Creating Credible Characters–Who Are You?
Now that we’ve defined where characters come from, it’s time to figure out how we get to know these characters. One of the worst things we can do in our writing is not develop our characters well. This comes either from a lack of knowledge of how to do it or not spending enough time getting to know the characters at a deeper level.
In Noah Lukeman’s writing craft book The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, the first THREE chapters of eight are about characterization. There are dozens of books on the market about characterization—to help with everything from naming them to giving them careers to describing what they look like. That’s in addition to general books about writing that contain chapters or entire sections on building believable characters.
“Begin with an individual and you will find that you have created a type;
begin with a type and you will find that you have created—nothing.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald
What Fitzgerald was saying is that if our characters do not stand out as unique individuals—if instead they fall into “types”—then our writing will be empty.
On a road trip more than twenty-five years ago, we took along a little questionnaire booklet called, “So, You Think You Know Your Parents?” Instead of just trying to answer all the questions ourselves, my sister and I used it as an opportunity to get to know our parents better. The beginning of it contains questions like:
When are your parents’ birthdays?
What cities and states were your parents born in?
Were they named for anyone?
Did they have childhood nicknames?
What was their favorite subject in school?
When they were children, what did they argue most about with their parents?
How did they meet?
Where did they go on their first date? (My parents went to see The Sound of Music for their first date. Is it any wonder I love that movie?)
And so on. Later in the booklet, the questions get a little more in depth:
If your parents found a wallet with $100 in it, would they try to find its owner or keep the money?
What one food do your parents absolutely refuse to eat?
Are they open to changing their minds after making a decision?
What was the happiest moment in each of their lives? The saddest? The funniest? The scariest? (My dad’s being sent to Vietnam, for both of them.) The most embarrassing? The most important?
What irritates them more than anything else?
What do they worry about more than anything else?
Do they always believe “honesty is the best policy”?
What would they say is their worst habit?
What part of the newspaper do they read first?
What do they think about when they daydream?
“When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me.”
There are as many different ways to go about learning who your characters are as there are writers. Many writers talk about “interviewing” their characters during the development process. Here are three examples I have run across:
Character Background Worksheets
Character Profile Worksheet
I have tried each of these over the years—and while they’re fun for characters who come to me, but whose stories I do not plan to write immediately, I don’t usually bother with them . . . I find that much of what’s on them isn’t relevant to my particular character or the story I’m developing.
The first thing I do when developing a character is cast him. I must know what the character looks like before I can start writing about him. This is true of major and secondary characters. Once I have the image, I can start writing down the basics: age, height, hair/eye color, physical characteristics.
Then, the real work begins. I start by writing the character’s entire backstory: their family background, where they grew up, what they were like as a child/teen/young adult, where they went to school, what their interests were, and so on. For example (from Happy Endings Inc.):
· Born and raised in Bonneterre, Louisiana.
· Her parents were world-renowned magazine photographers who traveled extensively and left her with her grandparents or her mother’s brothers or sister. Anne begged her parents to take her along, but they went places with unstable governments, diseases, etc., that they didn’t want to expose her to. This left Anne with the subconscious feeling of being unloved and that she had to work to earn her parents’ love.
· For the first years of her life, she spent a net total of about six months a year with her parents.
· When she was eight years old, they surprised her with a trip with them to Washington, D.C. for the 4th of July. The commuter plane they were on to get from Bonneterre to New Orleans crashed. Only Anne and one other person out of 25 survived.
· For a year, while she recovered from her burns and injuries, Anne lived with her grandparents, at their rural home outside of the city. Her grandmother, a retired teacher, tutored her, and when Anne was tested to determine what grade she should go back in, she was able to skip ahead a grade.
· Because her grandparents lived so far out of town, Maggie, Anne’s mother’s only sister, and her husband offered for Anne to come live with them. While Anne loved her aunt and uncle and their four sons, she never allowed herself to become completely attached to them, not knowing when or if they might get tired of her and send her to live with someone else. After all, when her parents would leave her behind when they traveled, she would get bumped from home to home until they came back.
· The scars from her burns ran up the left side of her neck and onto her cheek. The teasing from the other children in school made her turn inward and become very isolated. Her cousins tried to protect her, but the other kids knew better than to do it around them and Anne didn’t talk about it. She also got teased about reaching her full height of 5’11” by age 13 and being larger-sized than was considered popular.
This is just the beginning of three pages that explain who Anne is and what her psychological makeup is.
“Our adaptation of personalizing focuses not on hair color and body type, but on the discovery of a character’s inner values, which give rise to the unique traits and mannerisms that will become an integral part of the story.”
(Getting into Character)
Does your character feel like a real, unique person to you? Do you feel like you know enough about him or her as a person that you’d be able to answer any of the questions I listed above? Have you interviewed your character and yet feel he or she is holding something back from you? Have you delved deeply enough into the backstory to truly know where the character is coming from? What techniques/books/questionnaires do you use to get to know your characters?