Please keep in mind that the following blog entry is, like all other of my writing tips, purely based on individual experience. This is just one technique that works for me, in a field where there are many ways to accomplish the same task. I do not claim to be an expert in any writing field.
I’ll admit – character development is my favorite part of story writing. To be able to build and mold a population that ultimately takes on the world (and each other) is not only fun but also satisfying in both compassionate (romance, heroic acts) and sadistic (death, sacrifice) ways. Characters keep the plot rolling, thus I tend to heavily favor character-driven stories over plot-driven stories. And, in reflection, write them.
I see a lot of blogs about character development – often in the ‘step by step’ approach or a ‘how to’ or ‘do this, not that’ recommendation. There is a lot of great advice out there – but in my honest opinion, almost too much, and most is too obvious. Some of it is redundant, while other times it feels a bit of an overload for the basics of strong characters. While there are a lot of layers to deep characters, a reader (and sometimes, the author) does not need to web everything about them, especially if the character develops over the threats presented in the story. Character background can be overdone very easily, and writers usually just wind up deleting a lot of this information since it isn’t relevant to the overall story. Of course this depends on the type of novel being written and who the audience is – a romance or mystery/thriller novel may go into more detail about characters revolving around ‘juicy gossip’, while a fantasy or sci-fi may unveil only the necessary information about a character – being a ‘chosen one’, for example, or special for some other reason.
I’ve broken down to how I view and write characters. It will be in two parts: Character Traits and Character Development. Again, this is just in my experience and may or may not work for everyone’s writing types.
I define Character Traits as unique features you use to distinguish characters going into the novel. In a lot of ways characters are formed even before the writing begins. Some of these can be appearance traits, while others focus more on personality and relationships. This outline is simply used to define those traits, while at the same time limiting them from going into too much detail.
Physical Traits: Character looks, any unique or ‘limiting’ features
This is necessary for obvious reasons – readers need to know what your characters look like! Hair color, eye color, gender, body type, age, and skin color are all almost necessary and at times lead directly into character development itself, such as dealing with ‘isms’ (ageism or racism, or even able-ism for characters with physical or mental disabilities).
Unique or ‘limiting’ features can sometimes be stereotyped, such as tattoos/scars portraying ‘tough’ characters. Still, having a physical trait that sets one apart can again be a defining point for character development and plot. This could also include articles of certain clothing a character always (or never) wears. Even if a physical trait isn’t unique to society, articles could be a way for readers to identify your character. If your main character always wears a specific necklace that no one else in your story wears, then any mention of that necklace will automatically identify that character.
Mental Traits: Intelligence, personality, Relationship with self and others, religion/obsessions
Is your character studious, a class clown, or chill? Are they outgoing or introverted, and with who? Are they among the elite, or the downtrodden? Do they practice a religion or have some other passion that could set them off if ill-mentioned? Are they aware of their own flaws, privileges, disadvantages, and strengths? Mental traits can help identify a way a character will (or won’t) behave in certain situations based on their self-acceptance, acceptance of other people, or knowledge in topics of discussion.
Ambitious Traits: Willpower, Motivation, Drive
How far will your character go to prove a point? What lines cannot be crossed, not matter the odds or stakes? Who or what gives them the courage to wake up every day or to face a challenge, or who/what do they dread to encounter? Ambitious traits can be used to prepare your character for confronting a threat, or dissuade them from seeking out assistance from subjects or objects.
Note at this points these are just basic traits – the ‘whats’ and ‘whos’ of your characters. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ can wait for now.
So now that we have those three, let’s make a sample Venn diagram out of it:
Hmm, seems we have some overlapping. Let’s build on those.
Physical and mental traits can lead to confidence, or lack of. Characters can learn to take comfort in themselves, and through encouragement and sustainability of their friends, or their obsession, can determine how confident your character behaves in the face of adversity. This is a projecting or active trait that can be used to build (or shatter) relationships between your characters and their own aptitude. Confidence is the ‘action’ that often comes after the assertion (see below). Physical feeds into this because people tend to let their physical traits limit (or enhance) their self-acceptance, and their intelligence on a subject or relationship with another will build (or shatter) their confidence when a certain subject, situation, or threat comes into question.
Physical and ambitious traits can lead to assertion (also could be defiance or prowess). This is a bit different that confidence – whereas confidence is often reflected in oneself, assertion or defiance is often acted upon another character. This is a verbal trait that is defined more in words than actions. It’s trying to persuade others (or the reader) that a character’s plan or idea or talent won’t only just work, but it will work best because of their (or another character’s) unique skill set. Or in the case of an antagonist, may lead into the character denying someone else a goal, or challenging the protagonist to prove themselves (i.e, “you talk a good game, but can you prove it?”). Physical traits can tell of experience (scars, lost limbs, physique, accessories), while ambitious traits boost (or plummets) morale.
Mental and Ambitious trait’s lead to a character’s dedication to either themselves, the plot, or other characters. This is an internal trait that sets one character apart from another, and is often defined through actions rather than words. How much time and capacity are they willing to give or risk? Does the incentive motivate the dedication? For who, or for what? Is the toll too great for their character to handle, and if it is, how does this effect the character? Other characters? Mental traits help determine who or what the character will take risks for, and ambitious traits will help define how much or even why a character will take risks.
Usually, these three overlapping traits define the ‘wants’ of your characters and can help lead to the main character’s overall goal in the novel.
So now our diagram looks like this:
Let’s fill it in with a random character:
The inner circle is the character’s name, or identity.
Remember, these are only just your character’s traits – they are the features and struggles you give your characters coming into novel, not the change that develops your character throughout the novel (although these circles can be the start of both a plot and development, which is the beauty of using this approach). True character development will be topic of the next week’s blog post.