I’ve taught a workshop entitled “Do You Take Your Characters out for Dinner Before Sleeping With Them.” It’s all about understanding who your character is and what motivates them. At the end there is a free offer for a worksheet so make sure you check it out.
Building Your Characters
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why Queen Elizabeth carries a purse everywhere? Or whether Clark Kent wear pyjamas? And how about what’s really behind the smirk from the guy at the car wash?
People do things for a reason.
It may have started out one way and morphed into something altogether different as time passed but there’s still a reason. People, their actions and reasoning are as unique as they are.
Here’s a perfect example.
A young woman, newly married prepares pot roast for dinner. She trims two inches off each end of the roast before putting it in the oven. Her husband asks her why she does that. Her response is that her mother taught her how to cook and that’s the way it’s done. He insisted it didn’t make a difference, so she asked her mom why she trimmed the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply was so the roast would fit into the pan.
Do you see how one character motivated the other but in a skewed way. The thing is that there’s a reason behind it.
As a writer, you’re the one who gets to create the reasons and motivations. How exciting is that?
Let’s consider the characters in your stories or books. Are they unique and how well do you know them and their personal character traits so you can represent them fully in the story?
This is a HUGE question, isn’t it?
There are a lot of questions to ask yourself and your characters, after all you come from the same place.
What are the difference between physical traits and character traits?
When you’re writing or developing a character for a story, you need to give some sense of what the character looks like-these are physical traits. Things we see, hear, feel, smell on the external being.
Such descriptions could be:
hair—colour, length, style, curly, wispy
height—tall, short, six-foot, petite
Size/weight—pudgy, stick thin, obese,
eyes—colour, long lashes, cross-eyed, lazy eye, flat
Skin—colour, complexion, oily, flakey, scarred
comparison to someone famous—resembles, or reminds you of, Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston or perhaps Angelina Jolie.
Sound—Their dentures click, their breathing is laboured, they stutter or lisp, toe nails that click on the floor
Look–Long hair sprouting from the left ear, nails gnawed down, wheelchair bound…
Here you’re limited only by your imagination in what you’re building your fictional character to be.
Use your five senses to intersperse those descriptions into your writing. (I probably wouldn’t do ‘taste’ but there could be some unique characteristics in different genres.)
How are Character Traits Different?
When you develop a character, it’s important to know where they come from and who they really are.
Let’s face it, it’s human nature to wear a mask (and I’m not talking covid here) when we leave the house. We act different with our friends than we do with our co-workers, family, public, strangers, etc.
Character traits are the internal compass of how to act. This all comes from within the being, the character, the person. Those traits develop through experiences, teachings, and even trauma.
I guess you could call it the personality but it’s more than that. The personality is a way of acting in given situations whereas your character is who you are—the core intrinsic morals, ideals, and codes of conduct.
Character traits are useful to know but don’t need to be spelled out on the page. The character traits surface through the decision-making process which comes through actions, words, and deeds.
Here’s a list of 20 unique traits—both positive and negative—but keep in mind there are thousands of character traits that people exhibit, so do your research.
- powerful leader
- good listener
These character traits stem back to some event, trauma, experience, lesson, or intrinsic genetics you can explain in your fictional characters.
Questions to Ask
Where did your character come from?
What external struggles does he face? Is this daily? Every minute? Mental? Physical?
What was his home life like as a child? A teen? An adult?
Who has influence over him? Internal? Imagined? Covert?
Who is he politically? Spiritually?
How does he fit into the world? Is he awkward? Cool? Why?
Does he have goals? Aspirations?
Fetishes? Quirks? Fears?
There are so many things your character can tell you.
You Need to Listen and Watch Carefully
I like to close my eyes and watch them go about their normal everyday business. Where do they go? What do they wear (this is both a physical and character trait as some define themselves through their clothes eg: skinheads, hippies, Army Officer, etc.).
When they enter a grocery store do they go to the produce, meat, or bakery department?
A fictional character comes from a writer’s imagination but it also has to have depth in visceral understanding of feeling within as opposed to an intellectual understanding.
To achieve an intimacy with your characters, speak to them and let them answer. While the writer is the primary creator, the character is the leader and guide—or should be.
Still yourself and allow them their voice in your consciousness. Ask them how the story is going from their perspective. They won’t lie. Take them for a cup of coffee and chat about their role in the story. Does the character require further exploring?
If you’re so inclined, you can carry your characters with you and take them wherever you go. For me and my twisted writer brain I get little choice. My characters bang around in my head and chat to me constantly. It’s very busy in there, for sure, but at night they calm as I calm. They will act out scenes in recent scenes and show me what’s missing or make me aware of a problem.
When you take the time to court and nurture your characters carefully and fully, they’ll lead the way.
Seriously, your characters will thank you and so will your readers.
I do want you to know though that there’s more to the story. More questions to ask. Oh, my aren’t there always?
If you like, I’ll send you a free pdf to assist you in creating your best fictional character.Just subscribe to my blog and sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you a pdf. This offer expires at midnight December 31, 2020.
Wouldn’t be great to have a checklist and worksheet to go through and keep in your file. Well, let me know. If you’re already subscribed to both my blog and newsletter send me an email through the contact page and I’ll send you a worksheet.