If you are working on any sort of story–whether it’s a play, a short story, a novel, or even a narrative poem–it’s definitely important to think about character.
For me, characters are what make the story. Sure, I love cool plots and weird concepts. But you can have the coolest, most unique concept in the world, and if the characters are flat, I won’t usually get into the story. For example, I just finished reading Hourglass by Myra McEntire. The novel had a really interesting plot with a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and it dealt with time travel in a really cool way. But the thing I loved the most about the novel was how well developed the characters were, particularly the protagonist.
I like well-developed characters. I like well-defined characters. I like characters who seem like living, breathing, real people with a past. I like characters with flaws, characters with passions, characters with obsessions. I like three-dimensional characters.
Writing a three-dimensional character can sometimes seem like a challenge. For me, when I am figuring out who my characters are, I go back to the times when I have done theatre. I always wrote a lot about the characters I was playing–their back stories, what kind of music they liked, their hopes and aspirations, their flaws, their pet peeves, the details that made them who they were. These visceral details really helped me to get to know who they were, which (hopefully) made me give a better performance. (Now, I’m sure no one really noticed the 20-page back story I wrote when I had one line in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when I was 16, but damnit, for that two seconds I was on stage, I was the whole real person with an epic back story.)
I think it’s even more important to get to know your characters intimately when you are writing any kind of story. Find out what he likes, what he doesn’t like, who he voted for in the last election. Find out where he comes from. Find out who his friends are, who his family is, whether he has any friends at all. And sure, you don’t have to use all of the information that you come up with in the story. Maybe the fact that your character’s favorite ice cream flavor is strawberry is not important in a story about how she is trying to kill all the aliens. However, it may be important for you as the writer to know that her favorite ice cream flavor is strawberry. Maybe that tiny detail will affect a decision she makes. Or maybe it won’t. But it’s another aspect of her personality that you know.
With that in mind, one of the most helpful “fleshing out character” exercises I have done comes from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. This is a book about playwriting, but I have found that this exercise works for fiction or any story-telling. I would imagine it would work really well for actors, too.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri talks about The Bone Structure of a character. This is where you basically go through and define all of the physiological, sociological, and psychological aspects that make your character who he or she is. The following is a good outline from The Art of Dramatic Writing of a character’s bone structure.
3. Height and weight
4. Color of hair, eyes, skin
6. Appearance: good-looking, over or underweight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy. Shape of head, face, limbs.
7. Defects: deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks. Diseases.
1. Class: lower, middle, upper
2. Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, union or nonunion, attitude toward organization, stability for work
3. Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favorite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes
4. Home life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents separated or divorced, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices, neglect. Character’s marital status.
6. Race, nationality
7. Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports
8. Political affiliations
9. Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines he/she reads
1. Sex life, moral standards
2. Personal premise, ambition
3. Frustrations, chief disappointments
4. Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic
5. Attitude toward life: resigned, militant, defeatist
6. Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias
7. Extrovert, introvert, ambivert
8. Abilities: languages, talents
9. Qualities: judgments, imagination, taste, poise
So the next time you really want to work on getting to know your characters, this is always a good place to start. You may even find that if you have writer’s block and you just start filling this out for a random character and thinking of all of these different aspects, it may lead you to quickly imagine what kind of a situation he could get himself into that will lead you to your story.