Writing Full Characters

 

I haven’t written here in so long, instead preferring to focus on taking photos and sharing them on Instagram or Facebook. If you aren’t following me on there, you should. It’s a good time, especially at this time of year.

I have been struggling with my writing, as always, and turned towards some old advice that I had read in On Writing by Stephen King: read more. I took that advice and went hard on it by creating a whole new series for my UNspoiled! Podcast series, the UNspoiled! Book Club, hoping that the tie-in to work would cause me to be more consistent with my reading. And you know what? It worked!

I have been flooded with ideas and revelations since starting the book club, and in some ways I have been a little overwhelmed by the realizations I’ve had. I could clearly see that I was heading in the wrong direction with parts of the story, or that there were pretty big questions I hadn’t considered. But one of the biggest things I have gained from this exercise is a deeper understanding of what makes me tick as a writer, and that I need to explore that more deeply.

For me, it’s all about psychology. I am fascinated by people and human behavior and the ways in which people are shaped by their surroundings and upbringing. This is a huge reason why I’ve been discovering that Stephen King speaks to me personally as a writer: nobody I know of has quite mastered the art of the psychological the way he has. As I was reading both The Dark Tower and IT (I’m not done with either yet, so no spoilers!) I was struck by the fact that King is able to jump from one perspective to another, and still make me care about each individual despite my initial annoyance at being wrenched from a POV that I was starting to like. In a few words, he turns characters into complete people. I may not always like them, and in some cases may be disgusted by them, but I am almost never bored.

After realizing this, I decided to go ahead and create a series of questions that I’m going to begin asking myself about every character I write. All the character sheets I’ve found are pretty surface, asking questions like, What’s your character’s favorite band? How do they like to spend their free time? Do they get good grades?

I mean, c’mon. That’s all superficial stuff, the kind of dating-website nonsense that says nothing about who a person really is. Really you could pick the answers to questions like that out of a hat and still have no idea about the character as a human being.

 I think the questions I wrote get to the deeper root of who a person is. I’m sure someone out there has done something like this before, but I wasn’t able to find it so here it is. I think that, if you know who someone is on a fundamental level, figuring out something like their favorite band comes from a richer, more organic place.

Anyway, I decided that I would share this with you all in case someone out there finds it useful.

 

Childhood

Who are their parents? What values were they raised with? Did they accept or reject those values? If rejected, was this out of defiance (personality), or disillusionment (experience)?  If they subscribed to those values, was this out of faith or out of fear?

Self-Awareness

How do they see themselves? How does their family see them? Does their family know them well, or is there not a close relationship? Is their personality met with encouragement or discouragement, and is this supportive or abusive?

How do strangers see them? Is the character aware that people see them this way? Do they like this or do they try to fight it?

Direction and Goals

What are their goals, both long-term and in this immediate moment? Do they not have any long-term goals? If not, why not?  If they do, are those goals their own or have they been forced upon them? If forced, do they realize that or are they in denial and believe them to be their own? How dedicated are they to these goals? Do they honestly believe they can achieve them?

Friendships

How many friends do they have, a few close friends or many casual friends, and why? How close are they to their friends? Do their friends see the relationship with the character the same way that the character does? Are friendships is important to them or are they OK with being alone? Are they honest with themselves about whether they like being alone?

Sex/Romance

What kind of person is the character attracted to? Are they sexually active? Does the character believe in love, and do they prioritize love or sex? What is their relationship to sex: are they open or timid? Proud or ashamed? Do they have any kinks? What turns them on?

Are they an optimist or a pessimist regarding relationships? Do they prefer someone older or younger, domineering or submissive? Are they aware of that preference? Do they have people interested in dating them? Why or why not, and does the character care?

Are they attracted to people that remind them of family, and if so are they conscious of that? How many relationships have they had? What kind of pattern and do their relationships take on, and are they aware of them? In failed relationships, do they blame themselves or the other party? How does their family treat their partners, and what role does that play in whom they choose to date?

I’m sure I will think of loads more questions, and when I do I will update the file. If you’d like a printable sheet of these questions, you can find it here. I didn’t design the sheet to be filled out like a worksheet, more like a list to be kept and used as a jumping-off point from which to fill your notebooks and Scrivener pages with brainstorms about your characters.

I hope someone out there finds this helpful, and I hope to see you again soon!

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