Well Rounded Characters – 3 Tips for Getting Acquainted

autumn-colorWelcome to September. Fall is already beginning to make its presence felt in some parts of the country. Even here in Kansas, there’s a hint of cooler temperatures.

Welcome also to our September story clinic. All this month, we’ll be talking about character development.  With this post, we begin an in depth examination of character development.

Indie Plot Twist clinics are designed for open discussion. In fact, we welcome your participation. In order for that to happen, everyone needs to feel free to comment, but also free from backlash. So here are our rules. (There are only two and they’re really simple.)

Rule #1. No rude, obnoxious, or mean comments are allowed. Danielle and I both reserve the right to refuse to publish such comments. If a comment is basically helpful, but contains language we deem unsuitable or unhelpful, we also reserve the right to remove it.

Rule #2: No self-promotion.

If you have questions concerning your comments, ask us. The only silly question is the one you don’t ask!

Now, on to the first lesson!

About This Course

Character development is an ongoing, ever changing process that doesn’t end until the novel is trashed or published. It breaks down into four major steps.

  1. Getting Acquainted
  2. Getting Friendly
  3. Getting Personal
  4. Uncovering Deep, Dark Secrets

What happens at each stage will depend in large part on the type of writer you are.

If you happen to be a writer who writes intuitively with very little planning, I hope you’ll get some ideas for keeping track of those intuitions through this series. If you prefer to stop here and get back to writing, have fun!

Getting Acquainted: Character Basics

The information you’re looking for here is quite basic. Name. General age. Appearance. Imagine you’ve just met your lead character for the first time as each of you walk down the main street or as you’re shopping. What information to you share? What do you observe?

This is also most likely to be the kind of information you give your readers in introducing your lead character. It will be what forms their first impressions of your lead.

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but how do I figure those things out?”

I’m glad you asked. Here are some of the tools and methods that work best for me.

Tools: Character Interview/Dossier
The most useful tool in my writing toolbox is the character interview. Think of it as a character dossier. It includes a list of attributes, attitudes, personal history, family background, and other information.

For the getting acquainted stage, the interview includes all the basic information. Date of birth, place of birth, age, parents and siblings, where the character grew up, where the character lives, career, marital status and family situation. Basically, the sorts of things you would be likely to learn about someone in a casual friendship.

If you like to know what your character looks like, there is a section for a physical description. Height, weight, eye color, build, and so on. This can be as detailed as you like or you can skip it altogether. I don’t usually recommend skipping this section because you never know when it might matter whether or not your character is left handed or right or what color their eyes or hair might be. It’s best to have everything written down somewhere, even if never makes it into the story.

Some like to have pictures of characters. This is the place to put that. If you use a word processor, insert a picture into the document wherever you want it. If you keep a paper file, collect images to match your characters.

Following are 15 of the items that are on the basic section of the character interview I use.

  1. Eye color:
  2. Hair style & color:
  3. Age character appears:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Predominant feature (What’s the first thing people notice?):
  7. Disabilities, if any:
  8. Voice:
  9. Mannerisms:
  10. Expressions:
  11. Distinguishing Body Features:
  12. Clothing:
  13. Nickname & reason for nickname:
  14. Where do they live?
  15. What is their occupation?

Methods: Omniscient Narrative
At the beginning of the process, the best method is the most simple method. Sit down and start writing. If I’m starting from scratch with the first character, I’ll do a description from an omniscient point of view. While I begin with whatever attribute or information came with the story idea, I tend to work general to specific. Name and age are good places to begin.

There is no correct way to fill in the information. Put down whatever you know, even if it’s not sequential. Fill in the rest later. Quite often, the things you write down will spark additional ideas. Let those ideas flow.

Tip
Stuck for a birth date? Why not start with the date on which the idea for this character first came to mind? You can always change it later, but plugging in that first bit of information is often the most difficult part of the process. This little trick is the fastest and easiest way to make that blank page less blank!

Method: Introductory Scene
This isn’t the first scene of your novel. It’s the first scene in which you’ve seen your character. You may not even know their name or anything about them, but you’ve seen them doing something.

Or you’ve heard them speaking.

Why not start character development right there? You can learn a lot about a character by observing how they react to the events going on around them. So take a little time to sketch out that first glimpse. What’s the character doing? What happens around him? How does he react? What happens next?

Don’t worry if this scene never makes it into the novel. The truth is, it’s probably better if it doesn’t. What you’re really looking for is a peek into the character’s mind.

You may later find the scene doesn’t fit at all or that the character was someone other than who you thought it was. That’s okay. What you really want at this stage is a place to start.

Conclusion

I like to work through the basic information as quickly as possible. I’ll spend a day or two on each character, recording everything I can about them before moving on to the next character.

If you’re not working on a deadline, you can spend as much time as you like.

But if you are working on a deadline, then keep this phase short. You really need to know only enough to get the story started. A lot of character development will occur as you write, so don’t worry about the deep stuff at this stage.

Your Assignment

Start developing character with the person your story is about. Describe your first impressions. Use any of the tools and methods described above or any combination of them.

If you’re feeling really ambitious or enthusiastic, write a single sentence summary or paragraph summary and put your lead character into each one.

Remember, if you need clarification or would like assistance, just leave a comment in the comment box below.

Other Resources

FREE: Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 1 Getting Acquainted (click to download)

4 Tips for Getting To Know Your Characters

Working With New Characters

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