Creating a character is not always easy. Sometimes they just come to life in your head, but sometimes they keep to themselves as they move through your story and you have to probe a little deeper to find out what really makes them tick. It can take a long time before you know them, and you might be approaching the end of the first draft of your story before something clicks and one of your characters suddenly comes alive, telling you that they would not have said what you had them say 100 pages ago, or that there’s no way they would have done what you made them do in the previous chapter.
As writers, you might sometimes feel restrained by your imagination, but the truth is that your imagination is limitless. The characters and situations you create come out of your own heads, of course, but here are some methods you can use to focus your imagination when developing or strengthening the presence and profile of your characters.
1. Sit Around A Table
Imagine that you and a small number of close friends or family members are seated around a table. You might be playing games; having drinks or dinner; having a family meeting; or discussing where to go on your long-awaited group vacation? What you are trying to get to when it comes to creating a memorable character is a reaction along the lines of “That’s exactly what he’d say”, or “I wouldn’t expect anything different from her”, or “It’s so like them to do something like that”.
When your character is so well-rounded that your readers can either anticipate how they will react or, alternatively, be shocked by their reaction, you’re on to a winner. This will create emotional investment and lead to either cheering your character on or praying for them to lose. If your readers don’t care either way, you’ve missed an opportunity.
If a character does something ‘out of character’, you had better explain why. You can do this either by a clear or implied accumulation of ‘stressers’ beforehand, or in an explanatory reveal after the ‘out of character’ dialogue (an angry outburst, perhaps) or action (did he really just kill that girl?). You can, of course, do all of this retrospectively in a later draft, writing the reasons for unexpected actions or reactions back into the narrative to create this build-up.
2. Become A ‘People-Watcher’
Unless you have multiple personalities, the best way to learn how to convey the behaviours and perspectives of others is to observe them. Watch people in the grocery store; or at a bar; or in the car next to you at the traffic lights. Steal furtive glances at the person eating their lunch on a park bench, or the person in the queue at the coffee shop. Watch how they pass the time when there’s no one around (maybe they talk to themselves) or how they interact with others. They will interact differently with strangers, compared to people they know. Does this reveal something about their character?
Of course, for the more private situations, you’ll have to fall back on your imagination! Remember that when people know they are being watched, they act differently. So, whatever you do, don’t get caught!
3. Meet Your Character
Lots of writers dream about their characters or the situations they write about. Many of them wake up thinking, ‘That’s a great idea!’, only to find this apparent Eureka moment drifting away into the ether of another day. Others simply come to realise when fully lucid that it was not, in fact, a great idea. The mind can play such terrible tricks!
You will know, of course, that when you’re in ‘the zone’, everything flows wonderfully; and true inspiration leads to true creation. Getting into the zone is the difficult part. So, why not set the scene and meet your character? No matter your genre, you can do this any way you see fit – whether you magic yourself into the world you’ve created, or you liberate your character from their constraints.
Sit down with your character or go for a coffee. Go on a mutant-hunting spree or steal a spacecraft and explore the stars with them. Indulge in bank heists as part of a team-building exercise. The choices are limitless, no longer bound even by the story you’re writing or the rules of your fictional universe.
Ask your character anything you like, but keep it conversational. Challenge your characters' ideologies or flaws; flatter them, insult them, flirt with them…attack them. Everything you do will inspire a response, and you might get to the heart of matters that have long concerned you, such as motivations, aspirations, fears, and idiosyncrasies. Everything you do will add layers of reality to your character, helping you to colour their actions and reactions, their words and responses, their inner thoughts…the list goes on.
4. The Interview
Similar to interrogating your chosen character, this scenario prompts you to pick your character out of your fictional world and place them in a ‘safe space’ – it can be anywhere at any time and in any form – where they are free to explain and explore themselves without fear of judgement or consequence. When you speak to your character, they may perceive you as a threat, and so might hold back or provide you with falsities designed to mislead you (depending on their personality). In the Interview Room, you can invite characters with whom the interviewee might be comfortable, or at the very least willing to open up to. If all else fails, hypnotise them and get the truth!
Another point: the interviewer could be living or dead (from a real or fictional perspective) or someone you never dreamed of before. The strength of this approach is that you may also meet other characters and the interactions between two or more could flesh out many people to populate your universe.
5. Travel Through Time
This is a great method for exploring your character. Some writers build character profiles, but they often force details into them just to fill the gaps and feel like their character is well-rounded. Where do these details come from? The character didn’t get a say at all! Here is a fun way to expand your characters' profiles by giving them more ‘autonomy’.
Choose a character and take them on a journey through time. Start with their childhood and move forward through their personal development, forcing them to face their memories and insecurities and the layers of life they’ve eschewed as they deal with other people around them (and maybe some of your other characters) on a ‘daily’ basis. These layers are who they really are, the deep truths that determine how they interact with others and how they respond to challenges.
Question your characters as if judging and evaluating them. Make suggestions, and analyse the choices they made. Tackle their conclusions and presumptions, point out the consequences and ask if they would prefer to have done things differently. Remember, in all of this, that your own experiences and personality (and those of people you know) can be used as a template for a character timeline of eventualities. You can shuffle events and experiences, replacing them with a host of options at any given crossroads.
If you just relax and let this process flow - as you should with all of the above suggestions - you will find that your character profile is led not by randomly filled traits you choose just to keep your characters different from each other; but instead by the things that make us all who we are – our experiences, our memories, our interactions, our loves and losses, and so on. And instead of those things simply listed in a profile form like pins in a map, you have instead explored their reality. And you didn’t travel alone.