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Posts Tagged ‘character development’

Effective Character Development

Monday, August 24th, 2009

After posting Lost, I received several questions asking how I was able to bring the character to life so well.

The truth is, I didn’t bring him to life.  He sprang out on his own.

As I wrote about this character (a few years ago now), I thought he was something interesting in and of himself.  I like to know my characters intimately–understanding every decision, every motive, and every emotion.

Some authors like to create detailed character sheets, similar to those used/discussed at Dungeons & Dragons, National Novel Finishing Month, Eclectics, or Bethany Harvey.  These also work fine for minor to medium importance characters, where understanding their motivations is less vital to the story. These sheets are certainly valuable tools, but just asking myself questions about the character only gets me so far in truly understanding the character. Character sheets tell me what skills the character has and what the character looks like, but not how the character thinks.

For my main characters, though, this isn’t enough (at least for me).  To make these characters believable, as real as you or me, I need to understand them inside and out.  I use an old acting technique to accomplish this–I become the character.

While I’m writing from their perspective, I allow myself to melt away, replacing my own world view, experiences, and memories with those of my character.  For all intents and purposes, while I’m in that mode, I am that character. I understand their thought process because it is my own.

When I adopt the background of a character, no matter how different they are from me, I start seeing them making decisions differently than those I might make. These decisions might be small (a salad instead of fries, taking the elevator rather than the stairs, etc), but can also be much larger (moving across the country instead of addressing a problem at home, etc).

While the character has control, I am (most often) not working on the actual story. My intent is different–I want to understand how the character thinks.  I’m writing or typing out their thoughts as they think them, trying to capture the essence of who they are at some specific scene.  The text I write while developing the character may never make it into the final copy, but the impact on the text is clearly felt in every page.

And now for a short interlude:  Nina Conti, a ventriloquist, has a related act.  Watch as she similarly develops a character!  (Warning: includes some swearing and sexual references)

In Lost, I was introducing myself to the character.  I knew the situation he was in (having just lost his job), but I wanted to see what he thought, how he felt, and what his background was. For the moment, it didn’t matter what I, as the author, thought about the situation.  That wasn’t what I was interested in.  I wanted to know how the character thought–naked, unfiltered, and completely honest.  I wasn’t judging my character–I wanted to understand him.

To focus my efforts, I had a few simple things written down:  the main event (his job loss), his family life (wife and two children), and the industry (automotive).  I also had the experience of working one summer in a shop where we assembled transmission solenoids, so I had a basic understanding of the type of environment and people that worked in that type of setting.  The character took over from there, his personality forming as I typed.

Allowing another character to take over my hands as I type is scary. For a few moments (sometimes quite a bit longer), I am not myself.  My consciousness, my memories, and my emotions are packaged away, waiting until the character releases control.  I suppose it’s a form of self-hypnosis, allowing myself to take on a different mental state.  I’m certainly in a bit of a trance while I’m in this mode, the character taking life through my hands.

However, allowing the character to take control allows me to see them for who they really are, which means I can better capture their personality when I start writing the story I intended to write.

When I take back control from my character, I’m often somewhat changed–I now think a bit differently than I did before the character took control.  I’m not sure it’s possible to channel another consciousness without being somewhat changed in the process.  However, I’ve found that the changes are mostly positive–I gain exposure to another point of view, and that allows me to look at my story in an entirely different light.

The stories I write also greatly benefit from these insights.  The character has depth (and life) far beyond the pages of the book.  This also means that, as a writer, I can, at a later time, meet up with them again, since I understand the path their life was leading them down.  Once the character is real to me, I can better describe the character to my readers.

What methods have you used to get into your character’s head?  Do you similarly “walk the mile in their shoes”?

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Lost (an experiment in character development)

Monday, August 17th, 2009

I stumbled across this story fragment this weekend.  What struck me about this fragment was how prescient it was (in my completely unbiased opinion, of course)…though I also got a few things wrong.

This idea was originally conceived and thought of in a single sitting a couple of years ago (just after the holidays), and was abandoned because I didn’t understand the automotive industry well enough to turn it into something more.  Perhaps obviously, I could have chosen a different industry (the story was about surviving a job loss, not about the automotive industry), but the automotive industry felt right for this character.

I may yet move forward with this, but thought I’d share it here as an example of character development.  When I’m starting to get to know one of my characters, I often write something exclusively from their perspective, working through their thought process.  Once I understand how a character thinks, I can make them more real to the reader.  The side effect is that sometimes the character development itself can turn out to be a decent story.

The story below is fictional, and was mostly an exploration of how a character in a situation where he had lost his job due to failures in the automotive industry.  This is also one of my first attempts at realistic fiction.  While the details of the automotive industry are admittedly inaccurate, according to what actually happened over the past few years, the feelings that the character goes through still feel very real.

Anyway, enough with this introduction.  On with the show!  Enjoy.


I lost my job last week.

Like so many others in the past year, I fell victim to the faltering economy—the command came down from corporate headquarters that fifty people needed to be cut from our division. How ironic that the one time that I win the “lottery,” it’s for something that I want the least.

Management, of course, was kind enough to wait until after the Christmas holiday—allowing us to falsely believe that we were safe for at least the first month of the new year. It would have been nice to know this before the holiday, so I could have restrained my family’s spending a bit more, to make the following months a bit easier.

The automotive division where I work (well, used to work) has been among the most productive in the company—we consistently were at the top of the production charts, in terms of number of parts produced per employee. However, those of us that were “chosen” for the honor of walking out the door were chauffeured unceremoniously out today—without so much as a thank you for the years of work we’d dedicated to this company. We each were given four weeks pay as a severance package…but of course, that does not include the overtime pay I had come to rely on. I suppose I should be grateful that they gave us anything at all.

On one level, I understand the decision—sales of all cars (particularly American-made cars) have been stagnating for a while. The SUVs I’ve worked on have been hit the hardest—since fuel prices have been so high (and do not show any sign of lowering), few people are willing to purchase gas guzzlers. The automotive industry has been paying high wages to us for a long time—which was fine when the economy was doing well, but now that it is faltering (mostly due to the automotive, housing, and banking industries), the wages are not affordable.

More personally, though, I didn’t think this would happen to me. I survived three rounds of layoffs at this company, and each time, I worked harder to ensure I would not be on the list the next time. My wife did not survive the second layoff…and it ended up making more sense for her to stay at home with the kids instead of getting another job—there were no jobs available that would have continued to pay the child support.

What am I supposed to do now? I’m like a child myself now—lost, frightened, and in the dark. We have four weeks (three and a half, I should say), to figure out what to do. Three and a half weeks before we start eating into savings, and I have no way of knowing when I’ll find work again. We’ve scraped together almost four months into an emergency fund (up from our two months of an emergency fund after my wife’s layoff), but with all the job losses around here, there’s no way that will be enough. We need to move—we’ll lose the house anyway, so we may as well sell it and move on.

We’re better off than some of our friends—most of them were living paycheck to paycheck, and were confident that this would turn around. Obviously, all of us were wrong. I’m so glad that we took the extra pain to scrape together a little extra…that small amount of pain over these past several months gives us more time to react. It’s too bad others couldn’t do the same.

But where to next? Five months is not so long…we might be able to stretch our savings a few more months if I take a lesser paying job. Problem is, no one is hiring—there are so many houses in foreclosure around here that you’d think we were a ghost town. It’s sad…it seems not so long ago that our town was a happy place—and now, with the gangs and the hookers, there’s not much left to fight for.

And our kids…what can I do to make sure they stay fed? We could send them off to stay with family for awhile, and we might if things get too hard…but I don’t want to be away from them. I need to find something to help me be strong for them. I don’t want to appear weak.


What do you think?  Was this character believable?  Did you feel the emotions he went through?  Do you think this method of character development is helpful?  Leave a comment below!

Site updates this week:

  • New Writing Prompt response area housing our best responses (mentioned in the previous blog post)
  • New Realistic Fiction forum
  • Minor updates across the site

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