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Character at the Core: The Importance of Depth

This post is part of the Outline With Me series. For more like this, check out the outlining your novel page.

With a logline to get things started and a seven-part structure to guide us, we can now shift away from plot for a time and focus on what will ultimately become the driving force behind our story–our characters.

A sound plot is critical, yes, but execution of that plot is what makes a fantastic idea into a fantastic story. And who will be executing this tale? That’s right. Your characters.

Creating authentic and memorable characters never comes easy. You’ll have to know them better than they know themselves (as you should, since you know their future and they, very likely, do not). This applies not only to your protagonist, but his or her supporting cast as well.

Though you could make the argument that a writer only needs to know enough about a given character to push them through the plot, I’m often surprised by how minute details of a supporting character’s life can have a tremendous effect on a scene, chapter, or the plot as a whole. Knowing all these details in advance makes it much easier to integrate the pertinent ones into earlier drafts, which will cut down on editing and rewriting later on.

So how does one create vivid characters? There are a number of approaches, far more than can be covered in the scope of one blog post. For readers with an interest in really diving into this topic, I recommend Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. I have a copy of this book within arm’s reach of my desk, and always page through it to review the notes I’ve taken within it when preparing to write new characters.

Rather than recapitulate the content of that book, I’d like to go a different direction for this installment of the series. In a previous post, I mentioned having attended a workshop put on by Kristin A. Oakley, author of Carpe Diem, Illinois and God on Mayhem Street. During her session, we focused entirely on creating characters from the ground up. Her list provides a number of must-knows about your characters (every character), which I found instrumental when laying the foundation for the XXX Accounting.

Using her list as a starting point, I added some of my own thoughts to the below. We’ll discuss some of the less obvious points after the list.

CHARACTER TRAIT TEMPLATE

Character Name:
Nickname, if applicable:
Birth date/place:
Character Role:
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION
Age:
Race:
Eye Color:
Hair Color/Style:
Build (height, weight, proportion):
Skin Tone:
Clothing:
Defining characteristics/mannerisms:
PERSONALITY
Changer/Stayer:
Strengths:
Weaknesses:
Vices:
Fatal flaw:
Wants vs. needs:
Dilemma:
Pet peeves:
Hobbies:
Entertainment:
Food:
Music:
Gadgets/other items:
Sports:
Preferred colors:
BACKGROUND
Parents:
Siblings:
Friends:
Romantic relationships:
Pets:
Life-changing events:
Education:
Religion:
Transportation:
Attitudes and beliefs (political, social, etc.):
Hometown:
Ethnicity:
Worst mistakes:
Biggest regret:
Greatest achievement:
Goals:
Occupation:
What led them here:

Whew. Quite the list, right? Think of your protagonist. How many of these do you know the answer to off the top of your head for that character? Does answering any of the previously unanswered prompts change your perception of this character? It should.

And if it changes your perspective, imagine the power that change in perspective could have for your readers.

Let’s look at some of the bolded examples above a little more closely.

Build (height, weight, proportion): As a writer, you may have a strong image in your mind of what a given character looks like. Communicating that image to readers effectively can often be a challenge, though. When thinking on this category (as with the others) try to think of details that “stand out” or “define” your character most. Saying a character has a thick build is different than saying they’re big-boned, which is different than saying their waistline is robust.

When thinking of your character’s build, or anything as it relates to their physical appearance, I also believe it’s worth avoiding possibly problematic dichotomies. In the real world, people are rarely just tall/short or fat/skinny, etc. It’s all a matter of perspective. How would other characters see this character? How does this character see himself? Ask yourself these questions when describing the character in question and you can wind up with a much more unique set of descriptors for them.

Defining characteristics/mannerisms: Does this character have some sort of identifying linguistic or physical idiosyncrasy? For example, do they stutter when nervous or bite their nails? What habits do they have? Think of Frank Underwood from House of Cards. Would his character be the same without him knocking his ring on a desk or table in critical moments? Anyone who has seen the final shot of season two knows that the answer to this is certainly “no.” This mannerism carries weight and adds to character.

Changer/stayer: This is a big one, one that I’ve included in the list after reading Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint. The core element of whether a character is a changer or stayer has to do with how they evolve (or don’t) over the course of the story. Does this particular character begin your tale as a timid, reserved person only to become an (at least occasionally) outspoken individual? Then you have a changer. If this character refuses to learn from their mistakes, is stubborn, or otherwise uninterested in change, then this character is a stayer–assuming, of course, that they started the story embodying those same characteristics.

In my experience, having a good mix of changers and stayers with conflicting beliefs and goals makes for a good amount of tension.

Fatal flaw: This is a big one. What is the one character trait this character exhibits that ultimately leads to (or begins to lead them toward) failure? Is it a lack of self-awareness? Is it knee-jerk decision making? Are they too prideful or too modest? You can earn bonus points if your protagonist’s fatal flaw is also an asset at various points throughout the narrative. It’s important, however, that this trait test their mettle during the course of action, especially as your story approaches its climax.

Wants vs. needs: I feel this is valuable to point out, as from an outsider’s perspective it’s often easy to know what a character’s needs versus wants actually are. But are those needs and wants obvious to the character in question? Does this character have their wants and needs appropriately categorized? If so, why? If not, why not? Asking these additional questions can help a writer get a better feel for a character’s sense of self-awareness and value system.

Dilemma: This is one I haven’t seen on many other “character sketch” lists, but I was thankful Kristin included it on hers, citing The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt as its original source. The idea behind it is that your character must make a choice that could resolve one problem, but only does so at the expense of creating another. Think of this as the “finding a loophole” moment. Essentially, the character in question is able to overcome a daunting hurdle by changing the rules of the game, so to speak. Granted, not every story or character is right for this sort of moment, and even if they are, this is admittedly hard to pull off–which makes it all the more worthwhile to at least consider for each of your characters as you develop them.

Gadgets/other items: What’s something this character always or often has with them? In EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn, my MC often has a sketchbook and charcoal pencil with her. In the Men in Black franchise, they often have that mind-erase-thingy. In The Hunger Games, Katniss has that mockingjay pin. These not only help define these characters further, they can also double as magic beans.

Preferred Colors: This may seem minute, but don’t overlook this point. What does one’s favorite color say about them? It’s easy to say “nothing,” but remember–you’re not just asking yourself this question. What does one’s favorite color say about them… to other characters? How does this relationship to color play itself out in the daily life of the character, if at all?

Think of Marie from Breaking Bad. What color was she always wearing? What color did she most surround herself with at home? Can you answer those questions without looking them up online? You can? See how color preference can help shape a given character’s memorability?

Life-changing events: Ah, yes. Defining moments and backstory. Though critical for your protagonist, these are just as critical for his or her supporting cast as well. It wasn’t until I developed a fully fleshed out backstory for some supporting characters in EMPATHY that they really came alive for me. In fact, I went on to write some short stories surrounding impactful moments for these characters in order to get a better feel for the world from their perspective. If you’re struggling to breathe life into a character–particularly a member of the supporting cast–try writing something from their perspective. You’d be amazed at how this can change things for you.

What led them here: Yes, backstory is a part of this in a general sense, but whatever led your character “here” (read: to your story) should tie directly into the action on the page. What events happened immediately before this character found her way to her first appearance in your manuscript? Answering this question at the start of every scene in which she appears will help you get a feel for her mood, needs, wants, and physical state as she partakes in the action.

Completing one of these templates for every character may seem arduous (it is), but it pays dividends in the end. Creating one of these character bibles in advance of writing won’t have you scratching your head at the midpoint when you can’t remember what color a character’s eyes were on page eight, or what year they graduated high school when you mentioned it in chapter nine.

Of course there are a ton of traits above that I didn’t elaborate on in this post, but if you have any questions on those or suggestions for other traits to add to the template, don’t hesitate to reach out. As always, you can tweet at me or get in touch through the contact page.

And stay tuned for next week, where we’ll focus on world building–and get back to doing so within the frame of our story about Joseph, the Mormon bartender.

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