A Model for
Knowing Your Character
By 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.