Learning About Your Characters

While I was working on the first draft of my novel, I realized that, despite all of my planning, plotting, and outlining, I did not know who my characters were. Nor did I realize that I needed to know who they were. I figured they would just come alive in the story, take on a personality by themselves. Right?

Wrong. At least for me. There was no flair. No personal touches to any of the dialogue. Not until I got to a scene where I needed a guy in a mask did I add some personality traits to my characters. The guy ends up wearing a Reaver mask, which is an… entity in the TV show Firefly. But two of my main characters recognize it as a Reaver, while another character simply thinks it’s a monster. This helped develop that the first two were 1) good friends, 2) Firefly fans, and 3) a little bit geeky. It also helped me see that the other character wasn’t into cult classics like Firefly and helped build her as an outsider in that relationship.

That one little entry into my story made me realize that I needed to really dig deep into my characters, especially since I’m planning other books with some of them. Once I finally did my digging, I felt like there was so much more that could be added to my story, whether it be backstory, little conversational bits, anything that allows the reader to bond with the characters.

To go about exploring my characters, I googled “character profiles” and found a ton of hits. I picked out three that seemed to be pretty extensive and combined them into one Excel spreadsheet for a total of 200-and-something questions. Good grief. I decided that I would answer these to the best of my ability, and that I would do the best I could, but I was not going to answer 200-plus questions for seven characters. No thanks.

Here are the categories of questions I reviewed: General Info (your basic interview stuff: name, birthday, address, job, physcial description, etc.); Speech, Language, Communication (do they talk funny, have eccentric mannerisms); Everyday Behaviors/Habits (routine for each part of the day, skills, hobbies); Past (hometown, memories, criminal record); Family of Origin (parents’ name, status, job, and relationship, any siblings, other family); Relationships with Others (how do they react around others, biggest influences, romantic relationships); Mental Attitude/Personal Beliefs (psychological issues, personality type, strengths/flaws, accomplishments); Likes/Favorites (basics like food, TV show, sport, song); Other (anything else I’ve found important about the character or have put into my book). (Most of these came from this blog post.)

Sounds like a lot, right? Yeah, it felt like it, too. That’s why I didn’t go over everything. Some questions I’d like my characters to answer as I type a future book. Others, I didn’t feel like I needed to know certain things about them. But the questions I did answer really helped me gain insight as to how they tick. For instance, one of my characters, Edwards, grew up with nine siblings and and a single mother. Being the second oldest, he was responsible for helping raise the other eight. Obviously, there was lots of chaos in the house, which rubbed him the wrong way, and now he has OCD. Everything has to be in its exact place. He even shaves his head because his hair was too much to control! Little things like that helped me develop my characters from words on a page to people the reader can relate with.

If you are struggling with developing your characters, don’t fret! Some characters are sneaky and prefer to be developed as you write (I read an interview with an author whose main character did just that), but a lot of them, you just need to take the time to ask them questions. Figure out who they were, who they are, and who they want to be. This will add flavor to your novel and give your readers something to nod their heads at!

These are the three web pages that helped me build my profile:

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/how-to-create-a-character-profile-6986

http://nanowrimo.org/forums/character-cafe/threads/125155

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