A few weeks ago, I wrote about crafting believable dialogue. But, one of the big hurdles to getting to the point where you can craft that dialogue is building rich, multi-faceted characters.
Lots has been written about this topic and the internet is rife with character-development charts and worksheets. But frankly, I find those boring and I don’t believe that they lead to revolutionary character building either. So, today, I’m going to share with you some details about a character I know really well and how I use what I know about her to build characters.
So, you might be wondering, who is “her”? Well, she’s me. Don’t tell me that I’m the only budding writer who thought about what my life would sound like if it was narrated a la Wonder Years style or that I thought about myself (from time to time) as a character in, as Prince called it, “this thing called life.”
Now you’re probably thinking I’ve lost it, at least just a little. But, I promise you that I haven’t. Just keep reading. 🙂
I’m willing to admit I was an odd child at times, but I like think that leads to being a halfway decent writer. Let’s hope so! Anyway, when I think about who I am as a person and how I would appear as a character, I gain a new perspective and understanding about all the little pieces that come together to make a whole person, real or imagined and I think it makes creating all those little pieces that create a character easier to identify.
For example, my favorite dinosaur is the triceratops, probably because my name is buried right there in the middle. Cera=Sara. Not clever. But true. My favorite animal is the otter, likely because my favorite characters in the Redwall books as a child were always the otters. They were clever, brave, slightly pirate-like, happy and always warm.
So, what have I revealed about myself, at least my childhood self, that could help with developing a character? Well, first off, I hate being cold. I love an animal , in part, simply because it is reputed to always be warm. Also, I love/loved to read. I had a big imagination too. On the surface, these things don’t seem to be important. But, they could lead to interesting dialogue with another character. Let’s dig a little deeper.
When I think of myself, I don’t think about someone who is particularly strong or brave. But, the people around me tell me that I am both of those things. Why do I think this way? In part, I’d say it’s because I spent 6 years of my late teens/early twenties in a controlling relationship. Also, I spent a significant portion of my middle school days being mercilessly teased about every aspect of myself. Today the effects of these seem minimal. It took a long time to get to that place. But sometimes they rear their ugly heads.
Okay, lots is revealed here and apologies for focusing on the sob stories of my life (I promise I’m not all doom and gloom). I clearly lack confidence in some areas of my life. But, I am able to overcome. Would I make a good reluctant heroine? Perhaps. How would a villain use my weaknesses against me? There’s lots of potential plot and dialogue to unpack from the above. Are you getting the idea?
What other things are just truly me? Well, I crave sunshine, summertime and beautiful words. I am an extrovert and I must have people around me. I am someone who cares a lot about what other people think of me. This could be an interesting shortcoming of a character in a literary fiction piece. When I think about the different people who have come in and out of my life, are they allies or villains and why do they become one or the other? This way, I start thinking about ordinary everyday people and the seemingly random tidbits that are their basic building blocks in terms of writing and storytelling.
Okay. Enough about me. How does this all help when developing a character?
So in my current work in progress, NightWind, Rion, the main character, is forced into a job/role that she doesn’t really want. Her dream was to become an artist. While on the path towards that dream, she was recruited (in a way that made her feel she didn’t have a choice in the matter) to an elite military force where, though reluctant, she works up to becoming one of the leaders. Given her background, things that I might consider as I develop her and give her depth might include: her favorite color and why. Maybe this could just come up in conversation, or she sees someone wearing the color and uses that to decide they are trustworthy. There are a number of ways this could come out in the story and be informative and useful. It also gives the reader another opportunity to connect with her. Maybe it ends up being a reader’s favorite color too. Who knows?
As a sculpture artist, she is very focused on her hands, so it makes sense that she becomes an excellent bowman (or woman). Because of her ceramics work, I try to focus on her hands and the way she draws the bow when she shoots. Maybe her experience as an artist lends her a creative and alert eye on the battlefield and she picks up on enemy movement or formation in a way that others don’t
These are just a couple of small examples of how facets of a character can come into play and enrich both your characters and your fiction. Crafting characters who feel real and multi-dimensional is just another way you’re going to give your readers a more interesting story and world.
How do you think about characters and what are some unique ways you tease out their personalities and histories? Please share ideas in the comments if you are so inclined!