This week: Get to know your CharactersEdited by: Lonewolf
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Hello my name is Lonewolf and I'm your Short stories editor this week.
Character development is the key element all writer's share. A non fictional writer has to make sure they understand the character in which they are writing about, they have to know that person's likes, dislikes, background history, friends, enemies, family tree, etc. And a fictional writer needs to know all these things to make their characters believable. All characters start from one place - an idea. When you create characters, no matter what you use them for, you should know as much about them as you can. Instead of thinking of them as simply ideas that you control or manipulate, try thinking of them as actual living, breathing beings. You'll find that they are much more fun to work with this way, as well as create more believable characters.
Character development is such a important factor in a well written story. How do you create a unique yet believable character? Find Inspiration. The best way to combat cliché characters is to choose a real life person to model your character after. However, be careful of this. Unless you are writing non-fiction you want to take a few characteristics from your muse. Maybe they have a quirk that you find enduring. You don't want to make a carbon copy of your character unless you are working in non-fiction and it's their autobiography, or a fan fiction and you are paying homage to the original character.
It's crucial to know your main characters like you would a sibling or close friend. But don't look at the outline and just fill out whatever you think is good. Really think about it. Even the smallest things make a big difference.
There are three important tools that I use to understand my characters: Intuition, Questions, and Idiosyncrasies.
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It's not something you can teach. But it can be helped along. You hear a lot of writers talking about how their characters speak to them; what they're actually describing is their own intuition presented to them as a voice in their head.
There's really only one way to develop your intuition about your characters: spend a lot of time with each one-that's how you get to know your friends right? Picture them in your mind. What are they wearing? How do they talk? Are they confident? Do they talk more than listen? What would it take to get a rise out of them? There's no set way to spend time with them, you just have to focus on them until they are familiar. When they start to feel like a friend, when you look forward to thinking about them and seeing what new details have arisen, you're where you need to be.
Once you've done this with your main characters, imagine how two of them would interact with each other. Then throw in a third. Who dominates the conversation? Do they get along? Is anyone attracted to anyone else? Why or why not? This process is not brief. It usually takes me about three weeks to do, so I tend to start befriending new characters at the end of a completed project.
Once you're familiar with your characters, it's time to ask them questions. Ask questions that specifically relate to your story or to the characters as you've already started to develop them. If you're writing a love story, focus on romantic issues. Don't worry about their childhood unless it relates to the subject at hand (for instance, if your male lead was abandoned by his mother as a child, that will surely effect his views of women and acceptance). Ask the big questions. Leave the small details for the first draft (this will keep that first draft energetic, with small improvisations you create along the way). And ask the characters themselves the questions. Don't say; What would Carmen do if her mom caught her stealing? Ask Carmen, and let her answer you in her own words. That'll do double the work for you.
There are five questions I ask each character in my stories: 1.) What do you want out of life? 2.) What do you want during the course of this story? 3.) What's your biggest regret? 4.) What's your biggest fear? 5.) If you had to choose one event in your life that most shaped who you are now, what would it be? I ask plenty of other questions, but those five are a must.
I find that most people in real life can be boiled down to a few main goals. For your characters, limit it to one. Make everything that character says and does somehow relate to that one goal. For example: Your character's goal is to be a real man (whatever that may mean to him). Great, now you know that when he is talking to other men, he wants to come off as competent and maybe macho. With women, he wants to seem chivalrous and responsible. That will color every single word that comes out of his mouth.
The most well-rounded characters are usually dominated by a singular trait. If you're lucky, your characters will stray from the things you think they would do in a given situation (as long as it's with good reason; remember, real people can often be a sea of inconsistencies, but your characters have to be vastly more consistent or people won't buy them).
And if your audience feels they know who your character is, then and only then can you truly surprise them with your character's uncharacteristic decision.
The last and most important tool for knowing your characters is something I call the explainable idiosyncrasy. This is a great shortcut to understanding the core of any character. We all have strange things that we do, weird eccentricities, pet peeves that make us unreasonably angry. But, to us, they make total sense. And they don't make sense to anyone else unless they really know us.
In the novel that I'm writing now, one of my main characters, Drystan, always wears some variation of the same outfit; Solid dark colored combat shirt, pants, and boots. He wears a silver necklace around his neck, and carries a quarter in his left pocket(always his left). Weird and random? Only if you don't know Drystan. And I know him well, so it makes perfect sense to me. (Unfortunately, I can't give away the reason because it would spoil the ending to my novel.) More importantly, when the reader knows Drystan, it'll make perfect sense to them as well. The overall effect is that the reader now feels connected to Drystan. The reader 'gets' him. If you want people to enjoy your writing, they are going to have to 'get' your main characters (at least).
Practice makes perfect
You can't get to know a character unless you hang out with them. The best way to do this is to write and place your characters in situations they may never actually find themselves in. If you have more than one character, write with them together or in pairs and see how they interact. You can even take things from your daily life and think, "How would Symantha act right now? What would she do?" The better you know and understand him/her, the easier it will get.
Soon you will be able to write anything and know how they would do. Even better, soon they will start doing things on their own and surprise you! Often, writers will tell you that their story tends to go in different directions because the characters end up telling the story, and you are the one trying to keep up! You know you have a good character when you can talk about them just like they were real.
Here is an awesome outline I use when I know enough about my character, complete with descriptions to help you know what you're looking for. Think you know your character? If so, then you should be able to fill out the character outline below. If you find yourself drawing blanks on certain areas, then s/he needs some more work.If you find yourself unable to fill something out, don't worry. That blank spot just gives you an idea of what to look for while getting to know your character.
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Character Name: The only thing that goes on this line is the Character's name that you use in the story.
Full Name: This is the characters real/full name. First name(s), middle, last. Some people have multiple first/middle/last names.
Nick Names: Whatever the character has for a nickname. This doesn't have to be used unless your character has one.
Gender: Pretty basic. Is your character a female, male, transsexual, hermaphrodites?
Age: How old is your character? Is s/he ten years old? Fifty? Six hundred and ninety-seven?
Birthday/year: When was your character born? April 15, 1300 AD? August 22, 2025 AD
Marital Status: Is your character single or married? Are they attached to anyone in particular or are they are a player? (This goes in comparison to Spouse).
Spouse: Who is your character's lover/mate? Are they gay/lesbian? How does the relationship fare? (This goes in comparison to Marital Status).
Hair: What's his/her hair like? Is it short and brown with blonde highlights? Long and raven black? Blonde in pigtails?
Eyes: Describe his/her eyes. Are they silver and shiny? Are they baby blue like a cloudless summer sky? Are they demonic red like a rose? Do they glimmer? Do they change color depending on his/her current mood?
Origin: Where was this character born and raised?
Language: What language does your character speak? Perhaps he was born in Russia but learned only German? Maybe she is a vampire from the 1800s and knows only British English as opposed to American English? Does s/he speak a made-up language? (If you're making up the language, be sure to provide yourself with an alphabet of some sort to be sure your character is accurate and there are no faults to the word meanings. Although, as in Thai, some languages have words that may mean more than one thing depending on how the voice is used. Be sure to explain to the reader what your character is saying. Have it in parenthesis directly after your character has spoken the words or have another character ask to translate. Also, keep in mind, any time you are using another language, the word(s) must be italicized and if you are already typing in italicized letters, they will be non-italicized.
Blood Type: What blood type does your character have? Is it human sort like O Positive or B Negative? Perhaps it is a space alien kind? Is it green or yellow or is it red like a human but is taken from a space alien?
Height: How tall is your character? Is he as huge as a giant and the rest of his people are small enough to be ants to him? Perhaps she's small in size but her great heart makes her huge? Maybe your character can be tiny but with supernatural abilities, can grow into great sizes.
Weight/Body Structure/Physical Faults: How much does s/he weigh? What is his/her body like? What physical faults does s/he have? Does s/he weigh 160lbs with an athletic form but a bad case of acne? Is s/he a warrior who weighs 225lbs but is entirely covered in muscle and has scars all over his/her body? Is s/he aged with wrinkles, heavy set, appearing to look about 215lbs, and has a withered arm or deformed face? If there are scars, how did s/he receive them? Does your character looks every inch human but has wings and horns like that of a demon?
Race/Species: Give your character some depth beside the basics. Could your character be something more than just an ordinary human, perhaps like a deity in a human body--remember Hercules? Maybe your character is a new species that you made up just for this tale--explain it. Perhaps it's nothing new and just another human race, like a Pacific Islander, a Native American (Indian), or a Spaniard? Maybe your character is an African from South Africa but sounds like s/he is from Australia?
Parents/Elders/Guardians: Who raised your character? Is the mother or father deceased? Was your character an orphan? Does your character know his/her parents?
Siblings: Is your character an only child? If no, who are/is his/her brother(s) or sister(s)?
Friends/Allies: Who are your character's friends or is your character a recluse? Does your character have allies, perhaps a fellow street gang or another territory/country?
Enemies: Everyone has at least one enemy--who is your character's enemy? Is it a rival country that wishes war for religious beliefs? Is it another street gang that's jealous because your character's gang has more power or money? Is it a girl/boy who is jealous of your character for being too popular in school?
Beliefs/Religion: What does your character believe in? Is s/he Agnostic, Satanic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish? Does your character pray ritualistically or worship a Pagan God or several Indian Gods? What are the God's names and what do they have powers over?
Career/Past Careers: Is your character a pizza delivery boy and get paid $6.50 an hour? Is s/he a tavern wench in the Medieval Era? Is s/he an outlaw in a western timeline? Did s/he used to be a chamber maid/servant/cook in a Medieval Castle and marry off to become a mother/father of a large family?
Dreams/Life Goals: What dreams does your character have? What life goals does s/he wish to achieve sometime in his/her life? Does s/he want to become a computer professor at a Pennsylvania University but right now is struggling with a measly retail job and going to school? Does s/he want to become a Knight but is currently a Squire? Perhaps s/he has a dream to be able to walk but is currently crippled and lives in an era where there is no cure for a withered leg or dead nerves.
Hobbies: What does s/he do in his/her spare time? Perhaps s/he enjoys listening to the Boston Symphony playing live in concert? Does s/he enjoy reading mystery novels or writing romance stories? Maybe s/he likes to be around animals and enjoys the comfort of a feline or the dependency of a beast.
Likes: What does your character like? Perhaps s/he enjoys a bouquet of roses? Perhaps s/he likes rain showers. Maybe s/he feels more comfortable in a dark environment?
Loves: What does your character love to do? Does s/he love to paint? Does s/he love a certain pet? Perhaps s/he loves receiving boxes of chocolate from a loved one? How about two warriors dueling-- does your character love to watch or play spare within one?
Dislikes: Your character dislikes something--what is it? Maybe s/he is jealous because a fellow class mate is too smart or popular? Perhaps s/he just can't stand sunshine? Maybe s/he dislikes the color pink because it looks too feminine or blue because it's too masculine.
Loathes: What does your character hate the most of all? Perhaps an enemy ruler who is perfect and his people love him--your character hates him because s/he is jealous that the enemy ruler has everything? Maybe your character loathes his/her mother for abandoning him/her in his/her youth?
Fears: What his s/he afraid of? Everyone has a fear; even if somebody claims s/he is afraid of nothing then s/he is explaining s/he fears the absence of nothing. Maybe your character is a vampire and fears the sunlight? Maybe your character is an 11 year old boy and is afraid of the dark? Maybe your character is a 17 year old girl who lives in a bad neighborhood and fears getting raped? Perhaps your character is an elder and fears getting mugged or ignored from his/her juniors (juniors = younger citizens)?
Strengths: Give your character strength; what makes him/her stronger inside? Maybe s/he can run in track but can't walk a marathon? Your character can write a brilliant novel on the computer but can't form words with a pen and paper? Your character knows sixteen different languages, how to build a super computer, and create a time traveling device but cannot ride a bicycle (see Weakness)?
Weakness: Everyone has to have a weakness--some reason why they are not a powerful God. If your character does not have a weakness then the story becomes fake and the reader will not wish to continue the story because the reality of it has disappeared. Make sure your character has as many weaknesses as strengths. As seen in Strengths, perhaps your character knows sixteen different languages, how to build a super computer, and create a time traveling device but cannot ride a bicycle? Maybe your character can communicate with animals (see Strengths) but cannot communicate with people very well?
Good Qualities: What makes your character good in heart? Remember, even pure evil has some good in it; Satan (in Biblical beliefs) used to be one of the most favored angels of Jesus Christ but had fallen due to his jealousy. Perhaps your character has so much honor and pride as an American hostage in a war and will stand up to the kidnappers and be shot rather than cower in fear (patriotic)? Perhaps s/he has been raised in a very bad family but came out never touching a cigarette, drugs, or alcohol and never received any piercing or tattoos?
Bad Habits: Does your character bite his/her nails until they bleed? Does s/he chew on his/her lower lip when thinking? Maybe your character can't help but pick his/her nose in public? Maybe s/he is almost always sexually turned on and is easy because of it?
Turn Ons: What makes your character sexually aroused or attracted to somebody? What is it that makes him/her get antsy to touch or be touched? Maybe a husband comes home to see his wife wearing only a lacy thong and camisole while doing the dishes? Perhaps a non-popular teenage girl sees the captain of the high school football team washing his car and wearing only his blue jeans while his chest is glistening with sweat? Maybe your character finds the other sex intelligent. Perhaps he finds it a turn to see her driving a standard instead of an automatic vehicle? Maybe s/he is bisexual or gay/lesbian and finds the other sex attractive.
Turn Offs: What makes your character disgusted? Could s/he be attracted to somebody who is fit to perfection like a model but has scars all over his/her body? Perhaps your character is turned off by gays/lesbians? Maybe a boyfriend is attracted to his girlfriend in everyday clothing but her formal clothing is ugly and does not sexually arouse him? Perhaps your character's lover has horrible body odor and smells?
Normal Talents: This is connected to the Supernatural Powers & Ability category. What makes your character different from everyone else? This is where you are allowed to have fun--but keep it realistic! Even if your story is science-fiction or fantasy, you still have to make your story believable. Does s/he have luck when playing Texas Holdem (poker)? Is your character a wiz at computers? Can s/he read a four hundred page book in less than four hours? Maybe s/he has a photographic memory? Or perhaps s/he is so good with numbers s/he doesn't ever require the use of a calculator?
Supernatural Powers & Abilities: This goes hand-in-hand with the Normal Talents category. This is where you state what your character is or what his/her supernatural ability or power may be. If your character is not supernatural, this category can be left blank. Either way, you must remember to "Keep it realistic" Even if your story is science-fiction or fantasy, you still have to make your story believable. Even supernatural creatures from other planets are realistic enough to believe.
Remember, you want your reader to understand what you're writing about-not be turned away if your character has a godlike syndrome. Perhaps your character has the unconscious effort to suspend time or perhaps your character can ignite fire with the flick of a wrist? If your character has the ability to fly at night and when the sun sets wings appear, that would be considered supernatural (wings would be mentioned beneath the Weight/Body Structure/Physical Faults category).
Maybe your character can shape shift into another creature or character? Perhaps s/he is telekinetic/psychokinetic (ability to move things with your mind), telepathic (ability to read and control minds), or has the ability/power to create fire without using anything but your hands or mind? Maybe s/he can go invisible? Supernatural is anything that is "Super" and "Natural" (like Superman). It needs to still be natural but more superb than our natural.
Temperament: This is where you explain your character's basic personality. Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Is s/he a class clown or a shy book worm? Was your character born with the heredity genes to be a wild-driven party-lover? Perhaps s/he is difficult to deal with? Maybe s/he is easy when it comes to sexual activity. Is your character understanding of others? Or maybe s/he was held back in education by a learning disorder?
Background: This has the largest writing section available because this is where you are going to explain your character's life story up to the point where s/he is first mentioned in the story (though some writers still continue the background throughout the character's appearance in the said tales). Even if your character is a 3 year old child, you still explain his/her background; how old was the child when s/he learned to speak or walk? This is where you can have as much fun as you would like with your character, but again keep it realistic! Perhaps your character is a 16 year old orphan; what happened to make him/her an orphan and explain his/her life up until s/he enters the story. Maybe your character is a senior citizen; explain most of his/her life if it is required for the story.
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It has been an honor being the Short Stories editor this week, and I hope what I have covered here will be of some help to all who read this Newsletter.
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