On Developing Characters

Photo credit: notfrancois on Flickr
Fun fact: after I’ve finished plotting a potential book from start to finish and I’ve prepared everything I need to to start writing, I know very little about my characters.

I mean, when it comes to my protagonist and love interest(s), I know super basics like name and physical description, but if I’ve fleshed out any personality at all it’s usually only a really vague idea, if anything.

The truth is, I don’t really get to know my characters until I’ve started first drafting—and that also goes for my protagonist. And for me, this where the fun almost-pantsing comes in—because while I know pretty much how the plot is going to lay out, I don’t really know how my characters are going to develop, at least, not in the first draft.

This is also why I don’t call a WIP a WIP until I’ve hit 10,000 words—I have, on more than one occasion, started writing a totally solid idea then put it away because the protagonist’s voice just didn’t sit with me. But that’s something I really can’t predict until I’ve started writing.

There are a few things my protagonists tend to have in common: they’re often snarky because I’m a snarkmonster IRL, they’re often internally conflicted because I love writing internal conflict, and many times they’re outcasts of some sort, because I love writing characters on the fringe of society.

But honestly? That stuff can manifest in limitless ways, and there’s still so much room for drastically different personalities, and ways of speaking and thinking and viewing the world. And I love figuring it out along the way, and I never tire of having a protagonist surprise me with a stray thought, or memory, or off-handed comment, or unexpected action that I never could have predicted from day one.

In later drafts is where I then take those personality seeds and push them further. It’s where I dig into characters and unearth the stuff the first draft hinted at—it’s where I push them harder to be raw and real.

Unlike plotting, I tend to develop my characters really instinctively. From a wisp of an idea upon character conception to a fully-developed, layered character over time.

And that’s how I develop my characters. How do you develop yours?

Twitter-sized bite:

Writer @Ava_Jae shares how she develops characters instinctively. What does character development look like for you? (Click to tweet)


MK said...

The first time I started writing a novel I made all these detailed Word documents for each of my characters, writing down everything I could think about them. I even made each of them take the Myers-Briggs test, hahaha. But then when I started actually writing and certain things would come up, I realized they were going to do something completely different from what I'd originally planned. Pretty soon I was throwing my careful character studies out the window.

I think writing about your characters is the only way to get to know them. Then after a draft or two, you can go ahead and make character study sheets and even make them take the Myers-Briggs test so you know you're being consistent. But I definitely think pantsing is the way to go, as far as characters are concerned!

One interesting thing: have you ever tried writing a sequel? I started a sequel (then abandoned it when I realized my first novel needed work--no one needs a sequel to something that's not fully finished yet!) and thought it would be easier because I already knew these characters, but it came with its own set of challenges, because I had to incorporate the changes they'd gone through in the first book, plus a new setting and the passage of time ... oh, writing, always keeping us on our toes!

Alyssa said...

Ooh, loved reading about how you develop characters. Interestingly, most of my stories start with characters and I normally use them as the foundation. During planning I normally think I know a lot about my characters, with character profiles and brainstorming notes and everything. Then everything goes to hell in the first and all subsequent drafts, and I pick up the pieces with beta readers to turn them back into characters. I also sometimes take a brief detour to think of prequel ideas and AUs and whatnot to play with the characters, I find that really helpful!

VictoriaGrace Howell said...

I tend to get the hang of my characters as the draft also, but I've found the best character building exercise is character chatting. There's just nothing like it.


Ava Jae said...

That pretty funny about the super detailed initial character planning you through out—when I first started writing I kept wanting to try that, and I would do, like, mini ones...and experiment with character sheets and what not, but they were difficult and I tended to never reference them again. So. That said I see how doing it after makes sense (and why some people do a lot of character planning to begin with—everyone's different!).

As far as a sequel, I haven't, and I wrote about why not two years ago. While it's a little outdated (I've written more books and obviously sold RED since then), it still basically applies because I haven't sold any sequels yet. One day, I hope! :)

Ava Jae said...

That's so interesting! I actually often (though not always) start with characters when brainstorming too, but even then I don't plan their personalities much (I know, I'm weird). I think it's interesting that you often end up changing a lot of your original character plan while writing—when I first started writing I sort of tried planning characters and basically the same thing happened, which is why I stopped. lol

Prequel ideas and AUs! That's kinda fun. Very interesting, thanks for sharing, Alyssa!

Ava Jae said...

Interesting! I think I actually agree—it's why I love dialogue writing in my first draft—that's where I really start to understand each characters personality. :)

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