Character Development

I’ve been invited to deliver a talk (and conduct a workshop) about writing fiction at a local writers’ conference in Chattanooga on January 20. Over the years, from crafting my own fiction as well as editing other people’s manuscripts, I’ve learned a thing or three about creating realistic characters.

When writing fiction – whether your particular vehicle of choice is flash fiction, short stories or novel-length fiction – every author should keep in mind some basic elements, not the least of which is developing believable, three-dimensional characters.

Years ago, at a writing workshop I attended in Connecticut, our instructor led us through an exercise of creating detailed profiles of our main characters. The queries she posed ranged from our characters’ physical attributes to relationships with their parents, and from childhood experiences to favorite and least-favorite things. Here are some of the items from that list:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Eye color/hair color
  • Hometown
  • Family structure (parents/siblings/extended family in the home?)
  • Relationship with parents
  • Occupation
  • Strengths/weaknesses/fears

 

Over the years, I’ve expanded the list of questions to ask my characters; in fact, some of them have balked, saying it’s approaching “interrogation” status. Nevertheless, here are some additional things I’ve found it helpful to consider when rounding out characters:

  • What is his favorite color?
  • What is on his bedroom wall?
  • What does he like to do on his day off?
  • What does he suck at doing?
  • What must he have at the grocery store?
  • What does he refuse to eat?
  • What is his guilty pleasure?
  • Where won’t he be caught dead?
  • What is his best childhood memory?
  • What is his favorite musician/band?
  • What are his hobbies?

 

Once I’ve compiled a profile for each character, I’ve got a handy reference for when I’m wondering whether, for instance, Gary would ever order anchovies on his pizza (not a chance; he’s a sausage-and-mushroom guy) or if Marc would have far to travel to attend his class reunion (again, no; he lives about 20 minutes from Danbury High). I tend to get less detailed and picky with secondary or tertiary characters, but I still know their basic backgrounds.

However, it’s not enough simply to identify each character’s likes and dislikes; you must know their motivations, as well. After you’ve finished your character profiles, ask these questions to get to the heart of your central character’s raison d’être:

  • What does he want more than anything?
  • Why must he achieve this goal?
  • What’s standing in his way?

 

You might end up never divulging any of this background information in your finished work (this is especially true with flash fiction), but it’s important to know about your characters’ history, drive and motivation, so you can write their story (and their dialogue) effectively.

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