6 Key Things to Consider When Developing Characters

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I have to admit, I don’t write (or often read) character driven stories. My books are full of action and drama and are primarily plot-driven. But, that doesn’t mean I neglect my characters.

In fact, I'm currently in the pre-planning stage for a couple different books. And one of the most important parts of my pre-writing process is developing my characters. I literally spend hours and hours thinking about them and shaping them BEFORE I type one word.

I find this time of getting to know my characters one of the most delightful aspects of the entire writing process. I relish the idea of playing "god" and breathing life into people. I get to make my characters exactly how I want to. And while it's daunting to have so much power, it's also euphoric.

I thought I'd share a few of the things I consider when I'm developing my characters in the pre-writing stage. By no means is the following list comprehensive. It's simply a breakdown of some key things to think about while playing "god."

1. Make them distinct.

Obviously I consider their physical appearance. I have to visualize every physical detail about my character before they come alive. In addition to hair, eyes, and body type, I consider distinguishing physical traits (usually two or three unique things). Often I find a picture of an actress or actor that serves as the basis of my character.

But I always go much deeper than physical appearance. I pick an action tag (something they do like nail biting or head scratching). I also choose a verbal tag (something they say like "My, my" or "heaven have mercy"). And finally I narrow down a characteristic tag (something like timidity, arrogance, or boldness). I also analyze if they have any quirks or eccentricities.

2. Flesh out their personalities.

Not only do I try to understand their skills, abilities, and talents, but I also attempt to determine their personality type (are they dominant, passive, loyal, outgoing, etc.). I go deeper with these kinds of questions: What makes them angry and how do they handle their anger? What embarrasses them and how do they handle embarrassment? What makes them afraid and how do they handle their fears? What are their prejudices? What is their sense of humor? What's their philosophy of life?

3. Understand their past.

I may not need to know when they had their first scraped knee or lost tooth. But I do try to look for those defining incidents in their past that have shaped them into the characters they are in the present. These are usually the painful, life-shaping events (big or little) that provide the impetus behind their motivations in the story. I usually answer the question: What are the most painful experiences in the character's past to prove why they act the way they do?

4. Define their strengths.

I try to narrow down the qualities that will help my readers care about the characters. Some refer to these as the “heroic” qualities. I brainstorm a list, then try to pull out a top strength. This is the one I show my character doing in my first chapter, to get my readers caring right away. I also pick out a few others that form the backbone of the character.

5. Define their weaknesses.

I carefully decide a main inner struggle or conflict that my character will need to work through. This is sometimes called the internal plot which is separate from but woven together with the external plot (and the relationship plot in a romance). The weakness needs to arise organically in the story out of those past motivations that we know but won’t divulge until later to our readers.

6. Understand their goals.

As chapter one opens, I want my characters' story goals to become clear right away. But that means I have to know what they want first. Their wants often stem out of the past hurts and pains. I ask myself three questions: What's my character's biggest dream? Why do they want that goal (or dream)? And then what's keeping them from that goal?

For me, the KEY is that I don’t start writing the story until my characters are already alive. After spending days, sometimes even weeks getting to know my characters, I finally reach a point when they’re living and breathing in my mind. In some ways, I’ve become that person—I’m playing his or her part with my body, heart, and soul. It’s at that point I know I’m ready to start the actual writing.

Yes, I realize I won’t know everything about my characters, that I’ll understand them even better as the story unfolds. But it’s like a marriage relationship. Before marriage we take time to get to know our partner—all their secrets, their past, their strengths and weaknesses. The growing doesn’t stop when we say “I do.” We change and always give our partners new things to discover about us. The same is true of our fiction characters and perhaps even more so.

When we take the time to stoke the passion with our characters and understand them intimately before committing them to paper, then we have a much greater chance of deepening that once we start the story itself.

What about you? Are there some other things you try to learn about your characters before you start writing?

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