Monday, October 29, 2012

The Development of Characters is a Difficult Matter...

Over the last few weeks, I've been working on prep work for my NaNo novel.  One thing that I severely stunk at last year was character development, so I've been working more on characters than plot lately.  I saw somewhere that someone said that strong characters can carry a weak plot, but weak characters will wreck a strong plot.   I don't know if the former is true, but I had a decent plot for NaNo last year, and my shallow, cardboard-cut-out characters made it seem shallow and cardboard-like.

For character development advice and ideas, I went to Go Teen Writers, a seriously awesome writing site that you should check out as soon as you're done reading this post.

One thing I did was label my characters (as a hunter, giver, monster, ect.) , as Jill Williamson suggests in this post, using her list of archetypes in this post. Once I had labels, I started asking the question "why?", like Susie May Warren said in this post. Why is this character a giver? What made her think that way? Why did that occurrence happen? And so on.

This really helped me to begin fleshing out some of my characters and their backstories.  Take, for instance, my character the late Lord Wycliff Copperstone (Gwen's uncle).  Once I found a label for him, (actually, it was three) and started asking why, I got some tidbits for potential backstory.  Here's what I have for him in my character development Word doc:

Uncle Wycliff was a tyrant, bully, manipulator.  [He liked to be in control, had no tolerance for weakness (especially in himself), he played with situations and people to get what he wanted.]  He didn’t tolerate weakness because someone he looked up to did something he considered “weak” and it crushed him. He wanted to be in control because he felt like he didn’t have control of his life, so he controlled everything else (and thus his life, kinda). He manipulated people and situations because it was a way for him to control things, and he felt manipulated, possibly by the person that let him down by showing “weakness”, or, someone he looked up to later was a manipulator, so Wycliff copied him/her.
I don't have a lot yet, but labeling and asking why helped to get ideas flowing.

The latest thing I've done was answer the questions from Susie May Warren in this post:

What was the darkest moment of your childhood that shaped your past?
What kind of a person are you today because of that?
What lie do you believe?
What emotional wound do you carry?
What's your greatest fear?
What are your motivations and values?
What would you die for?
What are you good at?
When the going gets tough, what do you do?
What was the happiest moment of his past?
What's your character's greatest dream?
What truth will set you free?
What was a black moment in your past/childhood? (The black moment has to do with romance. If you're not writing a romance or at least including it in your book, you don't need this question.)

I finished doing this for most of my characters this evening, and the results were so interesting.  For instance,  both Yoreth, one of the villains, and Bevanne, one of Gwen's friends, have a love of reading/learning, but for different reasons.  Yoreth wanted to learn because he used to get teased for being dumb.  Bevanne just loved learning. There were other interesting things, but that's the one I can remember right now.

I finally understand what I've heard about character backstory making all the difference.  It made sense before, but now I get it.

One semi-good, semi-bad thing I discovered is that I'm really good at creating "broken" characters. By broken, I mean psychologically messed up in a big way (like my character who can't get over his brother's death). I almost titled this post, "Help! Get the duct tape! My characters are broken!"  Being good at creating such characters is good because "broken" characters are interesting to write about.  The bad side is I don't necessarily like "broken" characters.  They can get morose really fast (like the guy who can't get over his brother's death), which is really annoying.  This is not post-Donna Doctor Who. Though come to think about it, I can fix my "broken" characters in the story, and that will lead to a happy ending, plus be relatively interesting story content.  That was really obvious, wasn't it? *Shakes her head at herself*

The other thing I did for some character development was take some Jung/Meyers-Briggs personality tests as my main character.  That was interesting, but I liked the above methods better.  If you want to know more about those personality tests and how they relate to character development, read this post on Go Teen Writers. 

How do you develop you characters?  What helps you find your characters hidden depths?


  1. Broken characters are a reflection of reality. [Pretty much everyone you know is 'broken', but highly functioning...or not.] When you're doing backstory, you're outlining why they're broken, but they can still function well within the story to give you the ending you want. Being 'broken' just gives them conflict to overcome to achieve the ending you need.

  2. Hi Lily,

    I just recently started following your blog (fellow Nano here, or soon to be!)-- great post! I find that I get sucked into developing my characters so much that I barely even start writing. Or I don't start writing, period. Maybe if I keep it to some of these guidelines you suggested it will cut out some of the unnecessary fluff. Thanks for sharing some of those tips!


    1. Thanks, Jen! Usually I focus more on plot than characters, with not-so-great results, so I decided I'd work with characters for a while. I'm glad you liked my methods, and I hope they work for you! Good luck with NaNo!