Earlier this week, I was asked (and consequently, very honored, amused, and somewhat panicked) to write an article answering a few questions on Character Development. (No, not the kind you hear about at Bible Seminars. The kind that tries to strangle you when you sit there trying to breathe life into a new fictional person and have no idea where to begin.)
I know a lot of people out there think that writers are just crazy people who talk to themselves, never leave their caves, and spend all day chewing twigs and scribbling sentences that may one day get made into a book (but probably won’t.) Let me fix this misconception for you. We do not chew twigs. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but there it is. And, while scribbling, holing up and talking to ourselves may seem useless, it really isn’t, and we have reasons for being the way we are.
We’re constantly in the business of creating lives. I’m not saying we all have a God complex (I don’t) but I think it does give us an excellent glimpse into how much our Creator put into us. Tolkien said, we have the right to create because we were created, and I couldn’t agree more.
But how do we deal with the fundamentals? We can’t simply walk up to a formless void and say “Hi, your name is John Smith. You now have personality. Go to.” We actually have to sit down and design the character, we have to breathe life into it, give it personality and quirks and flaws and make them someone our readers would want to read about. I’m writing this post to – hopefully – answer some of your questions and give you a push into the Wonderland of character creation.
How do you come up with character hobbies and gestures and do you have any references? Those are always especially hard for me. All my characters tend to do the cliché running-hand-through-hair thing and not much else.” and “How do we design quirks and personality traits for them?”
A very good question to start off with. I can’t tell you the amount of books I’ve read where the characters are flat, one-dimensional cookie-cutter people with no real life of their own. They have nothing original to say, nothing original to do, and they spend the majority of their time asking redundant questions and rubbing the back of their necks.
I feel very sorry for these characters, but there is nothing I can do for them. So – how to design a character with personality and dimensions? It’s easier than you’d think, and there are many ways to get inspired.
Study the people around you. Family, friends, total strangers, even yourself. What are the odd quirks you see? Does your brother whistle when he’s nervous or caught in the act? Is that stranger constantly running her finger up and down her arm? Does your best friend have a necklace they never take off? And what about you – does the face in the mirror scrunch up in a specific way when answering a question? Do you make clicking noises with your tongue, do you drum your fingers on any available surface, do you sing to yourself without meaning to?
I’ll tell you the truth – I’ve never had to study another person in order to give my character a quirk. I think they must gather in my subconscience, but I’ve never had trouble thinking them up. (Plots, on the other hand… heh heh…) Study other people if you have to, or simply sit and write down a list of quirks and traits to hand to each character as they’re born. Maybe they’ll throw it back at you and demand a new one, or maybe they’ll latch onto it for dear life. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Here’s a tip, though – make sure the quirk fits the character. My character Alec cracks annoying jokes and my character Sienna is constantly swatting him (they’re siblings, it’s okay) telling him to stop it. I cannot see Sienna cracking annoying jokes with her younger brother swatting her and telling her to cut it out. It simply wouldn’t work. So make sure your quirk works with your character’s personality.
“How do we give characters motivation ?”
This is pretty simple, and yet it can also be pretty complicated. For instance, you have a hero who’s after the bad guy. But why is he after him? What did the BG ever to do him? What would make him want to chase him all over Kingdom come in order to rid the world of his menace? Was it a fight over a girl, or did the BG kill someone important to the hero?
In my tale The Shadows Fall, the elf Eristor is prince of a kingdom called Tirran. He is a displaced prince, however – his stepfather Caranthir abdicated his throne in favor of serving the dark prince Oscariath. But since Caranthir is still alive, Eristor cannot legally take over the throne, and so it is sitting in the care of his steward. Caranthir also tortured Eristor and murdered Eristor’s birth-mother (Caranthir’s own wife) and is the reason for another family problem (sorry, sweetie. Spoilers) that devastated Eristor. Therefore, Eristor, who has been embittered with vengeance, has every logical and legal reason to hunt down his stepfather and kill him (though I won’t tell you what happens in the end).
Sienna dislikes Eristor and is constantly arguing and disagreeing with him. She isn’t just doing this because she’s a brat (though she has her moments – a lot of them) but because the first time she met Eristor, she ran into him, he stepped right over her without helping, and proceeded to behave as if every problem in the world was her fault. Therefore, she has reasons for disliking him.
Your character must have motivation behind their actions, it’s absolutely necessary – even if they aren’t earth-shattering (like Eristor’s) and are more petty (like Sienna’s).
“How do we get into our character’s heads?”
This is probably the most important question I was asked. Getting into a character’s head can be easy or difficult, depending on how you do it. I know some authors who try to pound their ideas into their characters heads and as a result, the characters come out lifeless. (Example: Anne Rand).
One thing that really helps me get into my character’s head is questionnaires. Asking your character a bunch of questions about everything, from their favorite food to their secret fear, has been an enormous tool for me in discovering the heartbeat behind my characters. What they like and dislike, who they love and who they hate, what peeves they have and what they would die for. I highly suggest this exercise – think up as many questions as you like or use something like Beautiful People (which I love).
Another thing is, spend time thinking about your characters. Dream up situations – how would they face them? What would they say, what would they do? One thing I do now and then is wake up in the morning and try to put myself in that character’s mindset. Dress like them, use phrases they would use – you’ll find yourself gaining a whole new view of them when you learn to see the world through their eyes.
“How do we make our characters relatable so that the reader connects with them?” and “How do we give our characters realistic flaws?”
This one, for me, comes pretty naturally. (Maybe it’s because I’m such a messed-up person. ^.^) I think it stems from always having hated those perfect characters, like Elsie Dinsmore (who I could not STAND when I was younger. I still really can’t stand her. She irritates me). Because everyone, in reality, is so deeply flawed that ‘perfect’ characters don’t resonate with us. We can’t relate to them, therefore they fail to influence us.
It’s very easy to give your characters flaws, in other words. (Unfortunately, all I have to do is look in the mirror 😛 )
In order for a character to be relatable, they have to be human. (Even if they’re elves or dwarves or other various races.) So, in order to create an imperfect but connectable character, you have to make them real. Look around you – it isn’t very hard to find flaws in yourself and other people. For instance, my character Sienna is very sarcastic and has a biting tongue – faults taken from myself. Eristor tends to hole emotions up inside himself and not talk about them, a flaw also taken from me.
“How do we avoid the cliché and create characters that are new and unique?”
The answer to this question is different for everyone. For me, characters tend to come out unique – just like no child born is the same as the last. A mother doesn’t expect to have two identical children – even if they are Siamese twins they will be a least slightly different. If you truly let the characters awaken and introduce themselves to you, rather than trying to dig them up like an archaeologist, you’ll find they have their own color.
If you have a great idea for a character but they’re still a bit one-dimensional, then you can look forward to having a blast making them more colorful. Do they dye their hair in rainbow colors? Are they mute? Are they ambidextrous? Where are they from? (This influences them greatly – if they’re Cockney, they’ll talk that way. If they’re southern, they’ll say ‘y’all.’ If they’re Australian – they won’t walk around calling everyone ‘mate.’ Sorry, but it’s true).
Also, try to avoid major clichés. Here are a couple well-known ones that, if you must have them, try to make them original. Try to ‘own’ the cliché, and make it proud to be called a cliché.
– The feisty princess who rides stallions because no horse can resist her, hates tea time and would rather sword fight and wrestle than embroider cushions. Ahem.
– The boy/girl who is really a prince/princess/someone important but has been hidden from their true destiny since birth
– Insta-love. TRY TO AVOID INSTA-LOVE AT ALL COSTS!!!! Please, please, please onmykneesbeggingyou, please don’t add Insta-Love to your mix.
– Love triangles. Er… tread lightly. Sometimes, love triangles are done well (Red Riding Hood, Boys Over Flowers) but the ratio of well-done love triangles to cookie-cutter love triangles is about 1 to 6 billion. Think it over carefully, and make sure your characters can hold up the love triangle well.
– 1-800-dial-a-Guard/Extra/Random Person. If you have a scene where something happens in the middle of a street? There will be people around. (Granted, in today’s society the majority of them will probably be taking videos with their cells to post on Twitter, but there will be PEOPLE there. Don’t forget this. Don’t have random deserted streets). And also, guards – at castles, houses, any place that would have soldiers or guards about – remember them! They have lives too, even if we don’t delve into them. And they’re not all 100% idiots. And they probably have some semblance of training. (A good example of the Useless Guard is BBC Robin Hood. As much as I adore the show, I have to agree with Allan a’Dale when he tells Guy “I’m not being funny, but your guards. Pffft! Useless!”)
– Let me explain – no, there is too much. Let me sum up –
Characters are unique individuals. They have their own lives, their own preferences, their own hairstyles and favorite animals and songs. They argue differently, smile differently, drink their tea differently, and are allergic to different things. They are your literary children – treat them as such. Take an interest in them, and they will do things you never even dreamed.