In previous lessons, we’ve talked about getting acquainted with your lead character and getting personal. We mentioned how this process is the same process as getting to know real-life people. They begin as an acquaintance, then become friends. The longer you know them, the more you learn about them.
Treat character development the same way. Step-by-step.
Now for today’s post, getting personal with your lead characters.
Getting Personal: How Well Do You Really Know Your Character?
As you learn more and more about your character, the traits you can observe will change from basic things like appearance, speech patterns, and mannerisms to more specific traits. Traits that may be observable only under certain circumstances. While there are no specific things to watch for in this section, be aware that you may discover some observable characteristics that appear only in moments of stress, such as tugging at an ear, twisting hair around a finger, or fussing with a shirt button.
The questions you’ll ask are more personal. Questions about marital status, family relationships, and finances. Here are a few questions you’re likely to run into.
- What kind of love life does this character have?
- Have they ever been in love?
- If so, how did that experience affect their life?
- If not, how has that affected their life?
- What are they looking for in a mate?
- Do they even desire to marry?
- Do they want a family?
- What condition is the marriage in?
- What kind of relationship does this character have with mother and father?
- What kind of relationship does this character have with their siblings?
Tools: Character Interview/Dossier
Go back to your character dossier. Keep adding to it. Flesh out those basic details as you’re able to. The same for any other questions you’ve already answered. Review the information and change it as needed. Be aware that the answers are not usually written in stone. Answering a question about how your character relates to an older brother may necessitate changes elsewhere.
Again, this isn’t something you need to do before beginning to write. In fact, for most writers, many of these kinds of details will appear during writing. Just make sure to record them whenever they appear.
But it is a good place to start.
Tool: Curricula Vitae
Otherwise known as a resume. While there is a section for career information on the character dossier, there’s no better way to understand your character’s professional self-view than by writing a resume for him or her.
Obviously, the more information you can include, the better you’ll know your character, but just the basic information (type of work, time at each job) is a good start.
Continue developing the character’s backstory. As you learn new things, add events and situations that illustrate these things to the backstory. If you don’t want to do a full life story, focus on a few key events and flesh them out as much as possible.
Methods: Face-to-Face Meetings
In the previous post, I introduced one of my favorite methods for getting to know a character more personally: taking them to lunch. Or dinner. Or meeting them in their office or at their favorite place. In the Getting Friendly section, these sorts of meetings are the sorts of meetings you’d have with someone you didn’t know very well but wanted to.
The meetings you want now are the heart-to-heart sort of meetings that occur between people who are close friends and may be confidants. Don’t worry if you don’t start as a confidante, but you should be looking to develop the kind of give-and-take with your character in which you begin to hear things no one else is likely to hear. We’re not talking about deep, dark secrets. That’s for later.
But things I’ve talked about with characters at the Getting Personal phase are divorce, childhood trauma, notable successes and the failures they never want to remember.
Methods: Skin Diving
This method was first introduced to me by Danielle Hanna, my brainstorming partner and one of my writing partners. She wrote a guest post about it, which you can read here.
With this method, you aren’t interviewing your character. You are your character. It involves a bit of role playing and—to be honest—can be quite uncomfortable if you’re on the self-conscious side.
But it is a worthwhile method despite that. I learned a few things about the character I mentioned above when I spent a little time in his shoes.
Try a character journal entry first. You’ll be writing as the character anyway. Try on some of his or her mannerisms while you’re writing.
I don’t do all of these steps with every story and I don’t do them in the same order every time. The beauty of this process is that it can be tailored to any story. If I don’t need to go through a step, I don’t. If I need to repeat a step, I can.
It’s also organic in the sense that all the parts work together. If a character reveals something that changes the plot, it’s easy enough to go back and make those changes in the plot steps.
Work on the “personal” section of the character interview.
Did you meet with your lead character last week? Were there any surprises? Did he or she hedge on some answers or refuse to answer altogether? Take a little time this week to probe those areas more deeply. See if you can uncover the reason for the reticence.
Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 3 Getting Personal (click to download)