as how one combs their hair, their degree of tidiness (or not), thoughts on local or world events will tell the reader how the character feels, and this is the beginning of rounding out a character’s fullness. Used sparingly, these small insights into a character’s habits will go long on fleshing out the “it” that makes a character tick.
How analytical is my character? Crucial to detective stories as they are expected to deduce small clues and piece them together into a case.
Next I put my character into a situation to see how they react. Spurned love, losing a job, attacked physically, injured and alone. More times than not, I will not write these scenes but view them as if viewing a movie. If appropriate, I will write a short 500-word scene if I need to “see” it more clearly or if the particular scene may play a part in my story.
Is my character quick to anger or temperate? How does that impact his dealings with the other characters populating the story?
Can my character be trusted? What would make him leave behind his moral leanings and embark on a journey counter to his self-ness?
What are the lies my character tells himself? We all have a bit of self-deception, and this perception can be put to good use in our stories.
What, if anything, would my character die for? Family, friends, honor?
How does my character view his failures? His successes?
What is my character willing to do to get what he wants? Lie, cheat, deceive? If so, how does he justify it to himself?
As I ask (and answer) these questions about my character, the skeleton is layered with the flesh of diversity, and the blood of contradiction begins flowing through their veins—they take on life.
That is what I do with my protagonist; then I do the same thing with my antagonist, and then finally the secondary characters, but perhaps to a lesser degree.
The more you search out your character’s wants and desires, the richer your character will become, and thereby, the better story and happier readers you will have.
Please share how you develop your characters; others would like to know. It’s okay; writers open themselves up, and we are all friends here.
See you on the next page,
P.S. It’s not too late to join the Iowa writing class. Learn more and sign up here. Try it and you will learn more about your craft, guaranteed.
This Week’s Writing Quote:
“A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” Karl Kraus