Character development doesn't stop when you're writing
A long, but good, read to prepare for NaNoWriMo
By Dragon SoulJess and The Intelligence Division
So, it’s coming up to NaNoWriMo – and although you now know how to motivate yourself, plan and survive, have you got solid characters? It’s always easier to write when you really know the person whose head you’re in – so here’s some advice for you.
Mr [REDACTED] of The Intelligence Division would like to make a quick note on the passing around of voice between writers. Notes headed by the alias of one of the writers are usually more personal analogies or ideas about things that have actually happened, or maybe something that happened when they tried a certain strategy for character development. The greater portion of the blog that follows was written and developed equally by both authors.
Mr Division would also like to point out that he has little interest in ‘NaNoWriMo’, as November is by far his busiest time of year, but he wishes the best of luck to everyone planning to attempt the challenge ahead.
Character Development is a slow process, but potentially one of the most enjoyable aspects of development overall – like all the best bits of development, it doesn’t stop when you’re writing, and like every part of the planning stages, doing it badly will result in stunted descriptions and recurring writers’ block.
Everything must be considered for a truly developed character. How this is considered, however, is completely up to the writer.
One way of developing characters is to create lots of different files on them; Jess typically ends up with an eighteen or so page document for every character in every story she writes.
Naturally, this is a daunting prospect, but consider this: in a collaboration, if everything is written down in one place, you have the perfect reference to pass between authors to get everything completed perfectly – similar to an animator’s model sheet, there is no excuse for slip or unrealistic development within the plot or language.
But writing is not the only way forward.
In vague and enigmatic terms:
‘All creativity is the same creativity, therefore progression in one media will result in development in all others’
-The Intelligence Division
What follows is an (in)complete list of everything needed to build a character. What differs between this list and any other you might find out in the vast reaches of the internet is that it lists other ways to express this, other than writing huge amounts.
This is not to help one avoid writing, so much as to help one expand beyond it.
Different forms of creativity result in different ideas and perspectives – you want as many ideas as you can in your characters, so try everything! You may be awful, you may start and never finish. You may litter you hard drive with all sorts of crap, from necessary concept art to unnecessary pictures of interestingly decorated ornamental tea-cosies. What matters is that you sat down, and whatever you did made you think.
1) Appearance file (sketches, descriptions, etc)
Appearance isn’t everything, and it’s certainly not the first point of call. At first you should sort of assume what a character looks like. When you’re certain they’re someone you want to get to know, you focus on appearance.
While making concept art gives you everything you need about a character’s appearance, coming back to it and looking at it while writing is almost as essential as a mirror when doing a self-portrait, and if you’re wondering whether it’s worth the effort, take it from me it’s just about as useful as one (a mirror, I mean).
It also helps to make and paint clay models of your more significant characters, especially when they aren’t human. Although plastercine works well too, it doesn’t harden like clay, and you will likely want something solid that you can hold and look back at.
I’ve said before how artistic talent is no barrier. You are a writer, therefore you are an artist. You know where the pencil needs to go, don’t argue.
Just to convince you, I’ll insert some early concept art of one of my characters - Seamless the android – right here.
(Don’t use this image)
You want to create a sort of style palette out of colours, clothing, and descriptions.
Similar to how an artist choose useful colours before putting the paint down, you want to choose words relevant to clothing and colours before you put the paint down. And to make it pretty, put loads of relevant colours on there too, which should work out quite cool, unless your character is Albert ‘Grayscale’ McDribble, the loneliest pigsty of atomic blather the universe has ever brought up, or some similar invention, all of whom may or may not be a rip off of the ‘Vogons’ from ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’.
3) Backstory (basic plot, important memories, how it's shaped him/her, past-induced habits, how their past could resurface):
Backstories are great. If you have a good backstory that your readers don’t know, but you keep dropping in references to it, it’s like having a laser-ray pointed at your fans that causes instant fangirling on contact.
But it’s not always what you need.
Possibly an optional step, for characters that this may apply to, you need to know where they were, what happened – epiphanies, motives etc. but apart from that, you don’t need to know – only your character. When considering what to drop in and what not to drop in, you need to know one thing – how traumatic was it for them?
From one to ten – act accordingly based on based on how much or little you think they think would be necessary, if that makes sense.
If they were brought up in a nail studded coffin and fed hydrogen cyanide every morning, they’d only share that their backstory was a ‘cold, lonely and painful affair’, while if they hid out in their grandmother’s basement bringing up guinea pigs, they’d probably be more willing to share .
The character ‘Seamless’ shown above has a long period of lonely wandering between the end of a parallel Victorian era and the late 2100s. Apart from seeing her way through tons of bad stuff and generally outliving the hell out of everybody, I know nothing about that part of her life, nor do I need to - In fact by brother recently offered to write it for me. I already know how much or how little to drop in when I get to the 2100s bit because my brother recently told me more or less what happened during WWs 1 and 2.
4) Character questionnaire/interview
There are loads of these that you can find on the internet, and if you answer some questionnaires or interviews as your character, it can really help you find their voice and get into their head.
Other people’s systems of thinking are often one of the best ways forward. Everyone thinks in a different way, and so getting someone to do some thinking for you in order to ask a few simple prompt questions (questions that provoke longer answers) relevant to any and all characters will usually be a great help in the wider development process.
5) Personality file (and how it changes around different people, e.g. apparent personality might be different for friends and acquaintances, etc)
A relationships mind-map can be really useful, but it gets super-tangly. In Linguistics/English Language terms, consider the Idiolect (individual patterns of speaking) and the various sociolects (variations on the idiolect for various social situations) of a character.
6) Habits and mannerisms.
More English Language/Linguistics again –
Prosodic features (Intonation etc.) and paralinguistic features (gestures etc.) are two things both important to consider, despite the fact that you don’t usually write intonation or body language down. If the person wondering around in your head uses these things when you think about them, they’ll be more realistic when you write about them.
To help with this, try being them for a short time every day.
You may be no actor, but try, in front of the bathroom mirror, or a wall, or lying down in bed, to become your character.
NB: The writers of this blog bear no responsibility for damages caused by fanfiction writers attempting to become ‘The Hulk’.
7) Information file (alternate titles/nicknames, birthday, phobias, there's a long list...)
This is rather self-explanatory.
Consider this – what do your characters think in front of the bathroom mirror while brushing their teeth.
For many science fantasy writers, this may be a completely outrageous prospect, but genuinely, what do they think?
Everyone brushed their teeth in front of a mirror, right? Usually near the end of the day when they’re feeling sleepy and their thoughts from the day just gone are sliding around in their heads, right?
From a sample of say, fourteen days, what are the recurring thoughts that they think at this time. If you’ve plotted already, ignore the plot – just let them think outside the boundaries of whatever it is that you’re writing.
See what happens.
8) Side characters related to them who don't need fuller development
Sometimes, one of your more development-worthy characters might have a distant relative who is mentioned occasionally but doesn’t need anywhere near as much development. But if there are details worth remembering, just create another file or page for them. Family trees can really help here, as can relationship mind-maps.
9) How others perceive them (first impressions, stranger impressions, rival impressions, the writer's impressions, etc)
This is something I originally found on DeviantArt, and it was helpful to help figure out how others might react around my characters. For example, if one of my more dislikeable characters were walking down the street, what might a stranger think upon seeing them? How might this differ from how a close family member might see them? These things will affect how others act around your character, and so will help make them more believable.
This is helpful, but it’s also short.
If you put ever character down on a page, and make mind-map links between them sentences to describe their relationship, you’ve pretty much got this sussed, although sometimes it is worth writing it all down.
10) Reaction sheet
For this, I made up eight different scenarios, and figured out how each character would react to each of them. Some were specific to my fantasy world, such as ‘The character’s travelling party was attacked. What do they do?’, in which situation, some of my bolder characters would throw themselves straight at the attackers, while others would cower behind said bolder fighting types, or perhaps run to the wounded to help them. Other scenarios were simpler. How would a certain character react to a compliment? An insult? If you think about the small things, they can start filling in the bigger picture and help you get a grasp of who your character is as a whole.
At this stage, one may consider taking out their sheets littered with concept art, and adding speech bubbles.
Just small quips, jokes or lines, but the characters scribbled on the pages can really be brought to life as you bridge the all-important gap between drawing and real, thinking characters on the page.
If your characters are just standing there, draw a wall, or a sword, or a bin, or something they wouldn’t understand. Then write how they’re reacting with a speech bubble.
11) Character relationships (how they get along with/think about other characters)
So take my protagonist from last year's NaNoWriMo, Axel, who is so wonderfully hateable that I got too attached to him way too easily:
Perceptions therefore usually involve:
Initial thoughts - he's grumpy, moody, oh-my-gods is that a KNIFE he's unsheathing?!
Would they like to get to know him better? Definitely not.
Would they change? If they were forced to hang around him for ages and he warmed to them, they might realise that, although they were right to be afraid and cautious and generally to dislike him, he is also fiercely loyal to the whole two/three people he doesn't currently look down upon.
12) Setting-related information
What does your character feel about their home? Their school? Their friends’ houses? Where do they feel safe, or the most vulnerable?
When considering settings, one must go places, sit in them, smell them, roll around in them and write notes on them.
If your character lives in a forest, go and sit in a forest. What would make that forest scary? What about funny? What about thrilling?
14) T.I.D. on ‘warming up’:
Funnily enough, writing about a really sad and depressing character is actually great way to warm up for a big character-heavy description scene. It also helps chuck out unwanted emotions when you’re feeling stressed, and to paraphrase Anthony Horowitz:
“Tearing someone apart in writing must be the only method of revenge that actually works.”
Just remember – your characters will bring a unique standing to your story, and knowing them will help you with this. Even metaphors depend on a character, something I discovered from Scott Westerfeld. For example, if a trusting character was approached by somebody who had previously been cruel to them, you might write something like this:
Her lips danced with the smile of dawn, promising sunlight after a night of storm.
Whereas you might have a sceptical, violent character who might view this scenario very differently:
Her honeyed lips twisted into a smirk, trying – and failing – to conceal the lingering hatred. I decided they’d look much better parted in a scream, and wondered if there were any poisonous snakes in the immediate vicinity.
See the difference? You can achieve distinctive voices through getting to know your characters – perhaps even so well that they start speaking to you when you’re trying to do something productive. Or maybe that’s just the lure of procrastination. (Embrace the former, ignore the latter.)
15) Practise Scenes
So you’re writing a novel.
Just because your characters are from that novel doesn’t mean you have to be writing that novel to write about them.
You can just write about them.
It doesn’t have to connect to the novel in any way, although it’s often best if you do.
Try different scenarios. Play through different scenes at different speeds, with different points of view and different arrangements of psychic distance.
Psychic Distance? You say.
Psychic distance is the distance the character’s mind and thoughts are from the reader.
Sudden jumps in psychic distance are to be managed carefully – they can be what ruins a piece of writing if done badly, or they can be what makes a piece of writing stand-out and unique.
Consider the two following examples:
The huddled shape in the snow trudged through the thick of the storm towards the tiny log cabin at the foot of the great mountain.
Through the thick of the storm, I could see the shape of a cabin, nestled in the foothills at the bottom of the great craggy face of the mountain.
The first example is a long way from the reader – they’re looking down from bird’s eye view. The second is in first person – It’s as close as you can get.
Watch it, manage it, and it’ll make your good characters great. Forget it, ignore it, or otherwise dismiss it, and your inner editor will haunt you forever – more that they usually do (yes, more).
So, finally, whether you produce a five-million page document like Jess, or you fill your hard drive, bedroom or personal space with all sorts of junk like The Intelligence Division, remember that character development is an extremely rewarding process that should not be glossed over or taken lightly.
Try everything and anything and if it works, try it again, and if it doesn’t work move on.
To see a blog on world and setting development, with particular interest in longer works, follow the link below.
If you want a link to any character development pages from the internet, tag @DragonSoulJess, and I’ll share the links with you. It’s probably easier than copying out millions of them onto the blog.
Best of luck on ‘NaNoWriMo’,
-The Intelligence Division