By Carol Brennan King
Creative Writing: Steps to Character Development
Remember, you need to know your characters as well as you do your best friend. So think about what you know already, and what you must discover, whether you are writing Fiction or Nonfiction/Memoir. Assignments for both classes are the same: keep writing but pay attention to what you have learned this week.
- Introduce him or her early by name. Ethnicity is important. You shouldn’t have a Greek named Bubba Jackson.
You must connect reader and character, so the name should reflect his heritage and hint at his personality.
Give naming the time it needs. Search online for baby names of both sexes, look at ethnicity.
Name must be historically and geographically accurate. No Jaxon and Brandi in Elizabethan, Eng.
Look up international names in World Almanacs. Try pairing the first name of a government leader in that country with the last name of one of their historical figures.
2. Give the your readers a look at him or her.
Layer in what he looks like through dialogue and during the action. Hint at just enough to trigger the theater of the reader’s mind so he forms his own mental image.
The better you know him, the better you tell your story.
- How old is he?
- What is his nationality?
- Does he have scars?
- Piercings? Tattoos?
- Physical flaws?
- What does his voice sound like?
- Does he have an accent?
Readers often have trouble differentiating one character from another, so if you can give him a tag, in the form of a unique gesture or mannerism, that helps set him apart.
3. give him or her a backstory, or everything that’s happened before Chapter 1. Dig deep.
- When, where, and to whom he was born
- Brothers and sisters, their names and ages
- Where he attended high school, college, and graduate school
- Political affiliation
- Spiritual life
- Skills and talents
- Best friend
- Whether he’s single, dating, or married
- Personality type
- Anger triggers
- Joys, pleasures
- And anything else relevant to your story
Think of what you know about your best friend. Do you know all of that about your main characters? Or even much of that?
4. Make sure he or she is human, vulnerable and flawed, as we all are in some way.
A lead character without human qualities is impossible to identify with. You want a character with whom your reader can relate, and to do that, he needs to be vulnerable.
Create events that subtly exhibit strength of character and spirit. If he’s running late, but witnesses an emergency, does he stop and help?
These are called pet-the-dog moments, where an otherwise bigger-than-life personality does something out of character—something that might be considered beneath him.
5. But also give him classic, potentially heroic qualities.
Be sure to also make him heroic or implant within him at least the potential to be heroic.
In the end, after he has learned all the lessons he needs to from his failures to get out of the terrible trouble you plunged him into, he must rise to the occasion and score a great moral victory.
He can have a weakness for chocolates or a fear of snakes, but he must show up and face the music when the time comes.
- A well-developed character should be extraordinary, but relatable. Never allow your protagonist to be the victim. It is certainly okay to allow him to face obstacles and challenges, but never portray him as a wimp or a coward.
Give your character qualities that captivate and compel the reader to continue. For example:
- a character with a humble upbringing (an underdog) rises to the occasion
- a character with a hidden strength or ability subtly reveals it early in the story and later uses it in an unusual or extraordinary way
Make him heroic, and you’ll make him unforgettable. Remember heroic does not always look the same.
Memoir/Nonfiction Writers October 14, 2020
October 14, 2020
Notes on knowing your subject: from Mary Carr’s Memoir checklist: Here’s my version:
- Paint a physical reality that uses all the senses nd exists in the time you’re writing about—a singular, fascinating place peopled with objects and characters we believe in. You should think about what it looks like as your character moves around.
- Tell a story that gives the reader some idea of your circumstances, or world at that time, and exploits your talent. We remember in stories, and for a writer, story is where you start.
- Package information about your present self or backstory so it has emotional conflict or scene.
- Set emotional stakes—why is the writer passionate about or desperate to deal with the past—the hint of an inner enemy?
- Think, figure, wonder, guess. Show yourself weighing what’s true, your fantasies, values, schemes, and failures.
- Change times back and forth—early on, establish the “looking back” voice, and the “being in it” voice.
- Show not so much how you suffer in long passages, but how you survive. Use humor or an interjecting adult voice to help a reader over the dark places.
- Don’t exaggerate. Trust that what you felt deeply is valid.
Here are some reasons you might not tell the truth:
- You only have ‘half the story’: so your memoir lacks information.
- You have not recognized your own emotional ‘blind spots’ – maybe you’re fooling yourself.
- You have internalized an inherited or second-hand story as you own experience.
- You don’t remember a lot of it.
But you can’t rely on these excuses. Do your homework.
- Watch your blind spots—in revision, if not before, search for reversals. Beware of what you avoid and what you cling to.
- (Related to all of the above) Love your characters. Ask yourself why they did what they did? This doesn’t excuse things, but it does help you understand what made the person tick or behave as they did.
Notes adapted from: