I love watching Downton Abbey. Have you seen it? Peerage and simple folk are mixed up together in a grand English home during the turn of the 20th century. We’ve touched on the Titanic tragedy, World War I, and the flu pandemic of 1918. The costumes and mannerisms have been a glittering array of lifestyle. I wait impatiently each week for the next installation of this wonderful soap opera.
But more than the setting and historical events, I tune in to watch the characters. These are wonderful, full-rounded people you can’t help but care about as they face life’s challenges and triumphs.
From a writer’s perspective, I am in awe of creating novel-length fiction on a weekly basis, and hope one day my Writer’s Digest will carry an interview with Julian Fellowes, the man who writes the Downton Abbey story. I hope they will ask him how he came up with Bates, Mrs. Patmore, and of course the Crawley family making up the Earldom of Grantham.
I’m also wondering how precisely to make such characters feel so real as people. You may recall that I’m in the process of writing a short story currently. Each day I struggle to jot down even a line or two of what might happen next. But again, I need to get into the heads of my characters, develop a sensitivity for them and make them believable on the page.
I have entire books on the subject of character development. Most writing books will have at least a chapter on the subject. So here are my two cents worth on the subject:
START WITH A SPARK OF AN IDEA
There is no sense in trying to sit down to a blank page or computer screen and say to yourself, “Right. Today I will create a character. Now what?” Instead, be in the constant mode of collecting ideas. I have a spiral called “Collections” for just such a purpose. Someone or something will glom onto my consciousness, and I try to pop it into my spiral. More often than not, I miss the opportunity, but when I’m paying attention this is a wonderful tool. And although most of the collecting I do will result in a fun journal and not a story, it is the thinking about people, the learning to observe, that creates the ability to develop new characters.
For my current story, I met a young woman at a cocktail party at Christmas time. She told me about her work and how there are ghosts at it. The story was captivating. I hope it will be half as good when I get it down on paper.
PROFILE YOUR CHARACTER
Not every character will need in-depth profiling, but the more you can do within the constraints of time and energy, the better your story will become. Profiling starts with a list of questions you ask yourself about your character. Again, books and lectures are full of these questions. It is not a step in the writing process to skip. I usually take at least an hour to answer the questions that I have developed for my own use in building characters. Here are some of my current favorite questions:
- Can you describe your character’s physical attributes (and don’t forget scars, birthmarks, tattoos and other police-type of notes)?
- What is your character most proud of? (Talk about instant back story!)
- What makes this person special enough to be a main character in this story?
On Saturday I was at a talk given by Anne Randolph on the art of making your life facts into story. She gave me a great new thought: Have the character tell you something about themselves few others know.
INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTER
Yep. Here’s where we go off the logic track into the world of magic. Or more precisely, your subconscious. We live in an age of political correctness, but in interviewing a character, your own prejudices, worries, thoughts of pride surface, and they seem to do so with every interesting character you develop. Let your thoughts wander, your vision be far off. Just keep your pen/pencil moving.
I do tend to do these “interviews” by hand, because with typing, I tend to want to correct as I go, and everyone’s personality feels the same under my fingers. When I write by hand, I’m often surprised to see that even my handwriting changes with the character I’m developing. Okay. It’s weird, but it works–for me.
SAVE THE NOTES
I used to write in unsorted spirals, on scraps of paper, and in multiple environments. Needless to say, I feel I have lost entire novels by not being organized. Not sure what made me anchor myself to a single spiral per project, but this really works for me. It is one central collection center that helps move my writing along. I try to use David Fryxell’s notion of numbering pages, and then recording contents with page numbers for later reference. This has helped keep me on track several times when my wandering brain simply wants to go out to play.
ATTACH YOUR CHARACTER TO YOUR PLOT
This is a very hard part for me. Without a theme or plot question, my characters begin to break apart and float away. I don’t have to have a fully developed plot to create characters (heck, that would be forcing square pegs into round holes most the time), but I do need to remind myself that I’m exploring a subject–say ghosts–in every part of my writing on this project. That one small anchor helps me avoid writing superfluous verbiage, and keeps the story moving along.
Now it’s your turn. How do you develop characters in your writing? Who are the people that stick in your head upon first meeting? Can you combine the inner person of several friends into one character? I’d love to hear your thoughts.