I’m focussing on blog content rather than blog style. I figure style may come later – hopefully. Please be patient…
I prefer character driven stories. I like trying to get inside the head of the characters. I know they need to be set in a place and follow a plot, but it is the interaction of the characters that drives the story along for me. I have only written short stories so far, but it has been the development of the characters that has interested me most.
Here’s my top 5 points for developing characters.
Start with a simple plan. What age will the character be? From what background? Gender? Religion? What country? You don’t need too many items on the list – I don’t worry about physical characteristics or personality or habits at this stage. My driving force is to get a name. Once I have a name for the character, I can start to get inside their head.
But to get a name requires at least some planning. I use various Internet sources to get a name that is popular for that person born in that year. For example, an Englishman born in 1958 is likely to be called Steve.
Yes, many names are coming back into fashion these days, but that seems a recent phenomenon to me, and I always work on the basis that a name that roughly equates to the year of birth adds authenticity and helps the reader form a picture of that person more quickly.
2. Record the facts
I’m not a fan of building up a huge character profile on a checklist, favourite colours, favourite foods, type of personality, quirky appearances or
whatever. I prefer to let that come out naturally as the story progresses. For example, it may be that Sheila is short or tall based on how she has to deal with an umbrella. (Note that Sheila reached number 49 in the US baby name charts in 1965, so statistically Sheila already implies a woman aged about 45-50).
So: Sheila stooped to bring the umbrella in through the door.
I know it’s not a great sentence but you get the idea. It implies that Sheila is fairly tall.
I’m not great at continuity, and later in the story I could have Sheila struggling to reach the top shelf in the cupboard, so I make sure I keep notes.
I use Scrivener for all my writing, and simply keep a sheet for each character. Then, when I make a reference to some feature of that character, I copy and paste that phrase or sentence onto the character sheet, building up the profile as a I go along.
(Note: this idea is courtesy of David Hewson and his REALLY useful book about Scrivener usage: Writing a novel with Scrivener
3. Dialogue catch-phrases
I do try to make each character distinctive through the way they talk but I do find that really hard. Reading accents is hard anyway, so I don’t bother to try and write an accent. I prefer to use ‘catchphrases’.
We all have words or phrases that we use a lot. On my Scrivener character sheet, I make a note of some key phrases – some characters are more prone to repeating themselves than others, and I do find this helps toward getting distinctive voices.
It could be a phrase like: ‘bits and pieces’.
It could be a single word like: ‘Brilliant’.
4. Childhood memories
Everyone has some. I try to write out a childhood history in first person for each character on a separate sheet in my Scrivener project. I pretend I am writing my auto-biography for that character. I don’t actually use all the contents, but I do try to write down the sort of childhood that character had, then it seems to naturally creep in, and helps me build up an understanding of that character.
5. Character arc
That old chestnut about the character arc. Do people really change? Yes, their circumstances do, their whole life may be altered, but does their inherent, built-in character actually alter. I’m not so sure. Did Scrooge really change his ways for ever?
I like the idea that some of the habits and idiosyncrasies of my character actually stay right through to the end, even the bad ones. A little hint that the story didn’t really change anything after all.
What are your top tips and experiences with character development?