October 5th, 2011


Character Development: Starting Inside

My "time off" lasted until nearly 4 p.m. yesterday, when I found myself digging back into the Problem Child project. I think I figured out what the problem was and how to deal with it, so I think I know how the book needs to end. I'm also sure that this needs to be a series, so I don't have to complete all the character arcs in this one book. One character's arc will complete, but everyone else is a work in progress. I may not kill myself on revisions and may allow myself to do some other stuff, but I'm not on "vacation."

For my writing posts, I'm continuing a series on character development. Previously, I talked about some things not to do -- or to do with extreme caution. Basing characters directly on yourself, on other real people or on fictional characters created by someone else is generally not the best way to develop characters. There's no one right way to create characters, and I find that each character is different. I may go through some of the same exercises, but they work in different ways every time. There are some characters I never develop. They just seem to appear fully formed in my head, name, physical description, and all, and I know them without thinking about them. I doubt my readers could tell which characters are like that and which ones have notebooks full of character development.

One thing that essential in forming your characters is your story. Character is plot and plot is character, no matter which comes first. The needs of your story will dictate some of your characterization, or else some of the character attributes will dictate your story. While you don't want to fall into stereotype, there are going to be some traits that will be essential for your characters to do what you need them to do. For instance, anyone in any kind of investigative role -- police detective, scientific researcher, explorer -- has to have a fair amount of intellectual curiosity, and that will have some impact on the character's overall personality. If you want your character to look into things, that trait will be a given, even before you start developing anything else. If your character doesn't have this trait, it will be nearly impossible to make a story where this character must investigate something work.

That doesn't mean you always have to put the perfect person in the perfect position. The story could be about getting the person into the right place. Your character with intellectual curiosity could be in a position where that trait is a liability (that would be the basis for most amateur sleuth stories -- the person who just can't help but dig around, even though it's not their job). You may have to have a commanding presence and some charisma to be a great leader, but you probably have a more interesting story if the person with those traits isn't yet in charge. A CEO who likes to be in control and who can bend people to his will is to be expected. The mailroom clerk with those traits means things are about to get fun. If you have a particular role to fill in a story, at least consider someone who's got some personality traits that are totally wrong for that role, as long as you can still justify that person having achieved that role. While you may find powerful, charismatic people outside a leadership position, you're not likely to find people who lack those traits becoming a general or a CEO. On the other hand, king is an inherited position, so you may find a painfully shy person who'd prefer to avoid the spotlight inheriting a kingdom (and then you get The King's Speech).

I often say that I like to develop characters from the inside out. That doesn't mean the physical description comes last -- sometimes I have a vivid mental image of a character before I know anything about that person. It just means that when it comes to the character elements, I try to go for the core before I think about traits. There are all those character development worksheets out there, with stuff like their most vivid elementary school memory, what's in their refrigerator, what's their favorite color, etc., and if I don't already know the character, those answers are meaningless because they come on a whim or out of thin air. I've found that it works best if I start with what's deep down inside. What drives this person more than anything, even before the story starts and the story goal develops? The inner drive is something that achieving the story goal won't fulfill. Unless the character is really transformed, it will always be there, and even a transformation will just change the drive to something else. That inner drive may have been developed by an event, but it can just be inherent to personality. Two people may go through the same events and come out with totally different responses.

Some of the kinds of drives you can find are a need for harmony, a need for control, a need for answers, a need to belong, a need to be loved or accepted, a need to nurture, a need to be right, a need to be rescued, a need for separation, a need to win, a need to set things right. Everyone may need any or all of these things, but at least one of these may be so powerful that it drives every other decision a person makes, and it may be a need that can never be truly fulfilled -- or if that need is met, there will always be the fear of losing it. A person who needs control may fight to get to the top, and then he'll fight to stay there. Becoming CEO or even supreme ruler of the world will not satisfy that drive. We all have some need for love, but most people will have that need satisfied by feeling loved. People with that drive may be terribly insecure about the love they receive, may become overly protective about loved ones or may keep finding new people to love them, just to prove to themselves that they're worthy of love.

Once you have that, you have a sense of what makes that person tick, and it will affect any other traits you build on top of it.

There are other core things that can be at work. I've read a lot about the Myers-Briggs test and how to apply that to characterization, but I haven't made it work without finding that core drive first. Otherwise, it's like any of those characterization questionnaires. The core drive sort of gets into the Jungian idea of archetypes, and the Myers-Briggs is based on Jungian psychology, so I suppose it all flows together. One thing I do like to determine is whether a character is an introvert or extrovert. That has nothing to do with how friendly or outgoing or verbal they are. In Jungian terms, it's about focus and energy. An introvert can be verbal and outgoing, but finds that draining and needs solitude to recharge, while an extrovert gains energy from being with others and finds solitude draining, so an extrovert can still be a quiet person who just feels most comfortable with others around. There are other elements in that typing, like sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling and judgment/perception, though I haven't done that much work going that deep with this (it does, however, make an excellent procrastination tactic to take the test with your character in mind).

I know of people who do this sort of thing with astrology, figuring out their characters' charts and using that as the core, though I don't know enough about astrology to do that. I have found that when I've needed to come up with a character's birthday for a plot purpose, the astrological profile ends up being eerily accurate.

Next I'll get into how some of these deep inner traits may manifest in more external traits that will show up in the story.