Haven’t I warned you not to get me started?
Hmm … well, that does pose rather a difficulty, doesn’t it?
Well, I suppose it’s a little late to caution you about that now, so you’ll just have to put up with it for today. For future reference, though, you should probably know if you happen to get me started on a topic, I generally won’t give it up ’til I’ve worn it down to a sad little nub.
And so it is with character development. I can’t get enough of the stuff. I hope you can’t, either, because there’s more of it headed your way right now. Buckle up, folks. This is where it gets fun!
Creating extraordinary characters!
If you’re looking to make your characters truly memorable, you’ve got to start by knowing them better than you know even your spouse or your best friend. You need to know every single thing there is to know about them. No, I’m not exaggerating about that. Oh, trust me, you’ll know when I’m exaggerating. Come to think of it, it’s absolutely 100% safe to say every single person on the entire planet knows when I’m engaging in excessively exaggerative hyperbole. (Yeah. Kinda like that.)
Be sure to look at the previous articles from our series this month on character development. Basically, over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to work up a basic character profile, to build out the basic framework for a character’s overall structure. Then we added a smidgen of backstory—to give them a personal history. Next came a few quirks, to imbue them with personality and depth. Now we’re going to dig even further, to really explore your characters’ deeper selves—we’re going to peel back a few layers and figure out what makes them extraordinary … even if they’re some of the most regular people you know. We’re going to work on scrounging around in their psyches, to unearth the info they’ve been trying to hide from you. We’re going to move beyond ordinary “surface” stuff and get to the meat of your characters’ behavior and personality.
What?! More questions?
For starters, you should be able to answer these questions: What are your characters’ overarching motivations? What drives them? How do they respond to disappointments (both major and minor)? How do they handle failure? Unfathomable success? How do they behave when someone they love is hurting? Or when someone they adore dies? What would their neighbors say about them? What did their last performance review at work look like?
Writing fascinating characters
What do you think is the most compelling aspect about your character’s personality? Why do you find it so fascinating? There are multiple ways to ensure readers will find your characters fascinating. This helpful article features several good tips for developing compelling characters. What keeps it from being an excellent article is the editor neglected to provide the worksheet the author promised “on the next page.” <insert disappointed sigh here> Luckily, one of the more-recent commenters provided a lovely set of probing questions in the text of her comment. So if you scroll down past the links, you’ll find this delicious list—along with a handy list of character traits (which happens to be missing both “quirky” and “sassy” … which, in my opinion, renders the list automatically suspect; but it’s got some otherwise wonderful traits, so have at it!).
Oh, it should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: When creating and shaping these fascinating characters, remember: Even if the information you’re building never makes it onto the page in the final version of your story, it’s crucial for you to know your characters’ backstory. To knowledgably write characters, you have to know virtually everything about them—not only what they’d do in a given situation, but why, and how, they’d do it … and what they’d feel while doing it.
Some fun character-development exercises to try
Here’s another fantastic article that was so chock full of wonderful exercises I actually found myself exclaiming, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” every few minutes—to such an extent my dear husband half believed I was doing an overly enthusiastic Arnold Horshak impersonation (from the ’70s show, “Welcome Back, Kotter”) instead of writing this article. Silly husband!
Of course, when I read the “for instance” sentence in the second paragraph of the fourth exercise, I let out such a gasp, hubby actually looked up from an episode of “Star Trek” to ask what was wrong. It’s difficult to explain this kind of thing to a non-writer, but that sentence seemed precisely geared toward the protagonist from my second novel! Loss crops up hugely and terribly in Gary’s life, and he reveals partway through how his grandmother’s death when he was five still haunted him almost two decades later.
Here are a few more things to consider when building and fleshing out characters: perspective, limitations and aspirations.
If you should find yourself in need of suggestions for developing and appraising those aspects of your characters, have I got an article for you! Cringe-worthy spelling (and careless grammar) aside, this is one of the most comprehensive and helpful pieces I’ve ever read on character development. It’s a long, deep-dive piece that covers multiple facets of the process. Granted, it’s geared largely toward role-playing games (or RPGs—not to be confused with rocket-propelled grenades), but the process is largely the same, whether you’re creating characters for RP games or novels.
And truthfully, I love the concept of viewing yourself as your characters’ historian—building and curating a treasury of information about each one.
And just for fun …
If you want to challenge yourself, I recommend you check out this site. It’s a nifty way to churn up your writing juices … with a whole slew of thought-provoking writing prompts each week. Go on, you deserve a nice diversion from all this character-building stuff you’ve put up from me these past few weeks.
Now, I promise … not another peep out of me about character development.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.