Sunday, September 19, 2010

Selecting Characters

I've written about this topic before, but I am starting a new novel and I need to develop some new characters. As I have previously mentioned, character development has always been the part of my writing where I have to work the hardest.

I haven't come up with the list of characters that I need yet, and I may or may not need to borrow a character from my last novel. I'll know a little more when I develop the plot further.

On previous novels I usually developed a premise, came up with the expected ending, then put in a twist or two. I sort of developed the characters as I went, and therefore my creations may not have been as developed as they should have been. On my next novel, I want to change that. I am going to spend the first month or so, just developing characters. I want to the chance to live with my creations for a while before I write the story. I want them to become my friends, well, except for the really bad guys.

I probably won't do like some writers I have heard of, and create scrapbooks with pictures, pages full of relatives, or physical descriptions that would rival the files of the CIA, but I plan to create at least a couple of pages of information. I haven't given it a lot of thought yet, but I will probably include name, sex, hair color, height, weight, shoe size, and a hundred other useless pieces of information. Whether or not I use many of these details is irrelevant. What they do is help define the character in my mind. They help solidify who the character is, so that when I put them into a situation, I won't have to think how they will react, I will already know.

I know that my characterizations will not remain static throughout the story, in fact I fully expect that they are going to change as the plot changes. Just like my plot, my characters will morph as the story evolves, but that's not a problem, that's all part of the process. As I come up with different parts of the plot that need to fit together, the characters will have to change to match the rest of the story.

In fact, in the best stories, you will find that the characters and the plot are intertwined, they really are inseparable. You cannot develop the characters without the plot, or the plot without the characters. Changes in the plot will necessitate changes in the characters. The change may be slight, but it is a change nonetheless.

Not everyone uses the same process to come up with their characters, we all do things that work the best for us. How about you? How do you come up with characters?


  1. In the back of my mind, I sort of keep three ill-maintained filing cabinet:

    One is full of people I've observed and how I've seen their inner gears work out in their behaviors and expressions.

    Another contains an endless list of personality traits and quirks that I have seen, read, or imagined.

    The third is where I keep a compendium of psychological and philosophical questions I have considered.

    When I'm creating dominant characters for any story, I work backwards through the filing cabinets. I start out with a psychological or philosophical question that a character will engage or represent. Then I throw some personality trait or quirk at the question. Then, as I see what monstrous thing is created in this process I draw on observations of real people to work out the expressions that come from that initial interaction.

  2. Ah, character development...that's always different for me with every book. I almost always let the story and characters stew in my mind for weeks and weeks before I start writing. I rarely make a list of traits because it always feels too flat for me. My characters come to life when I plunk them down into the plot.

  3. That's a good point too, Michelle. When I was a younger writer I used to list out characteristics and traits and all these things, and now I just start with the core character and then let the rest of it work it organically.

    In my case it's a weird of feedback loop because I have my dominant characters and I have a sketched out plot, but since my plots are intertwined with my character development arcs, the two play off one another and stimulate mutual development.

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  5. Nevets, I've mostly found that I simply cannot think too much about these things or (a) I will never write the story, or (b) it will end up way too overworked. Monarch ran into this problem in spots, but I feel like I've ironed them out now - to the best of what I could do on my own.

  6. Running into the same thing with Sublimation because I started with far too carefully structured characters. I'm about to throw the whole thing into the grinder for a rewrite rather than a revision. Keep the core, probably keep a lot of text, but let the characters develop more in the writing rather than the planning.

    From everything I've heard, you were able to work out the characters in Monarch just fine. :)

  7. @Nevets - I like your approach of maintaining interesting characteristics, etc. But I am also worried that as you say, if you start by trying to force a certain type of character into the novel, instead of letting them evolve, they will become flat. I think the opposite is also true, if your plot forces your character to do things, that they normally wouldn't do, you still have a problem. I think they both have to evolve naturally, but I think you need a starting point for both or you'll be wandering around trying to see what works.

    Great comments.


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