Once upon a time, there was only one way I developed characters. I started with an aspect of my own personality – thereby starting from a base of something I could understand through my own personal experience.
Of course, those characters didn’t remain these one-dimensional people for long. I began to build, adding traits and mannerisms and experiences completely removed from my own. In no time those characters would be completely unrecognisable from me except for that one, often deeply hidden, aspect that we shared.
How do I resemble a Chinese scientist involved in an espionage scandal? Well, it’s on a much smaller scale, but the pressure of being involved in an industry where a confidentiality clause is part of your contract is something I’m familiar with. The pressure of having a boss come down on you for something you barely had anything to do with is something I’m familiar with.
So, essentially, a lot of my early writing – when boiled down to its most basic interpretation – was roughly on a par with a three-year-old screaming to anyone who would listen, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
That didn’t necessarily make the writing bad but it did make the cast of characters limited. They were all unavoidably similar, even if only in small ways.
Eventually I started taking character development more seriously. In order to write stories with depth, I needed complex and varied characters. And in order to form complex characters, their actions and reactions needed to be informed and influenced by things that weren’t always on a conscious level. Otherwise their motivations would be visible to everybody, both other characters and readers, and it would make for a very boring and obvious story, one in which the audience could easily predict what was coming next.
Except… then I realised that having too deep an understanding of characters might result in all of them being hyper aware of themselves. Nobody is that mentally healthy, especially not at the beginning of a torturous, conflicting, emotionally draining story of fiction. Maybe at the end, but definitely not beforehand.
So then I started setting out basic information from the beginning, things like their age, their occupation, their names, etc. But I didn’t want to know those people inside out. I wanted to get to know them over the course of time, just like the reader would.
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Freidan talked about “the problem without a name” to describe the lack of satisfaction women were experiencing from their supposedly perfect lives in the middle of the twentieth century. That’s what I wanted all my characters to have. A problem I couldn’t name. Because if I could name it, then I could probably solve it and my characters are more interesting if their problems are unsolvable or at least are only solvable as a result of the unfolding of the story they are part of.
So how did I develop an understanding (a limited one but an understanding nonetheless) of my characters? I suppose it was in the same way I developed an understanding of the people in my real life. I spent time with them. I thought about them. I created hypothetical situations and considered how they might react. Sometimes they surprised me with their reactions.
In a concept I developed in 2001, I set up a love triangle between two men and a woman. It took me nearly three years to figure out who she would end up with (the first man, the second man, neither of them) and why. It took the character that long to figure it out.
Developing an understanding of characters and their motivations is an ongoing process. It’s like learning a new language. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. There are rules to be learned. Then you often have to break those rules. The process is as complex as the characters themselves. And it’s definitely not something that can be achieved by answering a roster of simplistic questions. It’s not something that can be achieved by using one method and sticking to it stubbornly.
So here are a few methods I’ve used over the years with varying levels of success. Maybe you’ll find one particularly useful. Maybe some. Maybe all. Maybe none.
The naming process is the most important for me, because I tend to use names that have a deeper meaning. Not just the meaning of the name itself, but people throughout history who have also had the name and have attached a certain significance to it.
I named one character Dahlia after the infamous Black Dahlia murder case in Los Angeles during the fifties. A woman named Elizabeth, but who called herself Dahlia, was murdered horribly and mutilated. Over one hundred people confessed to the murder, but none of them actually did it. The murder remains unsolved to this day. The character I was planning was a loner, quite difficult to get to know, an observer rather than someone who actively participated, very much a mystery to most of the people around her. I thought the name suited her well because of the connotations associated with the name due to the murder.
On the other hand, I named another character Prudence specifically because it had no meaning to the character herself. She had changed her name and gone into hiding after surviving a terrible crime and the name was chosen for her by her police liaison. Part of the story then became how much she felt disconnected from her name, almost as much as she felt disconnected from the world around her as a result of what had happened.
Anyway, get yourself some baby name books and flick through a few pages. It’s one of the most fun parts of character development.
Physical description plays very little role in my character development, unless it specifically relates to the story. My characters are almost always faceless, like people in dreams. I know who they are because of their unique presence but I can’t put a face on them.
But I know readers like at least a small idea of what characters look like, so that’s exactly what I give them. Small details like eye colour, hair colour, identifying marks such as scars or tattoos. And I don’t just list them in a single paragraph. I dole them out sparingly as the character complains, “I’ve got something in my eye.” Or as they run a hand through their hair.
I think it’s a good idea not to get overly attached to the idea of what a character looks like. I always think of Anne Rice and her aversion to casting Tom Cruise as the lead in Interview With A Vampire. I think we can all accept that Tom Cruise is a respected (or at the very least bankable) actor and that he did an okay job in the role. But she was steadfast in her resolve against him, causing herself considerable stress and not having the least bit of impact.
Fans of the Twilight books also drove themselves nuts insisting that Kristen Stewart didn’t look anything like Bella as she was described in the stories. But so what?
As the author, use this as a character development tool, by all means, but be prepared to let it go as soon as the first person reads your work. Because the character you envision in your head will always be different to the character they envision in their head. And different for the next person and the next person and the next person…
Histories and Profiles
When I was developing a concept for a television show, I prepared detailed character profiles of all my main characters and some peripheral characters (depending on how important they were to the story). These character profiles contained the following:
*Historical figures with the same name
*Major themes and events throughout the story
*Meaning of name
*Other people’s perceptions of the character
This was especially useful with such a large cast of characters and having it all written down meant I could easily reference it. I don’t do this for stories with only one main character, mostly because I can retain it in my head without confusing one character with another. I also don’t do it for one-off stories but the television concept had five seasons’ worth of stories, twenty-four episodes each season, so it wasn’t just one story, it was a lot of stories over a long period.
However, where these sorts of profiles can be really useful is in not only determining who and what your characters are but also who and what they aren’t.
I personally have only used role-playing as a tool to develop relationships between characters, rather than the characters themselves. And I play both characters. But I find it handy in that capacity.
More than a decade ago in a novel class, the teacher devised an exercise in which a member of the class took on the persona of their main character and answered questions from the other class members. I thought I knew my character inside and out, so I felt fairly confident answering the questions. One question was, “If you fell pregnant, would you abort or would you keep the baby?” It was easy. The character would keep the baby.
But I failed to mention that the reason for this was that she knew she couldn’t have children. She was infertile. As a writer, it’s the sort of thing that is easy to forget. But for the character herself, it is something that would always be at the forefront of her mind whenever the issue of having children arose.
Social Media Profiles
Although I’ve never done this myself, I’ve heard of writers developing online friendships and relationships with real people in the role of their character to completely immerse themselves in the experience of being that character.
But I find it hard enough to be myself consistently online, let alone having to remember that while I might do or say something, my character would never do or the say the same. I’ve also heard of the real people unknowingly involved in these friendships and relationships getting very upset when they find out they’ve been conversing with pretend people.
I try to give all my characters something they hide from other people, just like in real life. It may never come out in the story, but it’s there, influencing the choices the characters make.
Once you’ve gone through the process, here’s a few more suggestions:
*Write it all down: there’s no point doing all this character development work if it ends up being forgotten. So write it all down. Besides nothing bothers me more than deciding a character won’t do something and then finding that I’ve written them doing it.
*Don’t get too attached: there are multiple possible psychoanalytical interpretations of the motivations of a character. How often do we see a writer saying, “Well, I didn’t really think about it like that but boy that makes me sound like a really good, thoughtful writer. Let’s go with that interpretation.” It’s usually not as self-deprecating as that, but you get the idea. Even if a writer has no psychoanalytical understanding of their character, their readers will probably imbue them with their own understanding. Whether they are right or not, well, who cares? It means people are talking about literature.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing