Monday, July 27, 2015

Character Development: My Formula

How do you create all these characters? This is a question I've been asked many times. I have dozens to an easy couple hundred characters in my head. I joke that they haunt me and it's pretty much true. As I think about it, how to develop characters can be the difference to a seemingly living thing and a flat piece of paper. Here is how to create that believable character with depth and bring it to life.

Think of everything that makes up a person; right down to the smallest detail. That is what makes up a character.

Appearance: A character's appearance sets the stage for how other characters will react on sight of him or her. Is he a dusty dirty vagrant with torn clothes and matted hair? Or is he meticulous and refined in an expensive three piece suit? Maybe she's more casual in a comfy t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees? Don't forget to accessorize with jewelry, handbag, or maybe an expensive pair of boots. For an exercise in how people look, just go to any public place and look around. I'm not suggesting you engage in staring contests, but think about what stands out to you as you see different people. For people that really stand out, go to People of Walmart and look through the photos. Imagine how you would describe their appearance in writing.

Behavior: How does your character act and react to their surroundings and other characters? What are his or her standard emotions. Happy go lucky? Constantly irritated? Paranoid? Different people have different ranges of behaviors. It's important that those behaviors interact with setting, events and other characters. Reactions are an important part of those behaviors. How does your character react to a lost puppy or getting a parking ticket? How do they treat people around them depending on how much they care? What if they just don't care? Behavior is the glue that holds your character together and connects all of what they are. For exercises in human behavior just go to Youtube and start watching videos of the things that people do. Ask yourself how you would write about those behaviors and attach them to your character.

Now we get more in depth:

Quirks: These are the aspects of your characters behavior that stand out and add spice to their "makeup". Take my character, Nyhtwulf, for example. His greatest quirk is a love for foil wrapped cream cheese. He eats cubes of the stuff complete in the wrapper. He doesn't understand why humans take the wrappers off. To him, that's part of what makes the treat so delicious. Special  habits that help define your character and give it depth, make them more believable as a living and breathing thing. I once knew a lady who was a heavy smoker. Whenever she exhaled the smoke, she did so through her nose with her tongue sticking out. She had no idea that she stuck out her tongue every time, she just did it. Everyone has nuances to them that make them who they are. Quirks, habits, or what ever you want to call them can be seen in everyday life easily. You don't need a lot of them in one character either. Treat them like salt in a recipe.

Beliefs: What does your character believe (or not) in? Are they ultra religious? Maybe he's an atheist? Does she believe in unicorns? Beliefs are not limited to the religious alone, rather a full scale way of life. Belief extends to political standing and ideals. At their very heart, belief defines a character's alignment of good or evil. Consider the beliefs of a narcissistic sociopath. Such a person believes that all other people are lesser beings, put on Earth for their personal use or amusement. The Bushido Code is a way of  life for ancient samurai.  Political parties, psychological studies, and religions are fine ways to look at belief.  To see belief in action, look to social media like Facebook. What's going on on your friends pages that play to belief?

History: A character without personal history is either flat or a background character. History speaks to the character's life experiences. You can go back in their life as much as you wish to give him or her history. Events of childhood shape a character for who they are today. Past mistakes lend to experience and shape how future choices are made. Depending on the story, characters don't need a great deal of history. Some stories have a greater history on their own that guide and build the characters. History that overshadows the personal. That's okay, so long as characters have believable reactions to those events. For an example of how personal history looks, think back on your own. What events of your life, shaped who you are today?

Fears: Not all characters have major fears, but some will and it really helps define and bring them to life. My character Blacktide has the power to disintegrate any solid matter by touch or even at range. When his powers manifested in his youth, they killed his parents. Blacktide has to be ever vigilant that he not touch people without precise control of his powers. Even with help of a psychic connection with Nyhtwulf, the fear of hurting innocent people is alive in his mind always. Don't forget that a phobia is great for character development too. Major fears should be sparing, but natural fears fit everywhere. Fears go hand in hand with a characters greatest concerns about the world they live in. Take today's concerns for great examples. Do you know anyone who is worried about war in the Middle East or the job market? How would you write about these things to flesh out your character?

Trials and Tribulations: Characters need problems and life events to react to and interact with. Not just the main antagonist of your story, but other things too. Trouble paying the rent on time? Looking for a job in a hard market? Health problems? Or maybe they just have spontaneous runs of bad luck? Problems create empathy with the reader. I know when I read about someone stubbing their little toe on a door jamb, I instantly empathize. Who doesn't know what that feels like? But don't forget that they need triumphs too. They need those upswings that we all hope for in life. We all need that lucky quarter on the sidewalk from time to time. They may be small and not in line with the major focus of your story, but they make your character come to life.

Relationships: Very important for how characters interact with each other. Are they best friends or casual acquaintances? Love, hate, friendship, disdain, all important factors and they change from character to character. Who they like and dislike and how the interact build on all the characters involved. There are many examples already written here and you do your own study in public or on social media. You can even see how that changes based on the circumstances of the conversation. We all know people on social media tend to be more bold than in person.

My list is certainly not the only way to look at character creation, but it's filled with the general basics. It's often the little things that make characters believable and alive in the mind of the reader.

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