Posted in character

Character Development

Characters are a mix of different things. Strengths, flaws and quirks can all combine to make a unique and whole character that readers can connect and engage with. Unfortunately for the writer, getting those mixes to work together isn’t easy.

Strengths are easy enough to understand. These are the places your character excels. This isn’t just in skills either, but in personality traits. Your characters will develop their own personality throughout the course of the story. They’ll show loyalty, cleverness, and even bravery.

Characters also show flaws however. Again, these aren’t just skills where they’re weak, but flaws of, well, character. Perhaps they’re gullible, or they lie a little too easily. Their strengths don’t cover all of their personality traits and what strengths don’t cover, their flaws should.

Both flaws and strengths go a pretty long distance when it comes to character development. There are numerous ways to play strengths and flaws off one another to make a character memorable and unique. In my earlier post on flaws I brought up the Mary Sue character. Pretty, popular and lovable. All positive strengths. But to make her flawed and less of a Mary Sue and more into a rounded character, it helps to make give her weak points. She’s pretty because she’s vain. Popular because she’s a social chameleon. Lovable because it’s hard not to love someone who’s pretty and who compliments everyone, even if those compliments mean nothing.

While both strengths and flaws handle personality however, character quirks can help your readers visualize the character and how they should look and act. Quirks are often little habits we don’t think about. These might be bad habits of nail biting, or shuffling our feet. They can also be other habits, like smiling often or carrying a few extra items on them just in case.

When developing quirks, it helps to consider their backstory. Backstory can also help you flesh out their personality traits. Someone who grew up in a neglectful household might tend to act out more to get the attention they’re craving—making them have a tendency to shout, or to dress outrageously. This lends itself to being the frontal leader always up for a bad idea or a good game of chance. It also leads itself to being temperamental and overly critical.

By contrast, someone who grew up in a supportive household might be more of a social butterfly. They might be a little more likely to compliment others, and be suited to hanging back to provide moral support for endeavors. They’re also likely the ones that know how to cut the deepest and might not be above selling their friends out.

Posted in writing, Exercises

Exercise: Defining Unique Characters

Characters are people, and like people, they should have unique qualities to them that help them stand apart from anyone around them. This might be a bad habit, or a particular turn of phrase, but something should help your characters stand out. A quirk or a habit they have.

Building these quirks and habits doesn’t need to be hard. It also makes characterization easier when you have a bank of features to fall back on for each character.

As an exercise: To help you build a bank of features, make a list of characters you want to flesh out more and answer these questions:

  • What’s one bad habit they have?
  • What’s one item they always have on them?
  • What do they call their grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents? Which set of grandparents gets fun names like Grammy and Gramps, and which ones get Grandad and Grandmom?
  • What is their favorite treat?
  • What do they do when they’re nervous? (Think about this one carefully, some people stammer, others fidget, and some people even flush when they’re nervous. Your characters should reflect this.)
  • How do they react to being shouted at suddenly? (Again, think about this, but don’t forget to reflect on their background. Someone who’s been abused will react very differently to someone who’s grown up in a safe, noisy household).
  • What are they likely to collect? Books, stamps, figurines, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
  • What do they usually say to greet someone?
  • What do they say when they’re saying goodbye to a friend?
  • How do they communicate affection without speaking? this
Posted in writing

Balanced Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story.  Whether it’s high fantasty full-on dragons breathing fire and magic spells or crime fiction with despicable crimes and grieving victims, the one thing readers connect with are characters. A realistic, believable character is easier to connect with than one who only exists as an exaggerated stereotype (the exception here being that satire is rife with well-done examples of how this can be effective to send a message).

One way to create a believable character is to make sure they’re balanced. People have both positive and negative traits, and your characters should too.  There’s a few ways to achieve balance in a character.

Flaws. Everyone has flaws–whether this is our tendency to get impatient with others, poor listening skills, or generally being a little too selfish about some things, everyone has flaws. Characters should have at least a few flaws, but avoid throwing them in as an afterthought.

A common example of poorly developed flaws is the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, smart, skilled at the one thing that is vital to the story, popular. By all appearances she’s perfect. And the most common ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy. Clumsy so of course she trips into the love interest. Clumsy so when it’s important for her to be saved by someone else, she drops something, or stumbles. The afterthought becomes less of a flaw and more of a plot device, making it hard to like and relate to her because inevitably the rest of her perfection saves her somehow.

So, how do you avoid making that flaw an afterthought? Look at her positive traits and turn them against her. She’s pretty, but could it be that she’s pretty because she’s vain and works hard on her appearance? If she’s smart, she could also be arrogant or even entitled because she knows these things. Skill also typically isn’t gained by sudden happenstance, and if it does, there’s going to be a resulting emotional trauma. How does she handle having this newfound power? Is she prone to dramatic overreactions, or to trying to deny it exists? What happens when she discovers she can’t use it on command?

Lack Thereof. If your character excels in certain areas–magic, sports, leadership–then make the areas they lack in things that they need. An inability to clearly communicate can hurt your character when they ask for help. Similarly, someone who’s still learning a necessary skill might feel out of place around others who have already mastered that skill, bringing in self-doubt and opening up places for internal conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to skills either. Characters might also be lacking traits like trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence or a host of other things. Those missing traits can make it harder for other characters to get things done around them. After all, passing information to someone who isn’t trustworthy might mean that information gets into the wrong hands. A character lacking confidence can be deterred by having their qualities attacked, not because the attack is true, but because it plays off the thing they’re missing and feeds into that lack.

Give them problems. Everyone has struggles. It might be a problem with body image, it might be a problem with time management, it might be a problem with mental health. Everyone in the world has problems. Some are personal, and some are clear and public. Perhaps your MC has a problem with a cheating girlfriend and as a result is conflicted over whether or not to confront her. Perhaps your supporting character is struggling with health problems that limit the amount they can, in turn playing into a problem with mental health.

By forcing your characters to struggle with something relatively mundane, you make their imperfections clear. Giving them personal struggles also provides more routes for conflict and subplots. Think, what will make them lose their patience? What would finally turn them against their friends? This gives you opportunities to show where their breaking point is on their ‘positive’ trait and as a result, provides a balance to characters who might otherwise seem ‘too much’ of something.

What are some of your favorite ways to balance your characters?

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Letters

As people grow and change, sometimes they wish they could be more like their younger self–be that because they miss the wonder they had in the world, or because they’ve lost their faith in people. Other times we wish we could get word from the future that things turn out all right. A popular way of expressing those wishes is in writing a letter to yourself–either past or future.

As an exercise: do just that. Write a letter to your character. Either to tell them about the things coming up in the future, or to remind them of the good stuff they came from. Perhaps you want to apologize to them for all the things they go through in the course of the story, or explain how you really feel about them.

Alternately, you can have your character complete the exercise. Think about things like if they’d want to write to their younger self, or to their future one. When writing to their younger self, consider the things they struggled to get through. When writing to the future version, what qualities do they admire in themselves currently?

Posted in Exercises

Characterization

There are three fundamental aspects that every single story has, regardless of good, bad, popular or unknown. Without those three pieces, you don’t have a story. They include plot, setting and characters. Those three elements are impossible to escape. Your characters are who the story is about, your plot is what happens during the story and your setting is where the story happens.

While I could delve into why it’s impossible to write a story without all three of those present, today I want to focus on characters. They’re often the main and central focus of the story for your readers. Making characters distinct for one another relies heavily on characterization.

Characterization itself is the distinct features each character has. This goes beyond just physical features and into personality traits and habitual quirks. These are your defining features that help your characters stand out from one another.

Speech is a huge place for characterization to come through. The way people talk often reflects the environment they’re most often surrounded by and were raised in. As an exercise, you can write down a list of common words with multiple synonyms (think car, soda, mother, etc) and determine which ones your characters would use. Would one of them use Mom while another uses Momma, or even Mother? Is it a vehicle or an auto?

Phrasing is important in speech as well. If you have someone who’s learned a second language, how they learned it will impact how they speak it. Someone who learned organically through immersion would have picked up more slang words and may still have some chunks missing from their vocabulary. Someone who learned through traditional schooling may have a more formal structure, but struggle with idioms and expressions.

As an exercise for phrasing, think about any idioms, expressions or sayings that might crop up. Think about how each character might use a variation of that central expression.

Habits are often linked to subconscious things that can tell us a lot about personalities. Someone who chews their nails might be very nervous or they can be bored. Similarly, someone who shuffles their feet a when walking might be less inclined to rush about to do things.

Even in the foods we dislike, some characters will try to mask the taste by mixing that food in, while others prefer to eat it first and get the worst over with. Still other characters will separate it from the other foods and try to avoid more than a few bites of it at all.

As an exercise, consider three subconscious habits your character might have. These are things they probably do without thinking. Does he wipe his feet before coming through a door? Does she do certain chores or tasks in a specific order? Do they have a specific reaction to being reprimanded? Will they only do certain things when they’re tired/hungry/scared?

Self-Expression covers how characters portray themselves. Someone who takes pride in their appearance might be vain, or they could be masking self-esteem problems. Similarly, someone who speaks their mind freely might be confident, or they may feel as if they have to constantly explain their thoughts and actions to avoid being judged.

Because self-expression is so easily varied, it might help for you to consider how your characters express themselves and why they do in a particular way. Examine things like how they dress, how much work they put into keeping their spaces (include housing, vehicles and work areas) tidy, how often they speak up and what sort of hobbies they enjoy outside of their work or job.