Building Character(s)

I have been building characters for the sequel to Hunter and Seed for quite a while this morning. I’m taking a break here because it’s my birthday, and as I posted on twitter earlier, making characters is fairly creatively intense when done properly. What do I mean by done properly?

I thought this could be interesting because I’ve felt very good about my notes in the recent past, if not for the way I execute on those characters in the actual book.

My character sketches have evolved over time. For this new book, they consist of a name at the top of the page and just below that a ‘high-concept’ idea of the character if I have one. Below that is a single (But usually very meaty) paragraph in which I explore my idea of the character, at first, then revise a little if need be. Below that is a brief list of defining characteristics and tags for describing the character. Sometimes I include the actor or actress I would cast for the appearance of the character. Finally, if the character has magic abilities or notable skills I add those last.

The big paragraph is the most important part of the process. All the other elements are ancillary at the moment though I try to make the character’s appearance and physicality tie into and make sense alongside their personality and skills.

So. That big paragraph. What goes in it? I often think about family, relationships, and the character’s personal attitude to begin the process. How the character defines herself or himself or itself, is also very important. Usually, self-definition has to with what the character perceives themselves as talented or skilled at, or with their most vital relationships.

In any case, the process is a lot of fun. I don’t edit much, but I use a pair of old tricks I learned from Michael Stackpole’s venerable ‘The Secrets’ podcast to develop ideas. Those two key techniques are the ‘what-if?’ and ‘warped what-if?’ which are really useful for any idea-making. What-if is as simple as throwing in a new element.

“What if the most important character in the movie was a former stormtrooper, but quit because he wouldn’t kill?” For example.

The second technique, ‘warped what-if,’ is the follow-up twist on the first technique. That can be boiled down to: what if the obvious situation is reversed?

“What if the former stormtrooper quit because he hated the rules that KEPT him from killing?”

Maybe that guy in the second example wouldn’t be a great protagonist. Oh well. The principle holds even if it doesn’t always work in every example.

Tying characters together is the other really vital element. Conflict binds people, even and especially fictional people, together as much as it pushes people apart. Who is ‘us’ to this character, and who is ‘them?’

Questions are the building blocks of character. Answers are the scaffold for the next layer of construction.

I’d better get back to work. As you can see from my brief explanations above, these descriptions don’t write themselves.

Oh, and happy birthday to me!

Thanks for reading.

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