On Writing: Characters

I’m going to admit that for me characters are the Alpha and Omega of my writing and reading universe. If the characters are good enough I’m willing to read a 100,000 word novel about walking across a field. (Ok probably not, but I might.) Over the years I’ve read 100’s of different ways that authors come up with the vibrant personalities in their stories and they range from “I figure out who they are as I write.” to “I have a 20 page biography on every character in my novel.”

For me it is somewhere in between and as many of other writers processes have helped me to develop mine I wanted to share and hopefully someone out there will find it helpful in tweaking their own process a little. From this point on I’m just going to lay things out as if they are reality but remember everything I write is opinion. There is no one true way is my motto in life so if something else works for you …. Kudos!

For every Book I write I create a book Bible a reference document with all the details I need to remember while I’m writing. Part of that is my Character list where I store all the names, type of character, physical descriptors, personality descriptors, Book events, and general notes.

Today I’m only going to go over the types of characters that I use and what information I record and when.

Types of Characters

Characters in my Novels break down into five categories:

  1. Main Characters
  2. Secondary Characters
  3. D- List Actors
  4. Spear Carriers
  5. Scenery

Lets tackle these in reverse order because I’m feeling opposite today 😛

Scenery

Scenery Characters are the noise necessary to make a world realistic. The rowdy crowd at the bar, scared civilians in the street, or sometimes the kids of a secondary character that run around and play to drive the main character insane. These characters have no names and should never receive more than one or two adjectives. Treat them like you would a table or spooky tree. The only action that will come out of them will be on mass or in general statements. Don’t waste time planning these out just add them as the story needs and forget them.

Spear Carriers

Sometimes called Red Shirts these intrepid imaginary people are needed to further a scene but not the plot as a whole. At any point you could completely change their appearance/ gender/ political affiliation and no one would care as long as they do the action necessary to move the scene along. These are the henchmen, drunk idiot who tries to pick up a girl, or helpful snitch who passes along key information. Now I usually create these guys during a scene but I pause long enough to give them a shape and personality before writing about them.

Details I record –

  1. Police line up information (Physical Descriptors)
  2. Style of Clothing or notable accessories (weapons tattoos vehicles)
  3. Mood for the Scene
  4. Name/Accent if there is one

That done I write the scene and pretty much forget them immediately and I only add them to my Book Bible if I gave them a name to make sure I don’t give that name to someone else.

D- List Actors

Ok now we come to my favorite characters! Probably love these guys even more then my MC at points. D-List Actors are a category of character I made up myself but have found it to be true in all of my favorite books. So I’m going to share what they mean to me. Much like in a movie where you see a walk on role for someone semi famous these characters are created purely for the entertainment of the audience and to give your Main Characters grief(I mean emotional depth). If they move the main plot along, great, but their main purpose is for Character development in your MC and to entertain the reader (though tehy are not always comedic).

These are characters you may or may not use for more than one scene and might even be secondary characters but they are memorable enough that a reader walks away thinking … I wonder what their story is. Good examples of the D-List Actor Character from books I’ve recently read: A spunky Grandma that kicks the MC out of a funk by telling inappropriate sex jokes about Grandpa, an over the top Drag Queen that beat down a Biker for interrupting her show, or my favorite Sassy Southern Bell ex stripper that gives great phone advice when the MC needs it.

I actually have a totally separate document full of ideas for these characters that I can pull on as needed. To me these gems are created by blending often over the top people or characters I know. Example: Dolly Parton/Doctor Phil RuPaul/Dog the Bounty Hunter, or Tinkerbell/Casanova.

Remember to use these characters sparingly to keep them special and to not out shine your MC!

Main/Secondary Characters

Now we’ve reached the stars of the cast. The characters that are going to take over your writing from the moment you start putting them on page. For those of you that learn who these people are as you go… uhm wow because there is no way I could write a scene without knowing the personalities involved and stay true to the characters throughout the book. But Bravo for keeping it all straight.

Now I’m not saying what I decide before the novel starts is set in stone. Sometimes I tweak or totally change a Character after I start but if I didn’t have them solidly as people in my head I would never get a sentence out. So how do I make these guys real? Asking and answering a series of questions is Key to the birth a character in my mind. The pain of going through the exercise is their birth and well worth the time. For the Protagonist/Antagonist I go through all of these questions and come up with at least a paragraph answer for each. Then I use a subset of those questions for any Secondary character depending on their intended roll in the story.

Questions:

  1. What would they Do if they were attacked?
  2. What would they do if they saw a stranger attacked?
  3. What do they do for fun?
  4. What is their idea of paradise?
  5. What would they kill to defend?
  6. What would they die for?
  7. Dream/Actual Profession?
  8. Why are they in this story/world?

Everything beyond that to me is gravy and stats that can either impact or not your story. Often many of the physical descriptions for my characters come from me seeing I have too many Blonds or too many women and often change several times in editing.

Oh helpful tip while you are writing if you are using a program that supports it any time you write a description of a person or place add a footnote/Comment with the name/place so you can search easy later to add to your Story Bible and edit if you need to change.

Ok I think I’ve babbled enough for the day. Hope my view on how to develop characters helped!

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