Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Building Characters

Do your characters come to you fully formed? Or do you create them from the ground up? No matter which way they arrive at your door, you can use character building tricks to add quirks, foibles and realistic human traits to create depth to your characters which in turn will take your plots to greater heights.
So where do you start? Start with the very basics--goals, motivation and conflict. Seems simple, right? And yet time after time I have seen writers have to rewrite entire chapters because they are wondering about. Their characters have no purpose-no goal in the scene. If they have a goal such as attending the school of their choice then you need to motivate the reason why. It needs to be a strong motivation to vigorously move the story forward and keep the reader from thinking your characters are too stupid to live. Once you have them with a goal-in each scene-and strongly motivated you need to build internal conflicts that drive them to change. Here's an example of an internal conflict: as a small child the protag watched her mother struggle raising babies. She internalized that babies are bad. Therefore she has made the internal decision to never have children. Now-she finds herself either a) pregnant or b) in love with a man who has or loves children or c) must rescue a baby and bring it on her journey. This means that the character has to change her fear or dislike of babies to move forward. GMC is the basic building blocks of creating a character-even an evil villain.
Now- let's flesh your character out a bit. Some people do a family study. What I mean is that they assign the character a place in a family-oldest, middle, youngest or only child and use psychological profiles of these child placements to add depth to characters.
Another method is to do an astrology chart on your character- are they a Pisces? A Leo or a creative Aquarius? How does this help or hurt them? What descriptors can you take from horoscopes to add to your character. Remember people/characters are a million pieces of the world around them.
I sat through a wonderful workshop on Personality theory. The speaker gave us Freudian Hang ups, Archetypes and Trait Perspectives based on what he knew as a psychologist. People in all fields categorize other people-socially and by personality. Do a little research and you can use these categories and descriptors to flesh out your characters to create 3 dimensional beings in your story.
I have mentioned self help books in past blogs. Some of these can help you to create characters that real life readers can identify with. For instance someone overcoming bad relationships, someone overcoming childhood trauma or even weight issues, health issues, disability issues-all can be heroes or villains. I have this great book called Personology--the precision approach to charting your life, career and relationships. It gives who you are and your traits based on your year of birth, your astrological sign, your Chinese zodiac, etc. No- you don't have to believe in these things to write strong characters, but you can use the information offered to add details to your characters.
Think of the Goal, Motivation and Conflict as the skeleton for your character. The flesh and details come from their experiences, zodiac sign, family traits and personality traits. Finally you add in eye color, skin color and hair. Some people will do a search of photos and print them out or cut them out to pin up so that they always have a visual of their character. Think of a photo in the opening of a police file on someone. It's all there--anything and everything you want to know about your character. Now that you know them inside and out you understand how they will act and react in any situation and you set them free inside the world you built last week and see what happens.
What is your favorite method for character building? Have I left anything out? Is there anything you would like to blog about in detail? Let me know. Cheers~


Linda Kage said...

I thought it was very interesting in my Goodreads "We Love Lisa Kleypas" group discussion, a bunch of readers discussed what Myers-Brigges personality types all of Kleypas's heroes were.


So, it really is important to create a fully rounded character in your story. If you're good enough, readers will entertain themselves by dissecting their personalities.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,

Wow- thanks for that info. I have the Myers-Briggs in a file. Perhaps I need to pull it out and add it to the stack.
Do you keep your characters info in a case file folder? Or in your head? I'm thinking I may have to move to case file. LOL Cheers~

India Drummond said...

Interesting comment, Linda. I usually focus on my characters' motivations and have a sheet called 'What Do You Want' where I answer that question about each of my characters in each of the subplots.

India Drummond

Nancy J. Parra said...


That is a fabulous idea. Thanks for sharing. I can see how it helps you give them a taste or thwart their wants in each scene and keep the tensions going.


Marilyn Brant said...

Love that picture, Nancy, and your wonderful post! I use Myers-Briggs, too, and also those Joseph Campbell archetypal characters sometimes (the Hero, the Mentor, the Trickster, the Shadow, etc.). Plus, my favorite character types from books and shows I've loved...

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Thanks for the tips. I haven’t thought of using an astrology chart to help shape a character’s personality, but I like the idea.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Marilyn, oh, that's right, the Hero's Journey character types. Thanks for adding that. :D

Hi Jane, there are so many ways to create realistic characters. Its fun to find new tips and try them out.

The key is to not get over whelmed and remember the GMC is most important.

Thanks for stopping by, my friends, cheers~