Strength of Character: Populating your Story World
I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that people read books for the characters more than they read them for the story. While I obviously don’t think most people are going to be down to read a completely nonsensical plot just to follow some interesting characters, I definitely know I have bailed on some pretty compelling plots because I couldn’t connect with the people on the page. Moral of the story… characters are important, so let’s make sure we’re building some quality fake people to spend all our time with, shall we?
Why go through the process of building characters before a draft? Why not just let them appear on the page and figure it out as we go? That’s a totally valid method of writing, a lot of people do it that way and they do it well… but when I try to do it that way I end up with a lot of shitty, inconsistent characters who all sound almost exactly the same. So if you’re a plotter like me, here are the benefits of taking the time to get to know your characters up front:
Voice: This is the big one, so it goes first. Every character should have their own unique voice. Unless you’re some kind of wizard, that doesn’t happen by accident.
Consistency: As a reader nothing pisses me off more than when a character does or says something I know they would never do or say. (cough cough, looking at you, Game of Thrones S8). If you’re too focused on plot it’s easy to fall into the trap of a character doing something because they “have to” to move the story forward, but if you truly understand your characters and how they behave you can avoid even writing them into a corner like that in the first place.
Realism: The only thing worse than an inconsistent character is a cardboard one. A one-dimensional character with no life or purpose outside of the lines delivered on the page. Sure, there will be a few background characters who fall into that category, but none of your main cast should. By taking the time to build the character before drafting it’s easier to make a reader believe they had a life before the story, and they’ll have one after (if they survive, that is).
So sure, we see the benefits of taking the time to really flesh out our characters, but how do we do it? I have a two step process that I have cobbled together over the years, lifting bits and pieces from other blogs and books on writing craft until I found a process that really worked for me. Hopefully you can find some bits and pieces here to steal for yourself!
STEP ONE: THE CHARACTER OUTLINE
This step looks a lot like my Worldbuilding outline, but instead of asking questions about geography and economy, I ask questions about my characters. Below are the essential bits of information I always make sure I have before I move on to Step Two:
Basic Biographical: The “driver’s license” info for the character, basically. Name, age, gender, etc.
History: Where does this character come from? What was their journey before page one? Usually I’ll include an anecdote or two from childhood, or a few important details of their family. We need to know the character existed before our story, so give them a past - even if that backstory never makes it into the book.
Need/Want: What does your character want? And what do they need? 99 times out of 100 these will be different. ‘Want’ is usually the motivation for a surface-level goal, where a ‘need’ will satisfy a deeper, soul-level scar. This scar is important information for you to know - it’s going to be the key to their entire character arc… so make sure you know what that is.
Powers/Skills: I’m a fantasy writer, so some of my characters can do magic and shit. That info goes here. But you know what else goes here? If a character is particularly skilled at calming people down, if a character is a great sailor or marksman or whatever else. This section always helps me build my plot because inevitably my cast of characters gets into trouble, and most of the time this section tells me how to get them out of it.
Personality: Are they brash? Meek? A people-pleaser? I’ll hash this piece out way more in Step Two, but it helps to at least have an idea of roughly what this character is like before that stage.
Idiosyncrasies: One of my favorite parts of Step One. Give your character a quirk or an unexpected trait. You know what’s more well-rounded than a cold-blooded assassin? A cold-blooded assassin who always carries an extra pair of socks. Give your antagonist a beloved pet ferret. Give your otherwise dauntless hero(ine) a fear of public speaking. A few conflicting character traits always help me avoid turning my characters into cardboard cut-outs of [INSERT ARCHETYPE HERE]... you get the idea.
Inspiration Images: This one can be a bit of a bitch for characters. There are only so many stock photo models in the world, after all. It gets even more complicated when you have nonhuman characters, as I have discovered with my latest project. If you can draw I highly recommend drawing your own images. If you, like me, struggle to draw even a stick figure, just find the best you can. Pinterest is where I’ve had some of the best luck, personally.
STEP TWO: CHARACTER INTERVIEWS.
After all that brainstorming we know a little bit about our characters, now it’s time to talk to them. For me, character interviews are one of the longest stages in the process of prepping for a first draft. Usually the interviews will be around ten pages per character, and I like to conduct one for every main character, and one for my antagonist. My goal is always to be on my antagonist’s side by the time I’m done interviewing them. I haven’t failed that goal yet!
I’ll include links to some of the questions I’ve used before at the end of this post, but the questions you ask aren’t nearly as important as the way you answer them. This is the critical part to remember - it’s an interview, not a fact sheet. You are not just trying to learn information about your character… you are trying to see how they would reveal that information.
For example, my first question is almost always “What is your full name?” Boring, right? Didn’t we just put that on our fact sheet in Step One? Nope! Because I don’t just fill in the character’s name - I answer the question in their voice. Some of them answer outright, usually with some kind of explanation (“My name is ____. I know, I know, but don’t judge me, I didn’t pick it. It’s a family name!”) Some of them refuse to answer, or give a false answer (Think April Ludgate from Parks and Rec “I’m April Blart, Mall Cop.”)
Sometimes I find out new things about my characters in the interview process, sure, but that isn’t the point of this step. The whole point here is to nail the voice. It’s so much easier to draft dialogue for a character for the first time after I’ve already spent like a dozen pages with them in interview form.
And that’s it! I make sure to save both the fact sheet and interview for each character in my story bible document to reference later on. Sometimes if I’m returning to a draft for the first time in a while I’ll re-read my character interviews to tune back into my characters for that project, and of course I always need to reference the information in my fact sheet to make sure I don’t have a character with brown eyes in chapter two who suddenly has green eyes in chapter eleven or something.
Below I have a few links to some other blogs that have posted character interviews I’ve used before. If you just Google search “character interview” you’ll find dozens more, if these questions aren’t to your liking. Next entry here I’ll be talking about my outline process. Until then, keep typing away, my friends!!