By Victory Crayne
Have you noticed that the better selling authors tend to have richly developed characters?
If you'd like to join the ranks of the better selling authors, I suggest you spend more time developing your main characters BEFORE you write their scenes.
In many of my talks to writers, I ask them to think of their favorite novels. And then I ask what about it made you like it so well: was it the plot or the characters? Most respond that it was the characters. What does that tell you about your own writing? If you can write memorable characters, you'll have more sales success. Readers tend to remember characters that are more richly developed.
I prepare character maps/files for each of my main characters. This has been my single biggest lesson learned when I developed a set of characters for a series of novels. All the time I invest in preparing in-depth information about each character paid off well when I started the second novel in the series with the same protagonist. All I had to do was develop maps for the characters that would appear in the next novel.
If you can "create" your major characters so that each is unique in some way, then you'll have a richer set of characters that readers will love more. But if you are a bit lazy and create each character as you write scenes, then your characters will tend to be flat or cardboard. And your sales may suffer. Remember, whatever books you publish will be read for many years to come. Do you want to put out anything less than your best work?
Here's how I do it.
For each novel, I have one file that lists all the names of characters in that novel as well as their role. For example, Neils (Nails) Borland, Chief of Police. I also list the "continuing" characters such as the protagonist, lover, friend, etc. I link those continuing character entries to their separate files.
Inside the character file for a given novel, I have a section where I list additional information for the minor characters in that novel. This can include walk-on characters who are used in only one scene, minor characters who may recur in multiple novels but are not important enough to have their own character map file.
For the major characters, however, I have a separate file in which I go into more detail. Major characters can be for the protagonist, the antagonist (after all, he/she is a major character for that novel), lovers, friends, etc. I developed separate character maps for each in which I go into much more detail.
Kind of information in a minor character's entry
This can include their role in the story as well as anything that is significant about them, such as their hair color, height, weight, personality, motivation, and agenda.
Kind of information for a major character
For the major characters, I have separate files for each. I always include their age, their physiology (height, weight, any distinguishing physical attributes such as a scar on the face, a tattoo, hair color, eye color, their race, etc.), their family (for the most major characters that includes the names of that person's parents and siblings), their family history especially if it explains why that character behaves in a certain way or has a certain career. I also list their goals, any important weaknesses, and their PMA (Personality, Motivation, and Agenda). Remember, your antagonist is also a major character and should be "developed" in his/her own file, even if you kill off the villain in the novel.
Such files don't have to be very long but should contain enough information so that if you encounter that person in your writing of scenes and need to know something about them, you can check their file. One example might be the kind of car they drive. It will bother some readers if you're sloppy about this and have the character drive a Ford sedan in one scene and later have him/her drive a Mazda sport car or an SUV.
My longest file is on my protagonist, of course, but I don't think I've ever prepared a file that is over 8 pages long. I've found that I need to "know" what drives that character and anything that explains their behavior. And their physiology of course.
When I state a character's height and weight, I also check their BMI (body mass index) to see how much fat they have. That can affect their personality or appearance. For example, I may have a large man who is tall and very muscular. So his weight can be larger than for a normal sized man of his height. If someone is six feet three inches tall and weighs 150 pounds, he may be skinny looking. But if he weighs 230 pounds, then he's very muscular or he's chubby. You can download BMI charts from the Internet. I got mine from http://www.bmicharts.net.
Naturally, you'll think of something new as you write scenes. You have to decide if that warrants inserting the information also into his/her file so you can remember it. You don't want to have a character be married in one scene and single later, unless he/she had a divorce. Likewise, he should not be much taller in one scene than another. Or eye color and hair color.
I once had a woman with blue eyes in one chapter and then four chapters later, her eyes were brown. That's a no-no that some readers will pick up on and is the kind of information that should be in a file where it can be checked to be consistent.
Some writers will also include attributes that may be important to that writer, such as religion, social clubs, hobbies, etc. Your mileage may vary.
Certainly for every character who works at a job, I include what kind of job and whether that person is happy with it. That can affect their mood.
Moods for a character
At the start of every scene, I try to picture in my mind what mood the characters will be in. For example, in one scene, I had a woman who had recently been fired from a long-term job. She was depressed and drank too much booze. Her new apartment still had boxes of unpacked stuff in the hallway when my protagonist interviewed her. And she drank the highest priced whiskey too, since her job paid extremely well and she had worked for a wealthy man. Naturally, her drinking affected her dialogue.
You get the picture.
Include in your character's file whatever you find useful to remember about him/her and want to be consistent about.
I strongly recommend to new writers that they get in the habit of developing some kind character file for the major characters. If you don't, you run the risk of having cardboard characters that are cliché--and boring. Everybody's unique in some way. If you can think of what makes that person unique BEFORE you write about him/her, then you'll have a better chance of writing richer characters.
When you are writing a new scene is NOT the best time to develop that character. Your mind will be on the plotline or their interaction with other characters.
I just finished the first draft of a novel in a series and it has too few words. So I'll be going back over the character files and scenes to see where I can go "deeper" into each character. I will be adding some new scenes too. This can add only a few thousand words, however, so I'll need to add some new characters and new conflicts. Readers love conflicts. It creates tension and tension sells books.
Also, remember that your setting can be like a character too. Have you described enough of the setting to help your readers feel they are "in the scene" with the character? Your readers can't read your mind. That's why it helps to have an editor or someone else read your manuscript and give you feedback.
Interview your main characters
Another technique that is often useful to find out those interesting details about a character is to interview him/her!
Sit down at a blank file in your word processor and pretend you are interviewing your character. You can ask anything of that character because he/she totally trusts you. After all, you are his/her author! Even males will tell you their every weakness, emotion, etc. They totally trust you.
I suggest a format like this. A is for author, C is for character. If you can have the character use his/her natural voice that is much better! Then you can capture how that person speaks and use that in the novel for their dialogue.
A: What in your earlier life led you to pursue this career?
C: I'm glad you asked, buddy. Ya see, my dad always pushed me to get a job. He was stingy with money. If I wanted money, I had to go out and earn it. I tell ya, that was hard on me at first. But after a while I got used to earning my own cash. Now, I earn more than my dad. And guess what? I won't give him any. Serves him right, the tightwad.
A: What are your goals?
C: I'm gonna be the richest man in the world!
A: What are you proud of?
C: Building my own company. Did it from the beginning.
A: What are you afraid of?
C: Goin' broke. That's why I save a lot. I invest it too. I own parts of all my vendors. Gets them motivated to keep coming back to me. Clever, eh?
Can you see where the interview may have brought out information you may not have thought of if you developed this character "on the fly"? Now that you know he's money-focused, you can give him an attitude when his scene comes up.
Don't use all the information in your manuscript
You don't have to put ALL the information you've developed about a character into your manuscript. The purpose of the character mapping is to better understand your character. Now you can write him/her with depth, with a mood or agenda, and a personality that is not cliché.
Another trick is to combine characters. For example, if you can make the husband of your character's sister someone who has an influence in your character's life or business or goals, that can make your story more complicated and interesting to your reader. For example, your brother-in-law can be a competitor for someone the character wants, such as a lover or customer.
I hope the above helps you create richer characters. And I don't mean money richer. The more you can make your characters unique, the more they will be remembered by your readers.
And after all, isn't the pleasure of your readers why you write at all?
Copyright © 2013 by Victory Crayne. All rights reserved. Please send suggestions and comments to: