I’ve been invited to give 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 some basic elements in mind, not the least of which is how to develop believable, three-dimensional characters.
Years ago, at a writing workshop I attended in Connecticut, our instructor led us through an exercise in creating detailed character profiles. The queries she posed ranged from our characters’ physical attributes to relationships with parents, and from childhood experiences to favorite and least-favorite things. Here are some of the items from that list:
- Date of birth
- Eye color/hair color
- Family structure (parents/siblings/extended family in the home?)
- Relationship with parents
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 to consider when rounding out a character:
- 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 guide 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 completed your character profile, 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 (and this is especially true with flash fiction), but it’s vital to know about your characters’ history, drive and motivation, so you can write their story – and their dialogue – effectively.