Ask the Authors: Character DevelopmentPosted: February 26, 2018 | |
Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.
There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun.
What methods do you use to develop your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character. I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.” My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.” Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.” Like I said, still working on that.
Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one. I write the first draft as the characters guide me. Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.
Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.
Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character. That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.
Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.
Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.
Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer. Psychology is fundamental to writing. Where to start? With yourself, of course. You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature. Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going. We are more the same than we are different. I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books. I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman. Jung gives us the archetypes. We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.
It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.
Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.
Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.
Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?
Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.
Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…
Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)
Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!
Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time. Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment. I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro. Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary. My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams. They say things like “Go left”. Or, “That spoon is funky”. You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams. And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you. It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”
I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin. He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S. He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict. I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction. I had to go through fifteen years of therapy. Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack. The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing. I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy. I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.
In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm. I’m pleased with the first book. The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live. I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race. This is a project that involved huge amounts of research. I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history. In school I studied Russian for four years. That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor. World building is a great pleasure for me. Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition. I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore. I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest. If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now! He passed recently, at the age of 96. He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books. I read them and re-read them every few years. Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick. The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance. Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.
If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.
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