Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles (first here) on the fundamentals of character development written for Writers.com by our instructor Gloria Kempton, in support of a full character development course she’s developing. In this article, Gloria answers a number of commonsense questions about character development.
1. What makes a character relatable?
Vulnerability. Psychic wounds. Imperfections. Foibles. Unresolved trauma. Addictions. Transparency. Ability to laugh at oneself. A degree of self-abasement and humility. Courage to face fears. Desire to sacrifice for others.
These traits should be worked into your plot, giving your characters every possible moment to both stumble and shine. Each character must, in one way, be completely lovable and in another, be capable of falling hard and letting all of the other characters down. The reader needs to be able to see herself in your characters.
2. What is the secret to creating characters who have breath?
Extending the hand of friendship. We must make friends with our characters. I don’t mean that we necessarily have to want to hang out with them. But we must at some point embrace both their strengths and weaknesses, their light and dark sides, their sanity and psychoses. In order to live close to them for however long it takes you to write a story, you must not only be able to tolerate your characters, but you must be willing to live next door to them and invite them into your home—yes, even, on occasion, the “ bad guys.” If you don’t feel safe, go visit them in prison, but in any case, be brave enough to befriend your characters.
Like it or not, our characters are extensions of us. We certainly don’t like everything our children do, but we don’t disown them because of bad behavior.
3. What is the biggest challenge writers have when it comes to creating characters?
The inability to understand the depths of our nature as human beings. It’s never a lack of writing ability. It’s a lack of knowledge and experience in understanding the essence of our human nature and then knowing how that nature is expressed in relationship with other human beings. In order to create characters that breathe and move and talk, we have to get outside and away from our computers at times.
My volunteer work in jails and prisons for the last 26 years has by far been the one element that has most informed my work as a writer. Because the men aren’t afraid to tell me who they are. Their honesty and vulnerability has caused me to grow in my storytelling skills more than any population I’ve ever before engaged with. For you, it doesn’t have to be prisoners, but find the population of humans that speaks to you, and get out there and hang out.
4. What is the most difficult kind of character to create?
I would have to say that after many years of coaching writers, the characters that writers struggle with the most are the shadow characters. The dark ones. The unconscious ones. The ones that resist our pressure to conform to what we want them to do.
This is because as writers, we don’t like to look at our own dark sides, and so we find it challenging to create characters who think, talk, and act in ways we hope we never would. We don’t know these characters who show up in our stories, and we don’t want to. We use them as a device to create conflict for our heroes, but devices aren’t three-dimensional. They’re plastic and one-dimensional, and the reader can sense that something is off.
As much as possible, we must understand and be at least somewhat able to be present to the kind of darkness we create for our dark characters.
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5. What’s the formula for developing authentic characters?
I don’t advocate using formulas, but there are a few tried and true elements of creating authentic characters.
Interview all of your characters before you start writing your story. Ask as many questions as you possibly can, and not ones that they can answer with a “yes” or “no.” You might want to put them all on stage at the same time, and see if they play off of each other when answering your questions. Don’t ask predictable questions—take your characters off guard. Doing this, you can discover some fun and imaginative facts about your characters. They’ll surprise you.
Become your characters
Be brave enough to become your characters. One of the assignments in my Starting to Write class is to write from a perspective that is opposite from the one you hold. Take risks and be willing to listen to and be open to characters who want to talk but whom are very different than you are.
Just for fun, write a brief scene in each character’s first-person viewpoint and see if your story takes off. You’ll discover voices coming out from inside yourself you didn’t even know were there.
Using the enneagram
I recommend using two personality studies; the Enneagram and Archetypes. You can look both of them up on line and do your own study. Once you know your character’s Enneagram number and major archetypes, you know your character—how she’s going to act, move, and talk much of the time.
Refuse to judge your characters. The major key to creating authentic characters is to hold an open space for each of them, letting them be themselves without fear that you’re going to kill them off because they suddenly reveal something you don’t like. You’re the writer, but the story isn’t about you. At least, it shouldn’t be. If you want to write your story, write a memoir. (There’s a place, of course, for using fiction to write about yourself, but the truth is, the characters don’t usually come off as authentic because the writer keeps hiding from the truth about himself for fear of a reader somewhere discovering that it’s really his life story. My experience.)
And that’s how to create characters that breathe!
If you can pull off all of the above, you’ll have created characters that the reader will engage with, connect to, and follow from the first to the last page of your story.
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