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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writing Tip: Building a World of Characters

It's been awhile since my first post in my character development series -- what with summer vacation, the start of school and kid stuff. Now that I'm somewhat organized, it's time to get back into the swing of the nitty gritty details of writing.  

I'm ready to get back to work.

Are you?

Last time, I wrote about creating character names and how it can lead to building your character's personalities. Today, I'm backtracking and writing about building your world of characters.  Kind of an important thing to do when you're starting a manuscript.

So, without further ado, let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.  

How does one go about creating a world of characters for a book?  

You probably have a plot written out.  And you might already have all your characters lined up. But I'd like to ask you two questions:  
  1. Do you have the right protagonist?  
  2. Do you have the best characters that will help you tell your story?  

There are many ways to tell a story and many variations of characters that can play in the story. But only the right combination is going to interest the agent, the editors of the publishing house, your readers.

Whether a writer chooses to keep the characters to a minimum, or employ a significant number of characters so a list or key must be provided at the beginning of the book for the reader to refer to, the writer still needs to decide who will be the protagonist and who will have the supporting roles.  When you think about it, any character could be a protagonist and depending on who he/she is, your story will change, to reflect their world view.  However, even if this is true, it doesn't mean any character is the right character for the protagonist of the story you want to tell.  


Oh, yes.  There were a couple times I chose the wrong protagonist for a manuscript.  And I was fortunate to discover it in the first draft stage, when a supporting character's personality burst forth with so much color, it was clear he/she needed to be rewritten as the protagonist.  My work became stronger for the change because I listened to what my characters had to say.  

Do not be afraid to change your characters around.  It will only make your work stronger.

An important thing to think about when choosing your protagonist is whether he/she will grow/change and go through an emotional arc or whether he/she is going to stay the same, because sometimes, people just don't change.

For the emotional arc or journey to work, the reader needs to believe the character is capable of change.  We need to see the character's experiences and be able to follow along in their path to growth or destruction.  Will this character become a better person or will he/she spiral down to the depths of despair?  The emotional arc should be realistic and show gradual change--not one day the protagonist is a geek and the next moment he's basking in the glow of popularity.  Most successful books show an emotional arc, because it is an excellent way of creating tension.

If you choose your protagonist to stay constant to reflect the reality that people don't always change, there needs to be a way to make sure the reader is engaged, whether in a great sidekick, a unique narrator's POV and intriguing plot.  Because to read 250+ pages of the same thing, is...well, boring.

Now that you know if your protagonist will change or remain constant, it's time to figure out who else gets written in.  Some things to think about:
  1. Is there is enough of a difference between characters, ie: dialogue, personalities, needs, wants
  2. How do your characters know each other? Is it realistic?  
  3. Consider your scenes and make sure all the logical characters are there, otherwise the reader will go, huh?

Many writers use a character worksheet or write out a bio of their key characters so they have something to work with to create a believable character with dialogue, intrigue, motivations and plotting.  I'm more of a write-out-a-page-about-my-character type of gal, since I like experimenting with dialogue and voice up front.  

Key things I think about for my YA characters:
  • Name
  • Nicknames
  • Age
  • Grade
  • Physical Appearance
  • How do they feel about their looks?
  • Family background
  • Where do they live?
  • Who lives with them?
  • Job (if any)
  • How do they feel about their parents?
  • How do they feel about their siblings?
  • Best friend
  • Enemy
  • Likes
  • Dislikes
  • What motivates them?
  • Do they have any secrets?
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Interesting/Strange Habits
  • What is the best thing that ever happened to them?
  • The worst thing?
  • What problems do they face?
  • What are they willing to do for others?
  • What are they not willing to do?
  • Add more as you see fit for the character...

What do you like to ask of your characters?

This is the second post in my Character Development series.


PJ Hoover said...

Someone recently suggested taking your antagonist out for tea and talking with them. I love this idea, but plan to make it a beer instead.

What a great idea to put forth - the idea of not being afraid to change your protagonist!

Great post, Vivian!

Vivian said...

Thanks. That's too funny. Enjoy talking to your antagonist over a beer or two. Can't wait to hear what happens.

PJ Hoover said...

Vivian, you remember my antagonist in my latest book. I'm not sure I can be trusted around him after a beer or two :)
Hmmm...maybe I should go for the tea instead.

Vivian said...

OMG! You are so right!

Tea is so much safer, though I'm not sure you could persuade him to partake of the refined drink...unless you employ some trickery, a flask of whiskey (for him, not you) and promises...


Christine M said...

Great post Vivian - and PJ - I'd watch who you take out for a drink!

PJ Hoover said...

Ok, maybe us three gals should just go out instead and fill in worksheets.

m. thompson said...

This character that you all speak of sounds intriguing. I want to know more!

Great post! And I like the idea of being flexible with the protagonist! Maybe that's why my WIP isn't working so smoothly.

Vivian said...


Yes. We three gals will get together one day. Somehow the worksheets don't sound as interesting as taking our antagonists out for a drink... :-)

M. Thompson,
I'm glad you liked this post. PJ's character is intriguing and will be totally worth waiting for.

Barrie said...

I like your list of questions. Once I'm in a book, I start imagining what my characters would be up to wherever I happen to be.

Chris said...

I use the WriteWayPro program, which allows you to enter a picture of your character. Maybe a celebrity or someone I know. A nice way to visualize your work.