I’ve got characters on the brain. I’m preparing to teach my Throw More Stones: How to Build Character Through Conflict workshop for the Writers League of Texas next month, and it’s a subject I love to talk about. But developing characters was not always easy for me.
The first novels I wrote had my characters doing lots of action and having lots of adventures. Sadly, these novels didn’t sell and didn’t attract an agent, but that wasn’t because of a lack of story or action. The truth was, if someone asked me who the characters were or what they really wanted, at their core, I couldn’t have told you. The characters weren’t real enough, and because they weren’t three-dimensional, they weren’t memorable.
But stories aren’t just about a situation. They’re not about aliens landing in Los Angeles, but about how characters in Los Angeles react and deal with the aliens landing. And if we don’t care about the people doing those actions, if readers can’t see themselves, the story falls flat.
So how do we create great characters, the kind of characters readers will stay up late to read about and want to revisit their stories again and again? I go into this a LOT more in my class, but here are some insights into my process.
You know when you’re at a party (or Zoom meeting nowadays) and you meet a person for the first time? The first things you notice are about their appearance and maybe a hint of their personality. Getting to know characters is the same. When I started writing THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, I knew the main character was a boy about 10-12 years old who woke up alone on a beach. My initial idea for ARROW began with a boy with one hand who lived in a tree. That’s all I had at the beginning, but those small details provided the foundation that I could build the characters upon.
For some stories, characters will come to us like the Boy and Arrow did for me and then spark the rest of the story. But at other times, we’ll have a story first and have to find the characters that will best work with the story. That was the case with AMERICAN HORSE TALES: HOLLYWOOD. This book is part of a new series from Penguin Workshop, so I had to come up with a story that fit that series. I was given the premise of the series—girls with horses—and could take that anywhere I wanted. Since I had worked for a home entertainment magazine for 10 years in a past life and had been on movie sets, I thought it would be fun to write about a girl and horse on a movie set. That was all I knew at first, so I had to start digging deeper.
Go to Their Home
If you do an internet search for developing characters, you’ll find lots of interview lists with questions like, what’s their favorite color? What’s their favorite ice cream? I’m sure these lists help lots of writers, but they never helped me. To this day, I still don’t know what the Boy in THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST would most want piled high in his ice cream cone (although I suspect it’s chocolate 😉 ), but I didn’t need that information to write the book. Instead, I needed to know how he thought, what he wanted, what he was afraid of and why, etc.
So one of the first things I do when I’m creating characters is to visit them at home. What type of home do they have and how does that affect them? I knew Arrow lived in a tree, but what tree? I had watched this amazing TEDx Talk by Suzanne Simard about mother trees, so I decided Arrow would live in the mother tree of a forest, and I decided it would be a rainforest, because I had been in the Amazon in Guyana as a child and remembered how much I had loved it. Once I knew Arrow’s home, I could ask questions like, what does he eat? Does he have friends, and if yes, who are they? Does he have enemies, and if yes, who are they? Is he comfortable in his home or are there dangers? And the answers to these questions would be based on that home.
The more I learn about the home of my characters, the more questions pop up that allow me to go deeper along the line of the story. When I visited the home of Juniper in the HOLLYWOOD book, I knew there must be stables because the story is about a girl and her horse, so I figured out that her family trained horses for movies and TV shows. Then I could ask, who does the training? Does Juniper help? Is their training business successful or do they have peeling paint in their hallway?
As the characters’ home life is developed, I’m getting to learn more about who they are. Since Arrow grew up living in a rainforest, he must know a lot about trees and plants and the animals that live there. He’d know how to climb trees and which foods are poisonous. He’d also know how to stay quiet when a predator is near. Juniper, on the other hand, would know about horses, how to take care of them and how to ride them.
But our homes are just one part of the world we live in.
Join Them Out and About
When we first make a new friend and spend time with them away from their home, we’ll learn a lot about who they are through their actions and reactions to the world around them, and the same goes with our characters. This comes into play a lot more with world building for fantasy stories, but it’s just as important when we’re creating fictional contemporary worlds and historical. A girl growing up in the 1920s is going to have a different way of thinking, a different kind of day, use different kind of words, wear different kinds of clothes from a girl growing up in the 2020s. And in both of those cases, the girl’s race will affect who they are, their culture, their fears. If the girl’s family is poor, or rich, or middle class will also affect who they are, the types of decisions they make and the way they interact with other people.
Like when I was writing Arrow. He’s never been outside the rainforest and never met another human being until humans start to infiltrate the forest where he has grown up. Putting myself in his shoes, I could assume he’d be curious about these new people who look like him. Juniper in HOLLYWOOD probably knows about movie sets if her father trains horses for movies, so she might not have been around a lot of actors and could be excited to meet the actors of her favorite TV show, for example.
As I tell students in my Throw More Stones class, looking at the world around your characters is a great way to learn about your characters.
Do you have character development tips you like? Let me know in the comments.