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3 Ways to Develop Characters

May 15, 2020
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Have you ever struggled with character development? You aren’t alone. When I first began writing, I had no idea where to start.

Picking up my Bart Simpson moleskine journal, I would spend almost a year filling it with ideas before ever writing a single book. There were stories floating around my head, stories that become a mess of notes inside the little yellow journal.

Eventually, I’d write those stories.

Taking on the task of writing a book can feel like climbing a mountain—especially your first book. It’s an intimidating feeling, one layered with seven levels of self-doubt, growing worse every time you peel one back.

Knowing I wasn’t ready to write a book, I started small. First came Bart, then came outlining. As I delved into the writing community, learning their tricks, I found three primary ways to develop characters. There are many others, but overall these seem to be the concepts used.

1) Wing It

I’m a plotter, but sometimes you don’t know how the character will appear. What physical traits do they have? What mental traits do they have? What quirks make them interesting?

In most of my stories, the characters develop as I write. In Fury, George has a nostril flair, Bonnie likes fire, the goblins are… gross. Most of the character traits were unknown when I wrote. I only knew the answers to three questions:

Who are they?
What’s their motivation?
How do they move the plot forward?

Answering those questions gave me enough to write, imagine the characters, and describe them as I wrote. Winging the character details created unique characters.

Of course, if you’re a pantser (someone with no writing plan, writing by the seat of their pants) you’re already winging it.

2) Using The Short Story Method

After writing Fury, I knew I needed more characters to lead everything into book 3. I had no idea who those characters would be, so I set out with several ideas.

– I wanted to introduce a female warrior elf.
– I wanted to introduce a powerful, yet imperceptibly small character.
– I wanted a dark, evil force.

There was absolutely no idea how book three would flow, but I knew I needed those characters. I started plotting small short stories between 2000-6000 words. Then, I wrote them using the wing it process.

By writing and letting the characters flesh out in the short stories, I knew exactly how to move forward without spending time figuring it out in Caged. Because I already had a short background and profile in the short story, I didn’t need to worry about rewrites in the more complicated third book.

3) Detailed Planning

For me, detailed planning allows for less flexibility. You sit down and write out the character’s physical and mental traits, their quirks, their background, family members, past addresses, anything you can use to create a profile on that specific character.

It’s time intensive.

In my opinion, it’s unnecessary unless you are planning an entire series before you start writing. If you’re a detailed plotter who needs to know everything before writing a word, then detailed planning is for you.

I’ve seen writers use Scrivener, which works great for digital planning. Others have gone old school, creating binders filled with information. A while back, I even heard of someone world building every country, character, artist, politician, maps, and more in volumes of information.

If you love getting into that amount of detail, more power to you. Just beware, getting caught in the details can keep you from writing as you try to keep things in sync.

As I continue my writing journey, I almost always write a little short story, even if it’s just a few paragraphs, to get a character moving in my mind. Then, I let them develop over time—letting them surprise me.

Whatever Techniques You Decide to Use…

…whether it’s one of the three above or something else, try everything and use what works for you.

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