character development

Character Information Sheet

This past week, I was invited to speak about character development to a creative writing class at a local community college – specifically focusing on how I develop my characters.

To be honest, I never gave much thought to my process.  It was just something that happened.  But the speaking invitation gave me a reason to think about how it all occurs for me.

When it comes to my characters, I tend to spend a lot of time with them.  They hang out with me while I’m at work.  (I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t always convenient.  It’s not easy trying to focus on my job when my characters keep vying for my attention.)  They ride with me to the grocery store  and walk with me on the beach.  I guess you could say we develop a friendship of sorts.

As I learn about the characters, there’s so much information coming at me – it’s easy to forget the little details.  I’ve tried a variety of methods to keep my facts straight.  Not all of them have been successful.  If you do a google search, you’ll find bookoos of these type of forms.  After looking at several examples, I decided to make one that fit my needs.  If you find that the sheet works for you, please feel free to use it.

character development sheet 1

Villains – Gotta Love ‘Em

televisionI think it began with Saturday morning cartoons – specifically re-runs of Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest.  I absolutely loved watching them – until it was bedtime and my imagination kicked in.  I was certain some evil creature was lurking in my closet or hiding under my bed.

My fascination with shows/movies that scared me continued with Star Wars. I loved the commercials until Darth Vader appeared.  The combination of his mask and the sound of his breathing was enough to send me running down the hall. And yet, there was something about him that intrigued me.

As I grew older, Vader became my favorite character.  Not Anakin, mind you. I mean – What was there to like?  Nothing. Not until the very end – as he struggled to live.

Considering my fascination with villains, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I realized that I loved bringing my “bad guys” to life.

I’m a nice person.  For real.  I may be one of the nicest people I know. 😉 Seriously. I like being nice.  I love sappy commercials and have been known to cry during touchy-feely ones.  BUT – there is something about being inside my villain’s head that is particularly satisfying.  There’s this rush when the scene starts coming together and my bad guy shares his secrets.  At times, I can’t help but shake my head at his devious plans while my fingers put his thoughts onto paper.

That’s the thing with villains. They help propel the story.  They give purpose to the hero’s struggles. They are compelling.

For some great advice and insights on developing your villain, check out the links below:

Kristen Lamb’s blog

Writing Forward

Script Mag

If you have a favorite site/link/book dealing with developing a villain, share it in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by!  Happy writing!

What Makes a Character Real?

dogSo often we read stories that tell us what a character looks like.       Ex:  She had beautiful brown eyes and cascading black hair.   Okay.    Half the world’s population has dark hair and brown eyes.  Today alone, we’ve probably walked by a dozen people with those same attributes and never even noticed.   …beautiful brown eyes, blah, blah, blah...  In short, snooze worthy.  There is nothing in that sentence that makes the reader relate to the character.  Why? Because it takes more than a description to bring a character come to life.

It’s funny – the things you remember…

When I was a little girl, I would watch my mother do the laundry.  She’d sit by the pile of clothes and start folding them and occasionally, if she noticed a small hole in a pair of underwear, she’d morph into the Hulk and rip the garment apart.  It didn’t matter if that particular pair of panties was your favorite.  Holey undies were as good as gone.

Later, I would learn that because my mother’s family was so poor, she was forced to wear two pairs of panties at once – you see, each pair of panties had holes in different places – but together, they did the job of one. When you know the backstory, my mother’s idiosyncrasy (turning into the hulk & shredding undies) doesn’t seem quite so bazaar.  Her ruthless destruction had a purpose – her children would never know what it was to be embarrassed by their undergarments.

As writers, we are remiss if we fail to discover what makes our characters tick.  Just like my mother, a character’s present is directly related to their past.  We should be as familiar with our characters’ backstories as we are with our own.  It’s the backstories that help shape to the characters.

Developing believable characters: 

We’ve all read the same advice:  show don’t tell.  It sounds simple enough but the truth is this:  It is harder work to show than it is to tell – that’s why we sometimes find ourselves taking the easy way out.  He was furious. When –  He stalked out of the room, nearly slamming the door off its hinges – shows his feelings.

Being familiar with a character’s backstory can answer a lot of developmental questions.  Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy, is an example of this.   Her father’s death, her mother’s subsequent depression, the lack of economic security – these are all things that shaped her character.  The events and circumstances help explain Katniss’ actions/reactions.

Just as in real life, characters need to react realistically.  Let’s say I’m writing about a private investigator and maybe he always answers the door with his gun drawn.  If I know his backstory, then I understand that he’s learned to be cautious  because of a failed attempt on his life.  This knowledge might lead me to the fact that he has developed an acidic stomach and eats antacids like candy.  Because he finds stakeouts to be quite boring, he smokes – a lot.   Some of these details may need to be woven into the fabric of the story.  Others may not.   The important thing to remember is this:  These little actions/characteristics add a “real life” feel to our characters.