Character is for many writers the driving force of their fiction. Knowing your characters thoroughly is just as important as knowing your plot. Sometimes, it’s even more important. When character comes second to plot, characters often seem stereotypical and dialogue becomes wooden. In order to make your fiction come to life you must bring your characters, especially your main character, come to life for the character.
I’ve compiled a list of exercises to help you develop your characters. You can do one of them or all of them for any and all of your characters. How much work you do to prepare for Nanowrimo is really up to you, but it’s good to have a basic grasp of your characters, setting and plot before you begin. It helps to make for less rewriting.
So how can you develop your characters?
1. Interview your character. This is a fairly common technique in which you interview your character as if for a magazine. Ask your character what their favourite colour is, what their childhood was like, and what made them who they are today. If your character is well known for some reason before the story begins, ask them specific questions about what it is that makes them so well known. Write what you learn down on a separate fact sheet afterwards. Fact sheets are very valuable resources to have when you’re in the midst of writing the book. It’s easier when you don’t have to look through pages and pages of prose to find a useful piece of information.
2. Write about your character’s first love. How somebody acts towards somebody they love, or at least claim to love, is usually a pretty good indicator of their personality in general. Focus on how your character feels about this person and how they express their feelings. If they’ve never fallen in love before, write about a very close friend or mentor who they are no longer connected to. By examining how they think about the person they love and how they communicate with that person, you can figure out whether they are trustworthy or not, whether they tend to obsess over people or things, and how they react to loss. Knowing how your character reacts in a number of different situations is vital to making them come to life on the page.
3. Map out your character’s family. Create a family tree for your character. Figure out at least who their parents and siblings are, and whether or not their siblings have children. I prefer to begin with their grandparents. As you’re mapping them out, write down one sentence about each person in the family. When you’ve finished, write a paragraph or two about how they all get along. Take as much or as little time as you need, and write it from anyone’s point of view–a random stranger is fine here, too.
4. Write about the first time your character meets someone–from the other person’s point of view. It’s important to know your characters very well: what they do for entertainment, how they see themselves, and how others see them. Sometimes writing about one of your characters from the point of view of a stranger tells you a lot about that character. It’s good to know how they are when meeting new people and how they come across to others when you’re in the thick of the book. The more you know about how your character interacts with people, the more realistic you can make their interactions throughout the book.
5. Write about what your character does on an ordinary day. Think of this as a Dear Diary post. It’s really up to the character and how they live what is said and how many words it’s said in. If your character lives a boring life or isn’t very wordy, this exercise might only be a couple of sentences. If your character likes to describe things intimately or lives a life of constant adventure, you might write a couple hundred words. Focus on what they do on a normal weekday, whether it be farming, bartending, or running a large corporation. It’s always good to know what your character does when they’re not saving the day in your novel.
I hope these exercises work for you. I’ve done each at least once and I’ve always learned something. Some characters are easier to learn about than others. Just like real people, some of them are shy and others are mean. Some have hard exteriors but are really all gooey on the inside. Some are waiting to kill you in your sleep. Some exercises will work better with one character than with another. Figure out what works for you, and figure out those characters.
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How do you develop character?