developing characters

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

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Making Our Make-Believe Believable

I’ll admit it. As a child, I saw monsters in the bathroom and heard wild animals outside my bedroom window. I loved watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday mornings and as I laid in bed on Saturday night, I was sure that a goblin or witch was hiding in my closet or under the bed. Some might say I had an overactive imagination. Others might think I still do.

Imagination is the portal that carries us to other places – whether an imaginary realm, a fictional city, or a table at your favorite café. It introduces us to characters – knights, fairies, detectives, and the girl next door.

As writers, we want to tell stories that our readers will want to believe. Just as the laws of nature are constant in the real world, we must set rules and parameters for our fictional world and we must hold true to those rules. Those rules will serve as a sort of litmus test when considering the actions of our characters and the elements of the setting. It is the consistency of the story’s components that makes it work.

Character assessments are critical. Each writer has their own way of learning about the characters in their story. Some may draw character webs. Others may interview the characters. The important thing is to use the information as building blocks during development and as a reminder of the character’s attributes as the story progresses. For example: If I’m writing about a middle-aged woman named Rose who is an activist with the anti-gun lobby and the only witness to a mob hit, I’m probably not going to have her choose to carry a gun. Why? Because I’m not sure that’s believable. Would Rose be comfortable toting a Glock in her handbag? Would she know how to load the weapon? Or how to use it? Maybe not. However, I might give Rose a can of pepper spray. She may choose to wear a pair of good running shoes or hire a body-guard.

We can apply the same reasoning to our imaginary places. If the leaves of a great oak tree are purple then they should stay purple. If an ogre is immune to magic, than no matter how tempting, the ogre should stay immune.

By obeying the rules we’ve set, we enable our story to progress. Ignoring the rules will cause our stories to stray into the unbelievable.