Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

A Model for Knowing Your Character

By Leigha Dickens
2005,
Leigha Dickens

Some of the most important elements of any work of fiction are the people who are created to live the story.  The characters are the people who experience the events, to whom readers relate, and through whom the concept of the story can be revealed.  No matter how great a plot or setting you have, if readers don't care what happens to your characters they're not going to want to read your great plot.  So it's important to create believable, charismatic and lovable characters that the reader can identify with and become attached to.

In order to do this, it is essential for you, the author, to know your character.  Know him backwards and forwards, inside and out.  Know his thoughts and dreams; know what he hates; know what makes him tick; know his favorite type of salad dressing if that will help you to develop him. The more you know about your character the more you can pour into your writing and the more the reader will know, and potentially like, about him.

In this article I will talk about a helpful outlining method I use with my novels to get to know my characters well enough to write about them.

First, a word on creating characters.

Basing characters on established stereotypes might not be a good idea.  Why would they be stereotypes unless they had been used so much in a particular role that they become repetitive enough to be considered stereotypical?  Everyone likes to meet unique, interesting people in real life, and readers want to meet unique people in print.  Make your characters unique.

One of the best ways to invent unique characters is, oddly enough, to steal.  Steal the personalities of real people that you know and incorporate them into your story.  Many writers do this (even subconsciously), and, in fact, it's pretty hard not to base your characters off of real people in some ways.  We meet interesting people, and somehow parts of them end up in our writing.  There's nothing wrong with this, and, in fact, basing characters off of real people is a great way to make the characters seem realistic.  We observe the people around us and see which qualities work in which situations, and we use this knowledge to make our characters better.  Realistic people make realistic characters, and we wouldn't be able to write great stories if we didn't have a good understanding of people.  Base one character solely on one person, or take aspects from many different people and put them into one protagonist.  Understand what makes people have emotions, and how different people react in different situations.  You don't have to be a psychologist, but it never hurts to observe.  That's right: writing can be a very interdisciplinary art form.

Once you have you basic characters down, it's time to elaborate.  People are extremely complicated and often very deep beings, and it's important to reflect this depth in your writing.  Some writers are able to simply start writing and develop their plot and characters as they churn out the word count.  Some writers like to plan a little more before they begin.  But even if you're an organic writer, it doesn't hurt to get a clear idea, even if only in your head, of more than just the character's name and basic personality.  Think about her childhood, her background, who her friends and enemies are, her hobbies, dislikes, etc.  You don't necessarily have to know her favorite color or the names of every one of her second cousins unless it's relevant to the story, but sometimes adding little details can make your character richer.  And of course, the more important to the story a character is, the more development is needed. 

I use a chart formula to plan out my characters.  This chart contains 8 or 9 basic, often story-related questions about behavior and personality on the front of a piece of paper, and a hand drawn picture of my character on the back.  The questions I use are personality-based subjects I feel I need to know in order to make my current story work.

Social Interaction describes how the person feels and acts when around other people.  Does he love being the center of attention, or is he shy, or anywhere in between?  Does he lie to people? What kinds of people does he make friends with?  What kinds of personalities bother him?  What do other people think of him?

Miraze Anhufor is socially active.  She is generally well liked, but rubs some people the wrong way.  She enjoys people and, admittedly, likes attention a bit too much.  She has a tendency to stretch the truth to get people to listen to her stories and loves being the center of attention.  She is definitely an extreme drama queen.  She is also very good at encouraging people and helping them get through difficult emotions.  Sometimes she has changing moods that are difficult for others to keep up with.

Against Adversity describes how characters react when things get tough.  This is a pretty important field, since most stories involve things getting tough at some point or other.

Miraze does become afraid, but she also becomes excited.  She's a person who kind of likes dealing with excitement and adventure.  Because of her family, she disciplines herself to be calm and brave.  She likes to be flashy and elaborate with her combat skills sometimes.  Her main flaw, partially because she likes adventure so much, is that she is often rash and jumps to conclusions about things.  She is a very impulsive person.

With Power relates an interesting, and often untested, side of our characters.  I chose to add it to my chart because of an inspiring quote I heard by Abraham Lincoln: "Any man may stand adversity, but if you want to test his character, give him power."  It might be useful to add whether characters make good leaders or are better followers.

Miraze would probably get carried away if she had too much power, because of her rash nature. People might not believe much she said, unfortunately, since her habit of stretching the truth is widely known.  But she does have an excellent understanding of people and could use this to help others.  Despite her love of adventure and being the center of attention, she knows deep down it's not really her place to lead and usually does not offer to take the lead in a group of people.

By Herself describes how a character acts when no one else is around.  This could include hobbies and interests, as well as whether she likes to think out loud or sing in the shower.

By herself Miraze likes to think.  She enjoys her alone time, and works on dream control (while sleeping).  She likes to read and draw, and she likes to learn about other people.

Cares About describes the things that matter most to a character.  A lot of times, these are the things that really make a person who they are.

Miraze cares about proving her place among her people, and about being respected as more than just the often-foolish daughter of the queen.  She cares about helping others and helping the cause her people are fighting for.  She cares about being part of the action, part of the adventure.  She also cares very deeply about her family and friends, and she holds her own set of moral values very highly.

Thinks of Herself.  We all have three personalities: who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to be.  A lot of the way a person acts can be based on how she thinks of herself, or how she wants to be or wants others to think she is.  This can tell us a lot about the level of self-confidence a character has.

Miraze sees herself as brave, strong, beautiful, smart, willful, and, yes, impulsive.  She's not conceited; at times, all of those things can indeed be true about her, if not quite as often as she thinks.  She feels like she is in her mother's shadow and tries to break out of it.  For the most part she sees herself pretty realistically, except that she isn't aware of the extent of her rashness, or that others know and roll their eyes when she tells a story and stretches the truth.

Logical? This category could probably go inside of the against adversity section, but I leave it out for a quick reference, since the ability to be logical, or the debate of logic verses intuition, can also determine the way a person acts.

Strengths and Weaknesses are always important to know about.  What is she good at?  What is she terrible at?  What does she think she's good at but really isn't good at at all?

Miraze has a particular talent for having lucid dreams.  She can be aware that she's dreaming and use this awareness to control her dreams, and really have a grand old time.  She also can control her dreams to an extent where she can see other events and sense other people's emotions.  She's also good at understanding other people, and good at counseling them.  Her weakness is her rashness and tendency to jump into things without thinking them through.

Other is a place to throw things in that don't go anywhere else, or to add things I decide on later.  If you're a forgetful person, this is a good place to make a note about minute details (e.g. you mention in chapter 5 that Sally is a vegetarian and want to make sure you don't write about her eating a hamburger in chapter 20).

The best thing about this system for me is that it does a very thorough job in describing the character, but is also flexible.  Entries don't have to be written in paragraph form, and can be erased or changed as the character evolves on paper.

I also like having a picture on the back because it gives a visual reference to my character and makes him seem more real to me.  Even though I'm not a good artist by any means, having some kind of visual aid is useful.  Sometimes I set my character up and have him watch me while I write out his big scene.

When I have a lot of characters in one novel, sometimes I color code the character files to help me flip through and find the ones I need easier.  Main characters are written on blue paper or have some kind of blue mark on them, important secondary characters are marked in red, minor characters in purple, and bad guys in green.  This way I can flip through and pull out the characters I need instantly.

When it comes to my characters, I find I tend to be a very social person.  I like to interact with them in my mind in order to get to know them better on paper.  Some might say that one of the insanities of a writer is that she creates for herself lots of imaginary friends.  Of course, no model can take the place of the way a character comes alive and grows through the pages of a story, but getting to know her very well outside of the manuscript can offer you, the writer, valuable insights into just how she fits into your scheme.