Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Building Characters #Writerprobs #amwriting

We've all heard the phrase "Character Driven" the beautiful, brawny cousin to "Plot-Driven". I've had students and writers alike ask me how to write good "character driven" fiction and I tell them the same thing: character interviews--before the story is ever written.

I like to interview people for the jobs I’m going to give them. Even Jesse Sullivan, star of Dying for a Living, was interviewed before I started putting her to work ;) Of course, a real job and a character job is different. When your boss interviews you, they are making sure that YOU are the right fit for the job. However, when I interview a character, I’m getting a sense of their story. I won’t NOT hire them—but I know that depending on who they are, the plot will play out differently because of it. So here are some traits to consider when building your character and getting a sense for how they will act in a certain environment. So "ask" your character's these questions and get to know them before you ever put them to the page:

Age (and how they feel about it)

Gender/Gender Identity (and how they feel about it)

Occupation (and how they feel about it)

Current living conditions (and how they feel about it):

Approach to people  (outgoing, shy, awkward, a kidder, etc.)
Approach to problems—whether you realize it or not, you’ve got style. My style is pushing
              through—I’ll break both arms if I can do the grocery bags in one go. My partner has the
              good sense to take as many trips as necessary. Everyone has a style when dealing with
              *&^$#. And if you’re writing a story, I assume your character will face problems and it’ll be
              helpful to know how they’ll react.
Where did (s)he grow up? Do they consider it home? And how do they feel about it?

Parents/siblings/family (alive, dead, etc. BONUS ROUND: Interview the parents too and see how
              that affected your character’s development
The BIG ones: We’ve all got those life events that changed us. What are your character’s big ones?
The inner lion: What is the one thing (or things) that sets your character on edge and makes them
           defensive, protective, territorial, etc.—basically, what is guaranteed to get a rise out of them?
           For Jesse, if you threaten Ally or Winston, you better be prepared for the consequences!
Coping mechanisms: We all have them. Kory plays Sims, reads, takes long baths, eats chocolate and
           junk food. What does your character do when they need relief? More importantly, what will happen when they don’t get relief when they need it?
Soft spot:      we all have them. I get all sad and mushy about animals. What will your character
                    “stop the car!” for?

Hubris:  We’ve all got that trait that gets us into trouble. I’m a showoff, which means I often put
           myself in physical danger unnecessarily. Harry Potter felt like he had something to prove so
           he was always running the danger, wand waving. What’s your character’s flaw? It will govern
           the action of the story.
Education (including performance and how they feel about it)
Others think of your character as:   and no, this shouldn’t really match up with what your character
                                                       thinks of his/herself—in real life it almost never match—for
                                                       one reason or another.
What does (s)he like to do in their free time? Guilty pleasures?

What do they want? What do they not want? This is super important. Everything we do is to gain or
                           avoid something. It’s called motivation. It can be money, fame, recognition,                
                           revenge, guilt, happiness, peace, resolution—it can be a lot of things. But it is
                           there. And you better know it up front because all of your character’s actions (and
                            your plot!) will be affected by it. So be sure you know what they fear most (what’s
                           the worst thing that could happen to them) and what they desire most (more than
                           anything else).  Later you can worry about how torture your characters with each in
                           turn. But first, you need to know, what is the stick, what is the carrot?


  1. I love the last part. So many people forget motivation. They start writing and say here is my character and have no idea why the character would want to scale Mt. Everest. Without that you are trying to hedge your bets and write both a plot driven and character driven story and it becomes very muddy.

  2. I agree! But motivation is the key to a character driven plot ;) If you realize what everyone wants/don't want and you have characters with opposing goals....BAM! ;)

  3. Very good article. I enjoyed it very much. I have also re-posted it.