I was talking with a friend about writing and the complexities of character development suddenly hit me. We are all on a journey and will be affected by positive and negative events… yes, even those of us who are blessed with good fortune. These experiences shape who we become. With this in mind, since our […]Writing Your Characters by Dennis Scheel￼
Today I have a guest post from Desiree Villena, who is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.
A dichotomy is often set up between plot and character-driven stories. In plot-driven stories, plot itself is the most important factor and characters may be interchangeable; in character-driven stories, character takes a front seat and the plot unfolds in a way that depends on their personalities and choices.
But the distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories isn’t always so clear — and frankly, all the best stories have both exciting plots and well-developed characters. With that said, here are some particular things you can do to establish your characters more firmly at the heart of your story!
1. Get to know your characters
If you’re going to be writing about your characters deeply enough to convince your readers of their authenticity (and of your story’s authenticity in turn), you want to know them inside-out. One great way to delve into the depths of each character’s psyche is to do some character exercises. These need not be long or complicated! For example, you might:
- Make use of character questionnaires or interviews, which require you to think about how your character might answer particularly obscure questions.
- Come up with specific scenarios and write a short piece detailing how each character would think, behave, and react in such a scenario. What would your character do if they got stood up on a date? What if they accidentally locked themselves out of the house?
As well as thinking about what your character is like at the time your book takes place (for instance, do they find it difficult to trust people?) you should also think carefully about their backstory — how they came to be the way they are. This backstory can then be woven into your writing to lend context to your character’s behaviors and make them feel more real.
Carrying out this thorough groundwork as you plan your novel will give you a well-formed understanding of your characters to keep in mind as you write. This will be hugely helpful in terms of guiding the thoughts and actions you ascribe to them — which will in turn guide the overall arc of your story.
2. Remember that nobody is perfect
We all love our characters, and may even want to believe they’re flawless… but when a character is portrayed as completely perfect, they lose that believability and relatability that makes readers emotionally invest in and connect with them. In other words: making a character perfect actually dehumanizes them, and weakens your story.
And for a character-driven story to really come to life, simply giving your character a minor flaw or two won’t cut it. In a plot-driven story — where characterizations may not be as complex or relevant to the story’s action — we might expect the line between characters’ flaws and virtues to be well-distinguished. But in character-driven stories, characters are not just supposed to be imperfect, but a little bit messy as well.
Between their flaws and virtues, the difference might not be so clear-cut, adding to their intrigue. The journey from unawareness to awareness of their flaws and potential for change will make their character arc much richer, like Briony’s journey from immaturity and righteousness to recognizing her mistake and wishing to make up for it in Atonement.
Try thinking about your own characters’ personalities and what their corresponding flaws might be. For example, if they’re a hard worker, one of their flaws might be refusing to ask for help, or ignoring their family and friends in favor of getting ahead at work. Having a handle on these flaws will give you a much better idea of their natural progression through the story.
3. Make your character’s goals clear
As you build this in-depth picture of your characters, you will hopefully identify their desires and goals. To make their goals into focal points of your narrative and really lead the plot, it is important you establish them clearly and early. Goals, after all, motivate your characters to make the decisions they do, guiding the story on its path. Some more examples:
- Emma Bovary’s ambitions for excitement beyond dull everyday life drive her to engage in multiple affairs and excessive spending.
- Jay Gatsby’s desire to win Daisy back leads him to throw lavish parties in hopes of getting her attention, and to make increasingly reckless decisions to gain her love.
Where in a plot-driven story, the story’s ultimate destination would be a piece of action that would occur regardless of characterization, the destination for a character-driven story will be the protagonist’s goal or reaching the endpoint of their character arc. (In both of the examples given above, this is the character’s tragic downfall and ultimate death.)
Of course, character-driven resolutions are not exclusive to plot-driven ones — again, in any great story (and in the examples above), both characterization and plot should manifest in the ending — but in terms of ensuring your story is as character-driven as possible, try to think about character first and foremost. Still, you do want your strong, consistent characterization to feed into an excellent plot! On that note…
4. Don’t lose sight of the external world
Character-driven stories often focus on internal conflict. But while this is obviously very important, you don’t want to get so caught up inside your characters’ heads that you forget about external conflict.
In fact, external conflict is necessary to create internal conflict. As a writer, you have the joy of creating an interesting and challenging world for your characters to live in. By allowing your characters out into this world you have created, they will be faced with the inevitable complications it presents.
These external challenges then serve as a stage on which your characters’ stormy internal conflicts can play out. When they’re forced into making a hard decision, the push-and-pull factors that give rise to their internal conflict(s) will be brought to light. The focus on these internal struggles takes your story further towards the character-driven end of the spectrum while, again, not sacrificing plot.
5. Give consequences to actions
One tell-tale sign of an overly plot-driven story is when a character mysteriously gets away with something they probably shouldn’t. Here it becomes apparent that what the characters think or do is of little consequence to the plot, because the plot is pre-established and the characters are simply instruments that enable the progression of events.
To keep a hold on your characters’ actions determining your story, try to ensure that all your characters’ actions (no matter how small) have consequences. Be these consequences that hinge on other characters’ reactions or simply consequences that make sense based on the way our world — or the world you have built — works, doing this will ensure you don’t end up contorting your story just to hit a plot point.
For a final example, one of my favorite instances of this is the ending of the 2019 blockbuster Uncut Gems. Those who have seen it will remember that Adam Sandler’s character gets what was coming to him — a resolution that’s surprisingly satisfying for viewers because it’s absolutely realistic for his character.
Writing more character-driven stories comes down to how well you know your characters and remaining conscious that your plot should be built around them, rather than the other way round. I hope this helps, and best of luck with your writing!
If you would like to get in touch with Desiree, you may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The characters I create for my stories get into my head and speak to me. They come alive and become real people. I speak about my characters as if they are real people. This is something my husband doesn’t understand. He always tells me, “You do realize those people aren’t real, don’t you?” But to me, they are real. I’ve made them real, and they have become living, breathing beings.
When I write, my characters tend to take over. I have a plan for them and a direction I’d like them to go, but they often follow their own path. And sometimes, it’s not the path I planned. I go with the flow though and let them take the lead. This strategy doesn’t work unless you know your characters well and can dig deep inside their heads.
I’m a firm believer that characters can either make or break a story. A story may have a great plot, incredible writing, and interesting twists and turns, but if the characters are flat or underdeveloped, the story won’t draw me in. Characters have to be real, human – people I want to befriend and root for (or punch in the face). I need to feel like I know them on a personal level. If they don’t feel real, I could care less what happens to them, good or bad.
There are certain things to consider when creating characters. Here are some questions to ask which will help you gain a deeper understanding of your characters. The more you know about them, the easier it is to get inside their heads and let them take the reins.
Where does your character live? What kind of family life does he have? What was his childhood like? Who are his parents? Does he have any siblings? What does he do for a living? What kind of skills and talents does he have? What is his educational background?
All of this information shapes the kind of person he is, which brings us to our next section.
What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? What unique personality quirks does he have? Is he social or more reserved? How would he walk into a room? Would he make a big production out of a situation or keep it under wraps? Is he a generous person who gives freely or is he more focused on himself? Is he self-motivated or does he require a little push? Does he easily get upset or is he more laid back?
These questions can help decide his motivation and determine how he might respond in certain situations, which is important to consider when creating believable characters.
Habits and Expressions
This next section could go under characteristics, but I’m writing it separately simply because habits can affect a person’s demeanor. Some habits can even leave a good or bad impression. So consider the following when you develop your characters:
Does he walk a certain way? Does he lean on things? Does he chew gum or bite his fingernails? Is he a coffee drinker? A smoker? A drinker? How does he handle money? What does an ordinary day look like for him? Is he always on the go, or does he stop to smell the roses once in a while? Does he tap his pencil, roll his eyes, cross his legs, pace the floor? Does he display certain facial expressions or pose with certain postures? Is he fidgety? How does he handle uncomfortable situations?
Outlook and Attitude
How would this character describe himself? What does he believe in? What haunts him? What are his biggest fears? What are his plans for the future? Does he have a positive attitude or a negative attitude? What motivates him? What are his pet peeves? What makes him angry? What makes him sad? How does he react when he’s angry? What does he do when he’s upset? What is something he would risk his life for?
Interests and Favorite Things
What does this character like to do? What are his favorite books and movies? What kind of music does he listen to? What is his favorite meal? Does he have certain political or religious beliefs? What kind of car does he drive? What does his house or apartment look like? What would his dream vacation be? What is the best gift he could receive?
What is his height, weight, posture? What kind of physique does he have? What color are his eyes, hair, skin? Does he cut his hair a certain way? Does he wear glasses or have facial hair? Any significant scars or tattoos? What kind of clothes does he wear?
Each character in your story needs to have his or own own unique qualities. Even if your readers never know any of this information, you do, and knowing this will bring your characters to life and make them more real.
Great tips on character development and a bit of info on an upcoming writing contest.
In honor of the upcoming Adventure Writing Contest that starts the end of February (click here for more info) I want to help writers by offering info and websites that will hopefully help us all be better writers.
That’s the goal.
Today we’re going to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (click here for more detailed information from simplypsychology.org). Maslow originally published this motivational theory back in 1943, then I believe it was updated in 1954. This is a psychological look at what motivates humans from our most basic needs up.
But maybe you’re wondering what this has to do with writing fiction? A lot actually, and it could go a long way to helping write better, more believable characters whose behaviors are directly related to their motivations and deepest needs.
By User: Factoryjoe (Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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With the current chaos going on in my life right now (new job in a new grade level in a new school, getting a new AC unit installed in my house, going solar powered, working on new WIP, etc…), I haven’t written a new post in a while. My brain has been going 100 miles an hour lately, and I haven’t been able to put anything comprehensive down on paper in weeks. Let’s see if we can fix that today.
Although I’m not a traditional romance writer, about a year ago, I became a member of my local chapter of RWA. This fabulous group of people consists of all walks of life, and not all members are romance writers, myself included. Men and women, both published and non-published, make up this group: Indie authors, traditionally published authors, screenwriters, teachers, students, former attorneys and active military members, technology gurus, mothers, fathers, real-estate agents, and even a woman who writes for Harlequin and had one of her books turned into a movie. Needless to say, the writing expertise within this group is pretty well-rounded.
I originally joined this group for the insights they offer about the craft of writing. Regardless of genre, the information obtained from the many seminars I’ve attended through this group have helped me become a better writer.
The last seminar I attended focused on archetypes. For those of you who don’t know what that is, an archetype is a pattern of behavior that is universally present in characters in classic storytelling. It can be better summarized as the universal personality traits of a character. These personality traits are pretty standard, regardless of whether it is a character in a movie, book, or play or a person in real life. As I review each one, you’ll probably get images in your head of people you know or literary/ movie characters you’ve seen or read about who portray these characteristics. Let’s get started, shall we?
There are female archetypes and male archetypes, some of which are interchangeable. Every archetype has positive and negative personality traits, but the best characters do not fall under one specific archetype. They are made up of a combination of these traits.
I’ll go over the female archetypes first. There are 8 main ones.
- The Boss. This girl is a real go-getter. She climbs the ladder of success. Queen Elizabeth is a good example.
- The Seductress. She’s an enchantress. She charms those around her to get her way. Scarlett O’Hara is a classic seductress.
- The Spunky Kid. This is a woman who is gutsy and true. She’s a loyal friend to the end. Pretty much every character Meg Ryan has ever played can be classified as a spunky kid.
- The Free Spirit. This is a person who is an eternal optimist. She dances to her own tune. Phoebe from the TV show Friends nails this archetype.
- The Waif. She is the damsel in distress. Sleeping Beauty, Bella from Twilight, and Audrey Hepburn to name a few.
- The Librarian. She is controlled and clever. She doesn’t have to be a bookwork or a scholar though. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Belle from Beauty and the Beast are librarians.
- The Crusader. She is a dedicated fighter. She has a cause and fights for the greater good. Katniss from the Hunger Games and Wonder Woman are crusaders. Go girls!
- The Nurturer. She is serene and capable. These are people who nurture the spirit of others (can be animals and plants too). One person comes to mind with this one: Julie Andrews. She played a nurturer in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.
Let’s move on to the male archetypes now. Again, there are 8 main ones, and you’ll find that some are similar to their female counterparts.
- The Chief. He is a dynamic leader and wants to be in charge. He is goal oriented and has time for nothing but work. Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Captain Picard from Star Trek exemplify this archetype.
- The Bad Boy. He’s dangerous to know simply because he walks on the wild side. Danny in Grease or Prince Harry would be considered bad boys.
- The Best Friend. He’s sweet and safe and never lets anyone down. Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted and any Tom Hanks character.
- The Lost Soul. This man is a tormented being. He’s a recluse and lives in solitude. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and Wolverine are lost souls.
- The Charmer. He’s a smooth talker. The fairy tale Prince Charming. George Clooney plays these characters. Jack from Titanic was also a charmer.
- The Professor. This guy knows all the answers. The Professor from Gilligan’s Island, Frasier, and Sherlock Holmes are considered professors.
- The Swashbuckler. This is Mister Excitement. He’s an adventurer and often breaks the rules. Indiana Jones and Han Solo are swashbucklers. (Hmmm, Harrison Ford seems to play these characters a lot). Maverick from Top Gun is also a swashbuckler. I would say Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean is too.
- The Warrior. He is a noble fighter who acts with valor. Superman and To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch are warriors.
You’ll notice that some of the female/ male archetypes are similar. And there are some male characters who fit into the female archetypes and vice versa, like nurturer. Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Mrs. Doubtfire, played by Robin Williams, are both nurturers although they are male characters. The best characters are dynamic and complex. They don’t fit into one generic mold. They are a combination of one or more of these archetypes, just like each one of us is.
This is a guideline only. Not every character you write will fit perfectly into a specific archetype, but neither do we. As writers, we are observers of life. Use the people around you as inspiration.
We continue to meet the characters of Center Stage. Today I introduce you to Max.
Full name: Max Savon Chamberlain
Physical Description: 5’10”, muscular, athletic. Has a 9/11 memorial tattoo on his left shoulder
Hometown: Chicago, IL. Currently lives in Brooklyn, NY
Family: Father is the Chicago fire chief.
Education: New York City Fire Academy
Occupation: New York City firefighter
Hobbies: dancing, swimming, weight lifting, riding his Harley on the open highway
Favorite things: his 1966 pinhead softail Harley Davidson motorcycle, a good beer, the New York Yankees, Rottweilers, fire engines
Favorite Places: dancehalls, the gym, Harley showrooms, single’s bars
Music Preference: Rock
Relationship Status: Single
Weaknesses: Has difficulty maintaining relationships. Struggles to express his emotions.
Character traits: Caring individual with a protective nature. Goes out of his way to help those in need. Stands up for his beliefs. Humble. Dedicated to his job. Loyal friend. Pie junkie.
For other character bios, see links below.
With the upcoming release of book 4 in my series, Center Stage, I would like to introduce you to two characters you will meet in this book. The first is Roger Zellers.
Full name: Roger Alan Zellers
Physical Description: athletic build, muscular physique (body of a dancer), brown hair, hazel eyes
Hometown: Owego, NY. Currently lives in New York City.
Family: Father’s name is Gary. Mother is Sharon. Older brother, Peter Zellers.
Education: Took piano lessons as a child, starting at age five. Many years of dance training, voice lessons, and acting classes. Proficient in Standard British, Cockney, Irish, Australian, Brooklyn, and American Southern dialect. Dance styles include ballet, jazz, latin, contemporary, modern, swing, and various ballroom dances. Expert tap dancer. Has had formal stage combat training.
Occupation: Professional theatrical performer. Broadway credits include Newsies, Cats, Radio City Music Hall Tap Extravaganza, Sophisticated Ladies, Memphis, A Broadway Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Chicago.
Hobbies: playing the piano, dancing, cooking, reading
Favorite things: performing on stage, tap dancing, poetry, classic literature, film noir movies, a good glass of wine, Mexican cuisine, Phantom of the Opera, classic theatre, modern art, sports cars, and fishing. Dedicated NY Knicks, Yankees, and Syracuse fan.
Inspired by: Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Hines, Bill Robinson, George and Ira Gershwin, Elton John
Favorite Places: the theatre, the beach, Central Park, piano showrooms, art museums
Music Preference: blues, jazz, classic rock, show tunes. Favorite song: Bohemian Rhapsody
Relationship Status: Single and seeking
Weaknesses: Forgetful – regularly loses cellphone and keys. Insecure in relationships.
Pet Peeves: Selfishness, intolerance, and cruelty.
Character traits: Generous with time and money and regularly donates to charitable organizations. Active in Broadway Cares fundraising efforts. Donates toys, food, jackets, gloves, and blankets to homeless shelters, children’s homes, and children’s hospitals. Genuinely cares about people. Outgoing personality, happy disposition, playful, enjoys life. Randomly dances or sings in public. Well-articulated, poised, confident, charismatic. Supports fellow performers and is knowledgeable about the business end of Broadway. Adopted a Scottish Terrier named Oliver.
For other character bios, see links below.
All books need characters the reader can relate to, characters who are believable, characters I either want to root for or smack in the head with the book. As I’ve said multiple times now, I’m all about character. To me, characters make or break a story. Characters in books must have unique personalities and speak in their own voice. There is nothing I hate more than picking up a book and seeing the same characters I see in every other book. Or worse yet, all the characters speak the same way or have the same mannerisms and I can’t tell one from the other. People in this world are unique. We all have our own beliefs, unique personalities, and individual likes and dislikes. Characters in books should be the same way. They should be real. They should hop off the page and speak to the reader. Even good fantasy or sci-fi characters have characteristics of people I might run into on the street. They’re relatable, believable, and each is an individual. That’s what character is all about.
My least favorite character is Gabriella’s mother. She’s overly critical, unsupportive, and speaks to her daughter with contempt. Every time Gabby’s around, she goes out of her way to say something derisive, often bringing Gabby to tears. Even though Gabriella is now an adult, her mother tries to control her life. During their graduation dinner, she causes a huge scene, which leads Nathan to finally speak his mind, something he’d been wanting to do for years.
She’s not a very nice person. Luckily, she’s only a side character, but her presence is vital to understand Gabriella’s personality and relationship with the Hansons.
Christopher Snow from Dean Koontz’s Fear Nothing and Seize the Night. He suffers from a disease in which ultraviolet light is deadly. Therefore, he lives the life of a night owl. Christopher has a great personality. He’s kind, curious, and has cool friends, namely his dog Orson, his girlfriend Sasha, and his best friend Bobby, all of whom are surfers. Christopher is a down to earth guy who has overcome many obstacles in his life. He faces life-threatening problems throughout the series, but through it all he stands tall and remains humble. I thoroughly enjoyed the Christopher Snow books and have read them several times. I wish Dean Koontz would write another book with those characters. If he happens to be reading this (Ha ha ha, yeah, right), I hope he catches the hint.