Characterization in Early Planning

This week we are going to talk about character. I know that I said we would talk about plot next, but I decided that we should talk about character first. This is because I believe plot should usually be built upon setting and character; together they are the building blocks of a well written story, and without them, plot means nothing. The greatest story in the world will fall flat on its face if nobody cares, and without a great character-or at least a decent one-nobody will care.

For many writers, character is the first thing to appear when they are working on a story. This does not make it the easiest; a character may say hello to a writer days before they give the writer a name, and months before they tell the writer their story. Characters are part of us, but they are also outside of us. I think our subconscious knows what’s going on, but our consciousness is making constant objections, thinking the character should do things differently. The purest writing is created when conscious and subconscious meet, but I’m not here to talk about the philosophy of writing.

It is not only the reluctance of some characters which makes this part hard; it is the fact that to create a beautiful story, a masterpiece, you must not only know your main character well, but also your secondary characters, and especially your villain. Today I’m going to talk about some basic exercises which will help you get to know your characters.

The first thing to do for each of your characters-including your villain-is to build them a basic profile. This profile will consist of name, age, height, weight, physical description, dominant personality traits, and a one-to-four paragraph bio. The bio isn’t supposed to contain all the details of their life, rather it is there to hold the most important facts about your character. We’ll talk a bit more about character references when we start talking about characterization in story.

The second thing to do is to talk to your characters. This can be an interview-check out these sample questions-but I suggest that perhaps it shouldn’t be. I find it’s much more productive just to have a simple conversation about life. The conversation might turn into a debate of some sort and it likely won’t stay simple, but it’s more likely to produce good results than an ordinary interview.

One of the best ways to get to know your characters-and the last I’m going to talk about today-is by writing short pieces from their PoV. Essentially akin to the prompts I do here every week, putting your character in a series of interesting situations is one way to get to know them-let them do whatever they want and you’ll soon learn what kind of person they are by how they deal with different situations. You can make these pieces before or after that character’s story, but you won’t want to make them during-then they don’t add all that much depth. Let them surprise you; you learn more that way.

Setting and plot can tell you a lot about character; a very religious world will tell you that your character is either religious as well or oftentimes shunned. A plot about a spunky princess tells you that your character must be female, a princess, and capable of learning how to kick some bad guy butt. But character can also tell you a lot about plot and setting. A character who has been cast out of her religious order for a sexual act shows us a land where sex is taboo and dark; a character who partakes in fertility rituals speaks of an entirely different kind of society. And the prince regaining his throne story might fall flat on his face if the prince would sooner die-though it’s more likely to fall flat on its face if he’s just a jerk.

As a final note, we should never stop learning about our characters. They always have more to tell us, more to say. And they almost always have something interesting up their sleeves, if only you are willing to listen to the surprise.

How do you develop your characters? Have any of them seriously shocked you?

Previous posts in this series:
Setting and its Purposes in Early Planning
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a New Project