In the first part of this series, we discussed how to choose the best characters for your story, and the larger swathes of character creation: strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Today we’ll discuss how to dig
In the first part of this series, we discussed how to choose the best characters for your story, and the larger swathes of character creation: strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Today we’ll discuss how to dig deeper and learn all you need to know to really bring them to life.
Digging Deeper: Really Getting to Know Your Characters
Most of the methods I have encountered for developing characters fall into two categories: Inside-Out or Outside-In.
This method starts with the deepest core of a character- their desires, fears, and the wounds in their past, among others. Then it moves outward. How would these core aspects present themselves on the surface, especially when paired with other attributes? A desire to be loved could manifest itself as people-pleasing or as an uncompromising attitude (“If you don’t love me as I am, then it isn’t really love”). A fear of inadequacy could show up as false bravado or as an unwillingness to try anything new. These will then affect their speech patterns, the kind of people they’re drawn to, and numerous other aspects of their personalities.
Most often seen in things like Character Questionnaires, this method asks surface level questions to help discover the character. For example, you might ask yourself what is on their bedside table, what music they like to listen to, or who they most admire and why. This is similar to the way we get to know people in real life, and is also how readers will experience your characters.
The key to both of these methods is to complete the equation. It’s important to know your characters inside and out, however you go about it.
Which method should you choose?
I personally prefer the Inside-Out method.
In my experience, when people undertake a large project they tend to lavish a lot more time and attention on the earlier aspects, taking as much time as they need to really get it right. But as they run out of time (or steam) they start taking shortcuts and speeding through things simply to get to the finish line.
Creating characters from scratch is no small feat, and I often find myself running out of steam after a while. As such, I would rather spend the bulk of my time nailing down who they really are at the deepest levels, and then find a few key surface facts that can give my readers a glimpse into them.
There is something to be said for the Outside-In method, though. When you’re trying to make sense of disparate surface facts and decisions, it can prompt you to be much more creative in an attempt to reconcile them. With the Inside-Out method, the danger is making everything line up perfectly, with no loose ends or paradoxes. And real people are nothing if not a bundle of paradoxes!
As I thought out the reasons for my preference, it occurred to me that it could be because I’m a plotter. Planning out characters and plot in advance lends itself toward diving deep, and leaving the details for when I actually start writing. A pantser, who adds details as they come to them in the writing process, may find the Outside-In method more natural and helpful. I’d be curious to hear from any of you who are pantsers to see if this is true for you.
Not sure what I mean by plotters and pantsers? Read my post about it here.
Methods to Dig Deeper
Pillars and Cornerstones: If you want to try an Inside-Out method, I really recommend WritinGeekery’s posts about the Four Pillars and the Four Cornerstones of character. I use these, with some modifications, to develop my own characters and find them extremely helpful.
Character Questionnaires: If the Outside-In method appeals to you, I’ve seen any number of character questionnaires on Pinterest. It might take a little searching to find one to suit your story (one that asks what songs are on your character’s playlist or which apps they use most often may not be very helpful if you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy), but there are plenty to be found.
Personality Tests: You can find out where your character fits into the common personality archetypes. The most popular are Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram. You can go about this in different ways. You can decide which personalities you want to include, then shape your characters around them. This can be fun if you intentionally pick types that don’t interact well together. Instant conflict! Or you can take an online test, answering the questions as your characters would to find out where they fall. As you read about their personality type, you may come across new ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.
Write from their POV: This is a great method to hone your character’s unique voice. You can write a journal entry or letter from them, or even write a scene from your book from their perspective (even if you plan to use a different POV in the final draft). But before you begin, it would be helpful to decide how they speak/think/view the world. Otherwise you’re likely to give them your own ‘voice’ as a default.
Character Chats: This works well if you have a friend who is also a writer. You can get together, either in person or online, and have a conversation with each of you playing the role of one of your characters. This is particularly helpful because you don’t know which way the conversation will go, so you’re forced to really think how they would react in a certain situation. If you don’t have a friend you can do this with, you could always create your own between two of your characters. Just pick a topic or event for them to discuss and see where it takes you.
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They’ll be interacting with each other throughout the story, so it’s good to decide how they will respond to each other. I make a chart to make sure I think about each potential character pairing. Things to consider for each pair:
- If they are friends or allies, what situation would put them at odds with each other? If you’re not sure, look at their respective goals. How could they interfere with one another in the pursuit of their own goals?
- If they are enemies or opponents, what common ground do they have? Are they aware of it? Is it the source of their enmity, or something that would bring them together if known?
- How do they feel about each other?
- Do they act differently toward each other than with others? For example, are they usually open/friendly, but they keep this person at arm’s length?
- Is there any bad blood or history between them?
- What major conflicts might arise between them?
- How do their personalities mesh or clash in everyday situations? If they have very different problem solving styles, or react to stress differently, those can be a great source of micro conflicts.
Once you know who your characters are, it’s time to decide how they will grow or change throughout the book. This is where character arcs come in. There are three main types of character arcs, but infinite variations within each of them.
In this arc, your character grows and changes for the better by the end of the book. They learn a lesson or overcome an obstacle.
- Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
- Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre
- Tony Stark in Iron Man
- Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca
In this arc, the character already has a handle on an important truth or lesson, but it comes under attack, or they have to convince the rest of the world of it. The characters themselves don’t change much, but they have a powerful impact on the world around them.
- Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
- Diana in Wonder Woman
- Maximus in Gladiator
- Mattie in True Grit
In this arc, the character resists opportunities to change and grow for the better, and instead sinks ever deeper, ending up far worse than they began. These are the most common arcs in tragedies.
- Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels
- Michael Corleone in The Godfather
- Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
- Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones
If you’d like to learn more about these three types of arcs and how to portray them realistically in your story, I strongly recommend K.M. Weiland’s series on the topic. She has broken each arc down into specific beats and has written extensively on each.
Well, that’s all for our introduction to characters! Now that you’ve got a bunch of fascinating characters dancing around in your head, it’s time to figure out the world they live in. Stay tuned for the next post in my Writing 101 series, Basics of Worldbuilding.