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NaNo Prep Day 3: Creating Your Story Bible–Getting Your Characters into SHAPE

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Yesterday, we described our main characters’ physicality. Today, we’re going to go deeper with them and write their backstories.

When I start developing a story idea and know who at least one of the main characters is, the first thing I do is figure out where that character came from—literally and figuratively. I know that many people use character “interviews” or worksheets to do this; I write it out like a synopsis, letting the ideas flow as I write and the questions rise as they may.

When working with a series in which my main character appeared in other books as a secondary character, I start by going back and making notes (if I didn’t already) of everything mentioned about this person (goes for physical description as well) and his or her background, personality, demeanor, reactions, actions, schooling, friends, work, etc.

Get Your Characters into SHAPE

Get Your Characters into SHAPE | KayeDacus.comHere’s the easiest way to remember how to do your prep work when it comes to character development. Get your characters into S.H.A.P.E.:

SPIRITUALITY: Not just for those writing Christian or inspirational fiction, this is something important for all writers to know about all of your main characters, because the characters’ morals and values, and thus their actions, reactions, and decision making, will hinge on what they believe about life and the afterlife and the value of both.

HEART: What is your character passionate about? What are his desires? Her goals? What does she want to do with her life? What does he want to accomplish by the time he’s 30, 50, 70?

ABILITIES: This goes beyond their physical abilities (walk, run, talk, etc.). What have they learned to do? Is she a Victorian girl who’s learned to use a typewriter in hopes of getting a job to support herself instead of marrying someone she doesn’t love? Has he learned to train guard dogs and police canines? But then, what are their inborn talents? Those things with which we would say he or she is “gifted”?

PERSONALITY: What is your character’s personality type? This is where you can really have fun. Find out your character’s Meyers-Briggs type by taking the test as your character. If you don’t want to take the test, you can read about personality types. Introverts and Extroverts “recharge” differently and react differently in public and private settings. Thinkers and Feelers come to decisions in totally different ways. And so on. Make your character more dimensional by giving him or her a complete personality.

EXPERIENCES: What are your character’s life experiences? What have your characters been through in their lives to make them who they are when they step onto Page 1 of your story? This is the bulk of the backstory, which everything else plays off of and is affected by. This can include:

    – Family makeup/background. What size family does he come from? How many siblings? Were both parents present? Did she have a good relationship with them? What was his relationship with his siblings like? Did she love her family or could she not wait to escape? And so on.

    – Education. Whether formal or self-taught, one’s education is crucial to who they are as a person. Did they have all the benefits of an upper-class private/Ivy League education? The scrappier, American-dream public school education? Or maybe she had to drop out in eighth grade and go to work to support the family. And even if someone went to school and got a college degree, that doesn’t make them “intelligent” or “learned.” That just means that they have a couple of pieces of paper. How intellectual is your character? How smart? How street-smart? How wise? How knowledgeable? How does this compare to the people around him/her?

    – Favorites. Color, food, music, entertainment, etc. What are the things that give your character a good quality of life? (Or would if they had access to them.) Get creative and have fun with these.

Once you have all of this down you should have a good understanding of who your character is. The reason I try to figure as much of this out before writing is that it saves me time in revision after finishing the first draft if I don’t have to go back and edit out long stream-of-consciousness scenes in which I’m inside the character’s head digging into backstory I didn’t know before I started writing. But no matter how detailed I get with this, I always have a few revelations about my characters—things I never would have known about them until they were faced with a crisis and forced to own up to something from the past they kept deeply hidden, even from me.

How does figuring out the SHAPE of your character help you in developing your story?

  1. Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:31 am

    I just did the MBTI test for Jenn, my main character. While I, personally, am an ISTJ, Jenn turns out to be an ESFP.

    She’s an Extrovert–she loves being around people, lots of people, and lots of different people in different places. Because she’s a chef who owns two restaurants and thrives off the energy on a busy night, I knew this about her already.

    She’s “Sensing”–which means she prefers things that she can experience with the five senses (concrete items, not theories) and relies a lot on common sense and practical solutions. She’s got “street smarts.” She prefers facts and information rather than theories and guesswork. (like me!)

    The “Feeling” part of her is sooo different from me. Her personal feelings impact her perceptions, judgments, and decisions. She’s sensitive to others’ needs and reactions (this is what makes her so good in a service industry). Something I learned from this that I’ll definitely be incorporating is this type’s need to have consensus and/or input from others before making a decision. She’s also unsettled by conflict and will avoid it–hard to do when she’s the chef/owner of two restaurants!

    And, finally, “Perceiving”–almost my opposite. She’s okay acting without a plan–planning is a waste of time when there’s adventure/fun to be had! She likes to multitask/switch things up. She avoids obligations that interfere with her flexibility. But the way in which we are alike here: she’s okay with deadlines, but will usually put stuff off until the last minute.

    I’m already thinking of situations I can put her in which will challenge each of these aspects of her personality!


    • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Monday, October 14, 2013 4:16 pm

      Awesome idea! My friends and I took an online Meyers-Briggs test and logged our answers in a google doc. It was interesting to see how everyone measured (it was pretty accurate too). Definitely filing this idea to use for my characters someday. 🙂


  2. Monday, November 18, 2013 11:00 am

    Awesome! And I think it’s important to remember to do these for ALL characters–even the bad guys. Especially the bad guys! 🙂


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