Developing Character

A friend of mine is fond of saying 'character is plot' and the arching his eyebrow meaningfully.

Does he mean plot is meaningless? No, just that almost all plots have been used, but that doesn't matter as long as your characters appeal to the sensibilities of your reader.

Whether it be adventure, romance or crime, there are only so many situations that can take place, but like in real life it doesn't matter if it's happened a hundred times before if your, personal, emotional well-being counts on the outcome.

So you'll have your reader on the edge of their seat if they believe in your character and care about what happens to them.

That's all very well, but show to develop a three dimensional, believable character?

What follows is one way of developing a character with multiple layers and internal personality conflicts. 

It is by no means the only, or necessarily even the best way to build a character - everybody will have their own preferences. For some people, characters naturally spring to life of their own accord, and others base their creations on real life people.

But those of us that only have one personality residing in our heads, and wish to avoid law suits and huffy friends, a guide can be an invaluable starting point to get the process going.

This post is heavily inspired by Brandylin Collins - Getting into Character, and we highly recommend you buy it and read it cover to cover.

Layer One - The One Liner

Start with a  single line description of the character you have in mind, think of it like a blind date introduction (you can even say it out loud in the dulcet tones of 'Our Graham if you like). 

Here are some examples:

·         A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.
·         A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.
·         A naive young prince with a good heart.

Good - so far so shallow, right?

Layer Two: picking apart the overview

Now take each word or cluster of words in the gameshow introduction and ask and answer as many questions about it as you can think of. 

For example:

A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.

Depressed - How does it manifest? Is she actually on medication? How long has this been going on? Does she confide in anyone about it?
Housewife - Does she have children? If so, how many? How big is her house? Where is her house? What does her husband do? Is it a loving marriage? Does she enjoy being a housewife? Is she a good housewife or a bad one?  How long has she been a housewife?
Closest friend is her little terrier - What kind of terrier? How long has she had him? How did she get him? What do they do together? Are they ever apart? 

A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.

Geography Teacher - Is he a good teacher? Did he always want to be a teacher? What age does he teach? What sort of school does he teach at? What sort of methods does he use? What sort of geography doe he teach?
Sweaty armpits - Why does he have sweaty armpits? Is it a medical problem? Does he wear too many layers of clothes (why?)? Do they smell? Does he exercise on the way to school?
Lots of nicknames - What are they? How many kids use them? Do the teachers use them as well? His wife (is he married?)

A naive young prince with a good heart.

Naive - Why is he naive? Is it a lack of education? A lack of experience? Is he deliberately sheltered? Or is he simply a bit slow? Or maybe just optimistic about people?

Young - How old? Does he act young for his age?
Prince - Prince of where? Where is he in line to the throne? Does he have servants doign everything for him? Does he have brother to temper how well he's treated? Is he being lined up for responsibility? Being groomed to be King?
Good heart - How does he show he has a good heart?

Layer Three: Inner Values and Mannerisms

It starts to get a bit trickier here, as you're going to have to make more judgement calls. But bear with it, and you'll get the hang of it. 

Imagine you are a psychologist interviewing your character. You're going to ask them a questions, then stubbornly keep asking then: Why? Why? Why? Until they really can't go any further. At that point you'll have found an inner value or trait of your character. 

Then you can use that inner value to inspire a mannerism to go with it. That way your character's mannerisms will feel genuine and not forced (hopefully).

Let me show you what I mean, we'll start with our depressed housewife.

Why are you depressed?
Oh, I don't know - there's nothing to be happy about?
Oh, I just don't have anything expect Archie.
Because my husband owns everything.
Because he earns the money, he's always earned very well, and made a lot of money.
Well, he's very smart, he worked hard at school and he works hard now.
He loves his work. It's the most important thing in his life.

Now we've discovered something. She thinks her husband cares more about her work then about her. OK, it's not exactly the most original inner value, but then humans often are quite stereotypical.
If you think you've got it, go ahead and have a go.

Once you've found one inner value, start again from the beginning with a different question and see where you end up. 

The next step is to pit your values against each other - hopefully finding some inner conflict!
For example, we may have discovered that as well as feeling she's worthless to her husband, our housewife loves the lifestyle in which his money keeps her, and also that she'd do anything for her terrier.

So we try to come up with a really difficult question for her. For example:
What if your husband told you he'd had enouhg of the dog and it had to go?

Would she finally get some self respect and leave him? Or would the lifestyle win out over both her self -esteem and her beloved pooch? How your character answers these difficult questions will start to really give them depth.

You may feel that our example (and possible your own character) follows too much of a stereotype to a be a truly unique and original character. Well, being original does not necessarily mean avoiding stereotypes with a vengence. 

If you try to a create a character doesn't follow any stereotypes, not only will you find yourself fighting a losing battle, but if you succeed, what you end up with is likely to be a disjointed and jarring character. Stereotypes exist for a reason. The key is not to create a character that is completely original in every way, but to take a stereotype and twist it a bit, add flavour and uniqueness to it until you have something which feels like a real person, with depth.

Layer Four: Enrichening Detail

OK, after that challenge, things are getting a bit more straightforward for a while. Simply answer the a detailed questionnaire from the point of view of your character.

You can find a character questionnaire here.