building characters

Another Writing Exercise

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I wrote this snippet of backstory for my character, Rebecca.   It may never be in the final draft, but writing a short scene helps me deepen my characters.  After I wrote my rough draft, I put this piece into the  The Hemingway Editor.  This editor highlights adverbs, confusing sentences and when you used the passive voice.  I found it very helpful.

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Glass shattered. Rebecca startled awake.  They’re fighting again.  She looked over at her bedside clock. It was 1:57 am.  She heard the sound of angry voices from the kitchen, but couldn’t understand what her parents were saying.  Rebecca gripped her pink sheets and turned to her five-year old sister, who was curled up on the other side of the bed.

“Amelia, are you awake?” she whispered.

“Yes.” Amelia whimpered.

Rebecca moved closer to her sister and snuggled her close to her body.  “It’ll be OK.” Rebecca said soothingly, though her eyes burned and her lip quivered. Amelia sniffled.  I hate that it has to be this way.

Rebecca heard more incoherent yelling and a feminine scream followed by a loud crashing noise. Why does she let him treat her that way?  Rebecca was used to nights like these.  When she was younger she used to cry as her parents fought, but now she only cowered, berating herself for not being stronger, for not defending her mother.  But, what can I do? He’ll just beat me if I try to stop him.  A door slammed shut. Then a car started and sped away.  Rebecca hugged Amelia tighter.  The house was silent for a moment.  Then Rebecca heard the hum of the T.V and her mother’s stifled sobs.

Getting to Know your Characters

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I’ve found that writing a scene from your work-in-progress can help develop your characters.  It doesn’t have to be exactly what will be in the final draft, but it can give you an idea of how your character acts.  Here’s what I wrote today to get to know my protagonist.

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It was morning. Nathaniel woke up, earlier than usual, even though he was already an early riser.  He got dressed and went outside to the bonfire area, and sat on one of the logs, which were used as chairs.  The remains of last night’s bonfire were left in the fire pit. Nathaniel started to pray his morning prayers, when his eye caught a notebook lying abandoned on the log next to him.  The cover was filled with artistic swirls that looked hand drawn. The artist had some skill.  Nathaniel walked over, and flipped through it, looking for a name inside, but couldn’t find one.  He felt strangely drawn to it.  He didn’t know if it was the appeal of the art, or simply the mystery of it.

The first page had a realistic sketch of a girl.  He vaguely recognized her. Her hair was loosely curled, dark brown with thin caramel streaks.  She was sitting in a moderately suggestive way.    Under the drawing the artist wrote in feminine handwriting: Broken. Seeking love.  There was also a sketch of a bleeding heart, with many keys stabbing into it.  The artist used dark colors.  Nathaniel flipped the page, still entranced.

The next page was in stark contrast to the one before.  It was filled with springtime colors, and a sketch of a cute red-haired girl.  Her eyes looked lively, and her crooked smile was sincere.  Under her, were the words: Naive.  Life may be a sad surprise. The bottom was filled with swirly bird sketches.

Don’t read the rest. He thought to himself.  He flipped the page, and was surprised to find a drawing of himself.  Under his picture were the words: Strong.  Will make a girl happy one day.  He stared at these unspoken compliments and wondered who said them. He suddenly felt very intrusive.  These were the artist’s secret thoughts, and here he was reading them.  The artist must be a girl.

He flipped to the very end of the book, and at the bottom of the page, in small cursive letters it read: Rebecca.  He remembered meeting Rebecca.  She was a quiet girl, and very pretty. She had long straight blonde hair and sad brown eyes.  He was overfilled with a strong urge to know her.

He flipped to another page, written on it was a poem:

Sadness overfills

Salty tears fall down my face

Broken hearted girl 

Was this poem about herself? Or someone else?  He was impressed by the artist’s eloquence. Attraction flickered in his heart. He wanted to comfort her. Don’t think about her. She’s not an option. Not now. She’s only seventeen.

He flipped to a page with a sketch of Ignatius. He looked handsome, with a fake smile and sad eyes.  He looks broken. I never saw that in him. Under him were the words: Searching.  Aching for truth amidst the lies.

He closed the notebook quickly and took it inside the cabin.  He was still thinking of her.

 

Rounded Characters

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Recently, I’ve really been struggling with finding my protagonist’s motivation and core need, two vital ingredients for likable, believable characters. I think that to find this, you must look at the character’s whole personality. Today, I tried a new approach for character development that worked very well: mind mapping.  I use a free software called XMind.  This created a picture of my protagonist’s complete personality: strengths, weaknesses, fears. To start, I put his name in the center.  Then, I made a main topic for each of his personality traits.  Then, I created subtopics off of the main topics.  These are examples of the personality trait or how it affects their life.

Example:

Main topic: strong

Subtopics: he likes to exercise, he’s a good leader, he’s calm under pressure.

 

Click to see my protagonist’s mindmap

Nathaniel Kapaun mindmap image

 I learned two things today. First, find your character’s motivation and core need before you figure out the rest of their personality, and second, use a mind map and a character development worksheet. This forces you to think about your character in two different ways, it uses different parts of your brain. 

Flitting Around

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I’m in the developing characters stage in my current work in progress.  This time, I decided to only work on one character sketch at a time.  I chose this because I’ve found that if I try to work on all of them at once, I flit from character to character, ending up with many half-way developed characters, instead of one solid character.

Every day for about a week now, I’ve worked on building my protagonist for about 1- 1 1/2 hours.  Now, I only have three more questions to answer until I can move on to the love interest!  I think this will save time in the long run and create better formed characters. Sometimes, I’d want to move on to another character, but I’d force myself to think about my protagonist instead.  I find the enegram types and the four temperaments can help me create believable strengths and weaknesses in my characters, especially if my character is opposite from me, like my current choleric/sanguine hero.  Sticking to only one character also helped me focus and discipline myself, two skills that are writers need.

What are your favorite ways to develop characters?