Saturday, June 4, 2011

Day 4: Developing Your Characters

I hope you find this picture as disturbing as I do.

If you are in the very beginning stages of your draft you may have a character, (or possibly two), that feels fully formed.  As for the rest of the people involved in your story.... meh.  You know they need to be included in the story to serve a specific function, but otherwise they have no back story, no unusual mannerisms, no driving goals.  In other words, they are FLAT.  At this point in your writing that's okay; but keep a blank sheet of paper available so you take notes about your character as he reveals himself to you during your upcoming writing journey.  For the basics of character development use the character sketch and character revealing scenes worksheets.  In addition, here are some tips to help you round out your paper cut-out characters.

1.  GIVE THEM A GOAL.  There are three main types of goals a character will have in a story:  Short Term, Medium Term, and Long Term.  Short term is what that character is trying to accomplish right now - the goal that they want to reach by the end of the scene.  Medium term goals are what the character is trying to achieve throughout your story; stop the bad guy, win the girl, whatever.  Long term goals are the goals a character has for their entire life which, though not necessarily driving the story at hand, will impact the way the character deals with their current situation.  (Click here to read a fabulous article by Jason Black expounding on goals).

A character can feel fuller and more complex if their goals don't always line up perfectly.  For example, the short term goal of kissing your trampy next door neighbor may come into conflict with the long term goal of finding the girl of your dreams with whom you can settle down and start a family.  In my own WIP my protagonist's medium term goal is to bait and marry a powerful man who will help her family with the Protestant cause.  This however, comes into conflict with her short term goal of spending as much time as possible with that attractive peasant man she just happens to be falling in love with.

2.  GIVE THEM CONTRADICTIONS.  No real person can be ALWAYS good (or bad, for that matter).  Make your characters more interesting by giving them surprising contradictions. I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, I've found an example of such a contradiction within my own WIP.  My character Margarete is a beautiful girl who hates and resents her beauty, but must flaunt and use it to attract a political ally.  She's conflicted and throughout the book her actions show that conflict.  Its what makes her a bit unpredictable for the reader and keeps them engaged.  

Also think about diverging from typical characterizations.  A pious nun, a vain supermodel, a happy-go-lucky clown... these all make sense to us, but aren't particularly interesting.  How about a jealous nun?  A depressed suicide hotline worker?  A bipolar college professor?  Atypical characterizations will supply your story with interest and a bit of the unexpected.

3.  SHOW THEIR WEAKNESSES.  Every hero has a weak spot.  For Achilles it was the heel; for Superman, kryptonite; for Po (Kung Fu Panda) it was food, (a weakness I can well relate to).  We not only like, but want our hero to have a flaw because perfection is boring.  How can a reader enjoy the way a character grows and changes if they're so perfect they have no need to change?  Flaws are the manure of character arcs.

In Larry Brooks' book Story Structure... Demystified he talks about the role weaknesses and flaws can play in the climax of a novel.  A weakness makes your characters (both villain and hero) vulnerable.  A good villain exploits that vulnerability and uses it to defeat the hero (however momentarily).  Then the hero rises again, this time having overcome his flaw and perhaps having learned the fatal flaw of his enemy. 

*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days."  Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 4:  I'm beginning to get a little depressed about this whole process.  I think I'm just too slow and I procrastinate too much!  I STILL haven't completed Act III of my outline and there's an entire Act IV that still needs to be written.  *sigh*  I can only hope that all of the initial working and thinking and stewing will lead to more productive writing time.  Anyone want to attest to that?  Or should I be lectured into speeding up the outlining process and getting to the actual writing?


  1. If you're having a hard time with this, it might be a sign deep outlining isn't for you. I did a 30 Day book challenge (not the same one) and came up with an incredible outline...and then I didn't write the book. All the outlining sucked the fun out of it for me. And this is coming from a an A Type, over-organizing person. Listen to your instincts. When you find the right flow for you, you'll know it. If you don't know if this is it, it probably isn't right.

  2. Okay, I have to admit I wrote this advice off when I first read it. I'm a TOTAL Type A personality, so it feels SO strange to just dive into a story without knowing where I'm going. After talking with my husband though, he suggested beginning the writing so that I can have the satisfaction of making progress, and then cutting down a bit on the detail aspect of the outlining. So, thank you! I'm already pumped and energized and ready to get writing!

  3. I'm so glad you're excited again! It's hard to let go of the control factor of the personality type we both share but I've discovered that might be why writing is so rejuvenating for me--a chance to let go of my usually tight grip and just enjoy the ride. :)

  4. This is such a great post! I am saving this for future reference when writing my next book. Great blog, too--we share favorite books: Jane Eyre is MY #1 AND P&P is my number too-weird, eh?

  5. Kara, thanks for the comment! I hope this series comes in handy for you on your next book (and lucky for you, I've already sifted through all of the nonsense so you can get the goods!)

    I don't see that it is all that strange that we have the same favorite books. In my opinion those who DON'T share our bookish interests are the weird ones ;)