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Now we've got a basic grasp on the plot, it's time to bring in the cast.
We're going to use an organic technique to quickly build the core of each of our major characters, then use a few prompts to make sure we understand the role they have in this story.
Here are the techniques we cover in this article:
In later steps of the Roadmap we will build on this foundation to ensure each character is layered with unique mannerisms, conflicting motivations and nuanced backstory.
This technique is loosely based on a theory of personalisation from Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, which is itself based on Stanislavsky’s theory of Method Acting, which assists actors in giving authenticity to the characters they play. We highly recommend you buy and read that book for a great deal more depth and detail.
The Gameshow Introduction
Imagine your character has walked onto a gameshow, and the voiceover gives a sweeping, single sentence summary of them.
This will usually cover general categories such as: their age, job and something that makes them a bit unique.
Continuing with the same examples we’ve been using throughout these steps, the gameshow introductions for our main characters might look something like this:
- Katniss is a teenager living in District 12, with a penchant for shooting and eating squirrels!
- Harry is a child wizard who has recently moved to Hogwarts, and once defeated he-who-must-not-be-named himself!
- Offred is the Commander of Gilead’s Handmaid, who looks dashing in a red dress and white bonnet!
- Simba the young lion is heir to the plains, but he prefers to hang out with his pals in the jungle!
These are just broad brushstrokes to help us get an initial flavour of each character. Next we’ll ‘interview’ the character to dig deeper into each of the elements of the gameshow introduction.
Take each of the elements of the gameshow introduction sentence and isolate it, then brainstorm as many questions as you can regarding that element. Once we’ve got the questions, we’re going to put them to that character, and see what we learn about them.
Let’s do it with our examples:
Katniss is a teenager living in District 12, with a penchant for shooting and eating squirrels!
A teenager – Exactly how old? Is she a stereotypical teenager or an unusual one? When is her birthday?
Living in District 12 – Where is District 12? What is it like? Does she like it there? Is it big or small? Who else lives there?
A penchant for shooting – Shooting how? Bow and arrow or gun? Is she good at shooting? How did she learn? How long has she been doing it? Does she do it for fun or necessity? What is her weapon like? Is it expensive or cheap? Well maintained or battered?
And eating squirrels – Why is she eating squirrels? Does she just like them? Or is it through necessity?
The number of questions you can ask is limited only by your imagination, and this line of questioning may lead you down many different avenues.
Answering these questions could get us to something like this:
Katniss is 16 years old, but she is old for her years. She has little time for hanging out with friends, because she lives a harsh life in District 12, an area in a dystopian vision of a near future America, where society has been split into 12 districts and a capitol. District 12 is extremely poor, and people have to scrape together basics such as food and clothing. To help feed her family – she has a little sister who she loves - Katniss uses her secret bow and arrow to shoot squirrels. They eat some and she sells the rest on the black market.
As you can see, we’re starting to build up a fuller picture of the character and her life, and touching on the situation and what drives her (survival and her sister).
Now the character is starting to take shape, we’ll consider their role in this story. This helps to ensure that each character is justifying the words spent on them, and that there is no redundancy or overlap.
For each of your major characters, complete the following:
- Single sentence summary of character's role in story
- Single paragraph summary of the character's role in story
Katniss volunteers to take part in the 74th annual Hunger Games and through her determination and skills, forces the Game makers to bend the rules to her will.
In order to protect her sister, Katniss volunteers to take part in the Hunger Games. Through her resourcefulness and determination, she manages to survive a range of dangerous challenges, and even become popular with the viewing public. But when the Game Makers change the rules from under her, she refuses to accept it, and forces their hand. This act of defiance shakes the foundations of the government.
Finally, we will use a series of prompts to flesh out our characters a little more. While there are hundreds of questions you can ask about your character to endlessly add detail and nuance, the following questions have been selected as those that will get to the heart of a character the most.
- Personality Type
- External Motivation (their want)
- Internal Motivation (their need)
- Positive Traits
- Negative Traits
- Quirks and Mannerisms
- Fears and Phobias
- Life Philosophy or Motto
- Most treasured possession
Here’s a little more guidance for each of the questions:
It can be very informative to identify the personality type of your main characters based on popular personality type theory. This can help keep their behaviour consistent, but also inspire you when you’re not sure how they would act in a given situation.
Plus, it has the advantage of helping raise red flags if any of your characters are too similar, if they turn out to have the same personality type.
We have created a resource for writers which gives brief summaries of many of the most popular personality types. Because these are targeted at writers, rather than people self-analysing, we’re able to equally balance positive and negative traits without fear of causing upset.
Most interesting characters are flawed. Their flaw gives them something to struggle against, something to overcome. It also makes them more realistic, because nobody’s perfect. Flaws can create conflict with other characters and also inner conflict.
A flaw could be anything from being afraid of needles to being a drama queen to being a serial cheater.
External and Internal Motivation
External motivation is something your character wants, which they believe will bring them happiness or fulfilment. It may be a very worthy goal, such as to survive or find freedom, or it might be an emotional goal, such as wishing they had their parents back or wanting true love. Or, it could be a very superficial goal such as a wanting to find a valuable artefact or win a contest or competition.
Internal motivation is what your character really needs in order to feel fulfilled and complete as a human being. This almost always boils down to something relating to courage or compassion.
On the courage side, characters often need to learn to believe in and stand up for themselves.
On the compassion side, characters may be too self-involved and need to learn to put other people first.
Often a truly moving story comes when a character is forced to choose between their want and need.
Read the full article on Want versus Need here.
Positive Traits and Negative Traits
All characters should have a balance of positive and negative character traits – thought of course what is considered good and bad is almost entirely subjective.
When considering traits you could think about how they see the world, how they treat others, how they affect the atmosphere of a room and how they deal with conflict.
Quirks and Mannerisms
Giving your main characters quirks and mannerisms can really add dimensions and make them memorable.
Quirks can add humour and empathy. They may contrast with the character’s immediate impression, for example a very serious, highly respected character may secretly love wearing socks with unicorns.
You could also think about when this habit appears – is it in particular situations, like when the character is stressed?
Ideally the quirks and mannerisms will evolve from their character and personality. So, for example a woman who feels insecure in her marriage may constantly be fiddling with her wedding ring. A man who grew up in a filthy orphanage may be obsessed with tidying. A person whose late mother was obsessed with Disney movies may burst into tears every time they see fireworks.
Fears and Phobias
Our fears make us vulnerable and can make seemingly straightforward situations fraught with tension. For example the generally brave Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, so while running through giant blades and leaping over fire doesn’t have him break a sweat, hand him a snake and he’s paralysed.
Fears can be used to drive a character’s entire motivation (e.g. fear of failure, fear of being poor, fear of being hurt) or they may just add tension in particular scenes (e.g. fear of snakes, fear of heights, fear of old ladies).
Life Philosophy or Motto
This should be something pithy and brief that helps keep you anchored to the character and guide how the character will behave in various situations.
- Go with the flow
- Life fast die young
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
- Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened
- What goes around comes around
- God will punish evil doers
Most treasured possession
Treasured possessions are often weapons and / or family heirlooms. They could also be something a character acquired at a key moment in their past, something that represents a memory, a person or an aspect of themselves.
In the Novel Factory go to the Characters section, and create a new character. Complete the Basic Details and Characterisation sub-tabs for your protagonist. Repeat for all major characters.
Or, if you're not using the software you can use the Character Basics and Character Development PDF worksheets found on this page, or your own note-taking method.