I want to talk about characters today. Another intern wrote a post on characters a few months ago, and I agree with everything she said, but I want to talk a little bit more specifically about developing characters. For me, the characters are the most important part of the story (of course, different people have different opinions, but this is mine). A plot can be mediocre (I’d rather it not be, of course, but it can be forgiven) if the characters are excellent. When I write, I almost always start a story because I have a new character I want to write about, and then the plot develops around them (plotting is generally my least favorite part of writing). This is largely why dialogue is something I harp on so much, because the way someone talks is so integral to who they are.
For example, in my recent blog post on dialogue, I wrote up a couple of short example conversations between the characters David, Jane and Jared. These conversations were completely random and on-the-spot, and the names were just the first that popped into my head. But since then, I’ve found myself thinking about them more than I expected to. Just based on those conversations, I already know that the three of them are deep into something, probably trying to scam someone (for some reason what I’m picturing is something about an inheritance, but I also don’t think the three are siblings). It’s also clear that David and Jane are doing something behind Jared’s back. Part of me keeps wondering what the story is, because I’ve inadvertently created characters that interest me.
You should know your characters intimately, in and out of the situations of the story. You should know all sorts of random details that may never actually come into play in your actual story, because the more you know (even random, apparently pointless things) the better you will be able to predict what your character would do in a certain situation. As the other intern mentioned, you should know what you characters were like as children, what they think about before going to sleep, etc.
A good number of you probably already do stuff like this, but for those of you who have trouble breaking away from the plot, here’s my advice. I like to do character development exercises—my favorites are the ones that are lists of questions. You can find any number of these online. They ask things like “What does your character wish for when they blow out their birthday candles?” “What are three bad habits your character has?” and “What is your character’s worst fear?” (I had no idea one of my characters was deathly afraid of fire until I came across that question. Once I realized it (and realized that, being who he was, he would never admit it to anyone), my storyline opened up considerably). Sometimes you have to modify the questions to make them fit your character (if you have a character that’s an orphan living in the woods in a fantasy world (like me), clearly she never blew out birthday candles. But if she could wish for something, what would it be?). But that’s okay, that’s just more information to work with. Also, sometimes the questions just make you go “of course!” even if you already know your character really well. For instance, the bad habits question: “he smokes- it’s the twenties!” It was so obvious, but it’s not necessarily something I would have thought about enough to include, and it can make all the difference. It’s the little details that make a scene. And a character.
My favorite question is “What is your character’s worst nightmare?” Whenever I answer this question, I answer it literally. I write out the actual nightmare, from the first-person point of view of that character (even if the manuscript itself isn’t from that character’s point of view—it’s helpful to get into each character’s head a bit). Of course, everyone has their own methods, but I’ve had quite a lot of fun with that question, and learned quite a bit about my own characters at the same time.
Sometimes helping a character find themselves is more important than you realize. Maybe a minor character isn’t so minor after all (I would recommend doing these types of exercises for lots of characters, not just the main ones). Maybe a piece of your main character’s past is going to change the whole story. When it comes down to it, I think the main message is don’t be so glued to your plot that you suffocate your characters. If you let them be themselves, chances are your story will improve.
All for now!