How to Grow a Character

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by Lori on 03.30.2011

in writing

There are approximately a billion ways to create a character.

A lot of people use character worksheets or questionnaires.  I do not use these.  I will be brave enough to admit that one of those reasons is because I never spell questionnaire correctly on the first go.  That alone puts me off them.  But, really, they just don’t work for me.

I have a few personal tricks for developing* a character.  I usually, but not always, start with an idea of what they look like using pictures of actual people.  If it’s not there from the beginning, it comes quickly.  Once upon a time, I considered this a very amateur way to discover character and would’ve never admitted it to anyone.  That time has passed.  For one thing, I no longer care what works, as long as it works.  For another, Jennifer Crusie does it, so there.  I read once, and I’m sorry–can’t find where–that it helps to open the picture up in whatever picture editing program you use and flip, or mirror, it.  Then, the person looks just different enough that they could be your character and not a specific actor or model.

Notebook. Pen. Good music.  Freewriting. My brain basically vomits the character onto the paper.  And not in a lovely biographical sort of way either.  Here’s an actual quote from my current notebook:

I know Kat was deprived of positive regard, acceptance, and love.  She was USED, her flaws driven home at every chance…Jack, who so needs a new name, has had a very different experience…He has two younger sisters who adore him.  He’s very protective of them which lends itself to his chivalrous treatment of women, etc.

I’m only posting that to show that my style is more conversational, very informal, and that this may seem very generic or random, but after 10-20 pages of this, I really start seeing who they are.  I’m also exploring my antagonist and their relationship to my protagonist so that I can discover goals which leads me to conflict.  You get the idea.

I also do conversational interviews with my character.  I don’t actually write down my questions, because that would seem too formal, but I ask as a guide, and they answer.  I answer.  They answer.  You know what I mean.

Before I start writing one word of a first draft, I fill out my Goal-Motivation-Conflict (GMC) charts.  Just writing will lead me closer to who they are.  Dialogue is a great way for me to find them because they all seem to have their own way of speaking, but I never write without knowing the GMC.

Some really great ideas for developing your characters:

*When I use the word develop, in this post, I’m referring to creating, flesh out, discovering, etc.

EDIT 05.10.2012: When I originally wrote this post I linked to a good set of character development questions. They work very well for many people. That site was shut down recently, but I asked the author, Heather McCorkle, if I could repost those questions here and she gave me permission to do so. Those questions can be found here, and thank you to Heather for sharing those with us.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Elizabeth March 30, 2011 at 9:05 am EDT

I definitely do the picture thing, too. If I don’t have something tangible to look at, my character feels too ephemeral and I have a hard time pinning him down in story. Great post! I’ll have to try the GMC charts–I’ve not heard of that before. Thanks!

Tashina March 30, 2011 at 9:29 am EDT

Thanks, this is really helpful stuff! I always have a problem with developing my characters that I usually just keep writing the story and add things about them on another page, but I really like the idea of the GMC and will definitely have to check it out. :)

Lori
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 5:31 pm EDT

The link above goes to my post about the book GMC, by Debra Dixon. I’ve created my own templates for GMC based on her advice here: http://lorisizemore.com/writing/?p=939

I would highly recommend the book. It completely changed my writing.

Thanks for commenting!

Michele April 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm EDT

Great post! I usually ‘vomit’ also (haha!), but will have to try the charts/questionnaires out. I’m co-writing a book with a friend and I imagine it will help keep the vomit consistent. ;-)

Lori
Twitter:
April 10, 2011 at 9:21 pm EDT

I love the idea of keeping the character ‘vomit’ consistent, lol. I’ve always wanted to try co-writing, but I imagine it comes with its own challenges.

Thanks for commenting!

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