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Posts Tagged ‘character sheets’

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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