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Character Development Workshop: Unlocking Your Characters

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Tue Oct 13, 2009 11:14 pm
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Writersdomain says...

Character Development Workshop: Unlocking Your Characters

Ever had a character who just won't open up? Ever had a character who defied character development because of it? Then this is for you.

Character development makes or breaks a story. You can have the best plot in the world and if your characters are flat and vague, it won’t work. You can have a really weird, bizarre plot and amazing characters, and readers will flock to you. Yes, plot is important. Yes, writing style is important. But character development, in my opinion, is the single most important thing to understand as you write. If your sentences are awkward, someone tells you to fix them. If your writing is bland, someone will give you suggestions to spice it up. If your characters are coming across poorly, what do people say? “Develop your characters more.” And what do you do? You stare at the screen, and, at least, when I am told that, I think, “Oh drat, now I’m in trouble.” Why? Because character development cannot be pinned down to one or two sentences that need to be fixed. It is an ongoing, never-ending process that shapes a story. If halfway through the story someone tells you your main character is poorly developed, you have some serious work to do. So, how do you develop your characters?

First, you have to know your characters. Some of you just got confused. Because what does it mean to ‘ know’ your character? I don’t have a well-written definition for you. It means lots of things to lots of different people. For some people, the characters just appear out of nowhere and assault their minds until they write the characters down. For others, it means compiling the different traits and mannerisms of that character. For yet others, it means taking a live person and committing them to a character. It’s relative. However, no matter how characters come to you, there are a few ways that can help you flesh out those feisy characters that just refuse to open up. So, a few methods:

Character sketches

What is a character sketch?

A character sketch is when a writer has a character or character idea and wants to see what this character looks like in writing. So, they start writing. For some of us, to get to know a character, we just have to start writing. Random scenes, tidbits, pieces of first person narration. Whatever best begins to encompass the essence of the character. Smidgens of dialogue that have come to mind. Whatever helps. This is a good way to start writing without going into a story with a half-formed character, but sometimes it can get distracting. Character sketches help a writer sort the character out and hopefully unlock some secrets and mannerisms in the process. This is a great idea, but characters are selfish.

Yes, characters are selfish. They will talk about themselves endlessly if they want to. If you get them started in first person, some of them will go on for pages and scream and throw temper tantrums if you suddenly stop. Which is why it's good to have limits. Choose significant scenes. Don’t just write whatever the character wants. Grab pieces of dialogue that you think will most provide a window into the character and write away. And while you're writing, whether it's purely a free write or significant scene, ask yourself: what is this scene doing to develop my character? Why is my character reacting this way? What would happen if I changed this part of the scene? How would it change my character’s reaction? What is this scene telling me about my character? And be willing to shut your character up so you can start with the story. Character sketches often work wonders. Just make sure you’re choosing your sketches wisely and keeping an eye on the crazy characters. :wink:

Character skeletons/questionnaires

These are the breeders of details. Many writers are wary of these for good reason. Knowing too many details fosters a tendency to dump loads of unnecessary information on the reader and questionnaires can be very time-consuming. However, for characters who are just budding, these are sometimes very helpful. These questionnaires really challenge the reader to think and interact with their character to get some answers.

When I refer to these, I don’t like to call them character questionnaires. I like to call them character skeletons. Because you are virtually creating a skeleton. A character skeleton, on the surface, is a basic breakdown of your character. But breakdown does not mean it should be simple. It includes the basic information like age and name, but when you are trying to get to know your character, you want to go beyond basic appearance, age, dislikes and likes. It is more helpful to gear the questions in a way that will provide insight into how your character will change, things more directed at the nature of the character instead of the bare facts. In addition to age, name, appearance, who has significantly influenced your character’s life? How do they relate to people? Can you rant a little about their personality? What quirks and mannerisms do they have? What are their weaknesses in your eyes? What are their weaknesses in their eyes? What are their weaknesses in other characters’ eyes? Skeletons are most helpful when they address the author, the character and the surrounding characters. These different perceptions give you a more 3-D image of your character and how these interactions are going to work out.

For starters, here is a basic template that I followed back when I was having issues with some older characters:

Name significance if applicable
Age range
Significant physical markings/oddities
Tell me about their family and the relationship they have with them
If I were to ask the character about his/her family, how would he/ she respond?
Does anyone else know about these family members and relationships? Why?
List the major influence in their childhood, how they were influence, and what character traits may be attributed to such influence
Strengths from my POV?
From character’s POV?
From surrounding characters’ POV?
Weakness from my POV?
From character’s POV?
From surrounding characters’ POV?
What do they fear?
How do they react to fear? Why?
What quirks and mannerisms do they have?
Any significant heritage?
Tell me about the nature and state of their relationships with other specific characters
Rant about personality. Now. As long as you want to.
What misconceptions do other characters form about them?
What judgments does your character tend to pass too quickly?
How do people see your character upon first meeting, generally?
What possible personality changes may occur in the story? Why?
Rant about their past. Write me a life and times summary.

Of course, the questions you ask are going to depend a lot on the character and setting, but those are some questions I found extremely helpful to flesh out some of my characters. These can be time-consuming and they are no excuse to neglect a story, but they can help flesh out relationships and characters before you begin writing or even while you begin writing.

Conflict Charts

My favorite character unlocking tool ever. What is a conflict chart?

It is writing out the general and personal goals of each character and listing all the factors conflicting with that goal. Sounds simple, but it isn't, especially not with complex characters where you are left wondering 'what IS my character's goal?!' Most characters have more than one goal, and if you can identify these goals, you can often predict how your character will react when those goals are threatened more easily. If you can provide explanations for these goals and conflicts, you are well on your way to unlocking your character. :wink: An example.

Liehne Erdelen

Surface Goal: To gain her freedom and keep it.

- the cost of that freedom is higher than she knows. (ordered to kill her own son)
- she does not remember what it is like to be free and thus has no idea what she will do with her freedom. (was imprisoned for 17 years of her life)
- she grows attached to the son of the one enslaving her and does not want to leave any longer.

Internal Goal 1: To make up for her failures in the past through her actions now

- loss of memory (she cannot fully remember her failures)
- timidity and sensitivity to accusations (her dreams are devastated by the words of others.)
- hatred for those who have ruined her past (hatred leads her to new failures)
- the person she is trying to use to make up for her failures is not the person she failed.

Internal Goal 2: To regain her memory

- well, she can't remember.
- the dreams she has about the past make her not want to remember
- as the story progresses, she no longer to wants to revisit the past and only wants to live a good future.

Liehne is a rather simple character, but that is the basic idea. Conflict charts are fun because they develop characters and they help you predict your character’s reactions to certain challenges. It helps you identify how to make your character tick, basically. And as your character changes and his or her goal changes, you can keep track of what is going on, which always helps you when you are dealing with any character, complex or rather simple. Conflict charts may be hard to make at first, but they become extremely helpful when you find yourself plotting the dynamic nature of your character, and they are wickedly helpful at unlocking the motives and internal contradictions within your beloved characters.

Start Writing!

You don't have to start with character sketches, skeletons or conflict charts! Seriously, sometimes the best thing you can do is start writing. Even if the beginning is horrible, you can always go back and edit. That's what first drafts are for, my darlings. Because the truth is that characters thrive when they are being written about. The more you write the more active your characters become. Listen to them. Let them fester for a while. Think about them and dote upon them. Try to gauge some reactions. Spend some time with them, mulling over them. And then, if you think you can, start writing. The more you write, the better you get to know your character. You learn about their voice; you learn about their mannerisms even. Often times, they grow on you. Editing character development is hard when you don’t know the character very well or when they come across a wrong way. It’s not as bad when you know the character and just have to go back and add mannerisms and mess with a few reactions. So don’t be afraid to start writing. Characters come to life most effectively when they are put down on the page. It is much better to start writing, learn about your character while you write and then edit than spend months outlining a character and then start writing with the realization that you really don't know them as much as you thought.

Because, both sadly and wonderfully, characters often have a mind of their own. They slaughter outlines and torment you endlessly until they get what they want. Some control is necessary, but it's okay to let them be free sometimes. It's okay to listen to them. And it's okay if they grow on you and turn out being slightly different than you suspected. It's their story. And when it comes to their own reactions, sometimes they know best. :wink:

So, happy character unlocking! Poke those feisty characters.
~ WD
If you desire a review from WD, post here

"All I know, all I'm saying, is that a story finds a storyteller. Not the other way around." ~Neverwas

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Mon Dec 20, 2010 4:39 pm
Aquareed says...

These are really good! :pirate3:

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Wed Dec 22, 2010 7:28 am
Eniarrol says...

A hero isn’t defined by winning. Loads of heroes die in the effort. Most of them never get any recognition. No, a hero is just somebody who does the right thing when it would be far, far easier to do nothing.

~Previously SweetMoments

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Tue Jan 04, 2011 12:57 am
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Mazey says...

I can't believe that - as long as I've been writing - I've never even heard of conflict charts! I thank thee for introducing them to me.

Thank you so much for this amazing article :D I'm so sending this to all my writing friends! (Well, all of the ones who I'm trying to get on YWS, anyways... hehehe).
"Write what you want to read."

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Tue Jan 04, 2011 4:51 am
TheAlphaBunny says...

Conflict chart: the answer to all my problems. :3

Thank you, and this is great.
Much loves,
"I can have oodles of charm when I want to." --Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

"Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it."
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein