Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Deeper Character Development: 5 Things to Know About Your Main Characters

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at www.StoryworldFirst.com. You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Over the past few weeks, I've done a lot of problem solving and worldbuilding. I now feel much more knowledgeable about my storyworld. I now know why the three people groups have been at war since they came to this land. And I have a reason why the Aerials justify human slavery.

There is one more area I'd like to spend time on before I really start plotting out my story in detail. I'd like to do some deeper character development--at least on my two point of view characters: Drake and Kaitlyn.

I can start writing now. And in other books, I have started writing. If I want to get something down and out of my head, or I want to see if the idea has merit, I might write some chapters. Having a goal, motivation, and story conflict is enough to get things rolling, BUT . . . I can't get very far knowing only those things. I need to know who my character is if I'm going to write a believable character arc. I can't show my character growing if I don't know what's broken in him.

I've written twenty books, and I never used the same process more than once in how I came up with my plot or developed my characters. I'm always learning, so when I read a new craft book, I take bits and pieces from it and try to incorporate that into my ever-changing process.

With character development, you've all likely seen my gigantic character chart. And while I love that chart, it's very rare that I ever completely fill it in for anyone but my few main characters. And even then, sometimes I don't. Most of the things on my giant character chart don't matter to the heart of the story. A story is about a character who rises up to face a situation and comes out changed on the other side. What he drives, whether or not he has a cat, and his favorite breakfast cereal don't matter. It might be fun to know those things, but they don't drive the story.

I do, however, have a handful of things I must know about a character in order to "play them" in the book. I think of this in terms of method acting. I need to get to know these characters deeply, so that I can accurately portray them in the story. And since I can't literally sit down and interview them, I do so in my head.

The first thing I need to ask them is, "Who are you?" And I'm not looking for a long, drawn out answer. I'm looking for a very specific label. It's the same label I would use to describe my character in a logline pitch statement. I want my character to give me an adjective + a noun that describes who they believe they are. This will help me get to know my character and to grow them over the course of the story.

When talking about loglines, over and over I've used the two examples from JAWS and Miss Congeniality, respectively: landlubber sheriff and ugly-duckling (female) FBI agent. Both of these character descriptions are a great place to start because they show conflict in what I know the character is going to face in the story. In JAWS, the sheriff is going to have to go out in a boat to try and kill a giant shark. That's hard to do for anyone, but especially a man who is afraid of the ocean. And in Miss Congeniality, the fact that she is an ugly-duckling FBI agent isn't such a big deal, until she has to enter a beauty pageant. Now we have trouble.

I've been working on this for Onyx Eyes, and I have it all figured out for both Drake and Kaitlyn. I'm going to give it to you one step at a time. To start, here are the descriptions I've given them, then as you read the five things to know about your main character below, you'll see why I chose those descriptions. You don't have to come up with any of this in order. It actually helps me to start with the dark moment story, so I often don't have my character adjective and + noun until later.

Drake: I am an abandoned warrior

Kaitlyn: I'm an invisible daughter.



1. The dark moment story.
What is that character's dark moment story? This is something that happened to them long before the story starts, often in childhood. This event was so powerful, it branded a lie into the character's heart, and ever since that day, he has been a walking definition of that lie. Defined by it. You need to dig until you figure out what that story is. Not just "he was abused by his dad." You need a moment in time that could be watched on a film, complete with five senses details. Here are mine:

Drake
Drake: My father died when I was seven. He was a soldier and was fighting against the Aerials, who were trying to take control of some Grounder border villages. He and I were close. He taught me so many important things. I loved sparring with him with the wooden swords he made me. I still hear his voice sometimes, telling me not to drop my guard.

Anyway, he died in battle. A soldier came to the door and told my mother. I was sitting on the floor just inside the door, whittling a dragon from a piece of cedar. I saw the blood splattered on the soldier's clothes--I could smell it--and I wondered if that was my father's blood. To this day, the smell of blood makes me think of my father, of his bravery.

When the soldier left, my mother got angry. She started packing clothes and muttering about how she knew this would happen, how my dad had been a fool to fight an unwinnable battle. My mother finished packing the bag and carried it to the door. She looked down at me and said, "I'm leaving. You'll stay here. I have a man up in Novahorn who'll take me in, but he doesn't care for children." And then she left. The door closed behind her with a loud thump. I stared at it for a long while, then I finally got up and opened it. I saw her in the distance, walking away, bag in one hand. She didn't look back.

Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn- (Kaitlyn was tricky because she has two families. So I decided to use the family she was born into [spoilers!] because that would have been the family she lived in during her formative years.)

I came from a really large family with seven children. I was child number five in the long line. My older brothers were already married and had children of their own, and it was my job to cook all the meals and to look after my little sisters and my nieces and nephews. I love my family, but I often felt more like a mom than a child. And it was really hard to get any attention from my parents. Father worked as a soldier, and mother was a maid in the castle. I did one thing for myself back then. I loved to bake. So when the marketplace had a baking contest, I entered my best cuskynoles, which are bite-sized tarts filled with apples, pears, figs, and raisins. My brother always said I made the best cuskynoles--even better than his wife's, so I wasn't terribly surprised when they made the top five. My entire family was summoned to the marketplace the next day, where judges would taste the top entries in each category and choose winners.

I told my family about it, and my parents both promised to be there. The next day, I arranged for our neighbor to come over and watch the children so I could go to the market. I won first place. But my parents never arrived. No one from my family came. That night at home, I made roasted chicken with potatoes and carrots with my award-winning cuskynoles for dessert. Everyone ate with no mention of how the judging had gone. I was working up the courage to share when my elder sister announced she was getting married. The whole house erupted in celebration, and I never got a chance to tell anyone I had won or show them my ribbon. I cleared the table and did the dishes, feeling completely forgotten. I never made cuskynoles again. And I hate roasted chicken.


2. What lie does your character believe about himself as a result of that dark moment story?

Drake: I am worthless. No one wants me around.

Kaitlyn: I'm invisible. Nobody sees me. Everyone else is more important that I am. There must be something wrong with me.


3. What wound did your character suffer from that event?

Drake: His wound was being abandoned and the shame of being unwanted by his own mother.

Kaitlyn: Her wound is being forgotten and the immense disappointment that came with it.  


4. What flaw came out of this? How does your character behave in order to protect himself from suffering another similar wound and being hurt again?

Drake: He is distant from people. A loner. Sometimes considered cold. Very independent. He finds it difficult to develop close relationships with people and has never had a close friendship.

Kaitlyn: She doesn't rely on others. People can't be trusted. She is an over-achiever, a hard worker, and overly self-critical. She has a hard time making decisions, and is unable to be spontaneous because she doesn't want to risk future disappointments.


5. What is your character's greatest fear? 
Hint: It should be related to his dark moment story manifesting again his his life. And it should manifest again, in the black moment or disaster part of your three-act-structure.

Drake: His greatest fear is that he is unlovable. That he might love someone and be rejected.

Kaitlyn: Her greatest fear is that she is worthless and doesn't matter in this world. That she could vanish and no one would ever miss her.



Okay, so fast-forward to the present...

What is their greatest dream? Knowing all those things about your character's past will help you discover what your character wants and why? This is not a plot question, but an internal one. This is something deep inside your character that propels him through the story.

Drake wants to be part of a family.

Kaitlyn wants a deep and meaningful friendship with someone who sees her.

And since this series will have a romantic subplot, it's important that Drake and Kaitlyn will help each other overcome their lies and wounds and achieve their greatest dreams. They are a good fit because if Drake takes the risk to love someone and is loved in return, he will be fiercely loyal because such a relationship will be priceless to him. That's the kind of devotion Kaitlyn needs to achieve her greatest dream.

And Drake's greatest dream is that he would be part of a family, and while Kaitlyn was hurt by her family, she still loves them. And they are a big, wild, crazy family that will accept Drake as one of them, even if they don't give him a lot of attention. That's the kind of family Drake has always wanted.

One more thing to mention. Once you have all this figured out, you need to give your character some competing goals. I'm currently working on my sixth and (final!) Mission League book. And Spencer is going to reach a place where his two more important goals conflict (stopping the bad guys OR signing a contract to play college basketball at a D1 school), and he'll be forced to choose between them. What he chooses could very well change his life, but since it's at the end of the story, he will now be equipped to make that choice (the right choice), when at the start of book one, he was far too immature to even think about such a selfless act.

So here are some competing goals for Drake and Kaitlyn. If I plot (and write) my story well, hopefully they will both be forced to choose between these goals in the story. They might choose wrong at first, but by the end of the story, they should have grown enough to sacrifice something important to do the right thing. These goals might not mean much to you, but they are events in the story that I will work hard to make sure my characters will have to choose between at some point.

Drake: Find the missing princess. Stop the Aerial slave trade. Help Kaitlyn find her missing brother.

Kaitlyn: Find her missing brother. Find out who she is. Rescue Drake from prison.


Can you answer the following about your characters?


Who are you? (Give a specific adjective + noun.)

1. What is your dark moment story?
2. What lie do you believe because of that event?
3. What wound did you suffer as a result of that event?
4. What flaw did you develop from that wound?
5. What is your greatest fear?

Because of all that, what do you want most in life?

What else do you want (that will compete with what you want most in life)?

Share your answers in the comments!


28 comments:

  1. One of the first things I thought when I saw these questions was: what if the character doesn't have a dark moment story? What if they grew up in a safe, stable environment with a family who loved them, and they never experienced anything worse than a stubbed toe? One of my MCs is kind of like this.

    But when I thought about it more deeply, I realised that this lack of true hardship brings about its own problems. For my MC, this becomes painfully apparent when he is forced to leave his home for a dangerous, unfamiliar place. He thinks he has a grasp on the situation (he doesn't, so that's a lie), is too trusting (a flaw), and fears having to face challenges alone and without aid.

    I think we all need to be mindful of falling into the trap of thinking that this "dark moment" has to be something utterly traumatising. Bad things did happen when my MC was young, but nothing that I feel has had a significant effect on who he is today. But this post has made me think about how my MC's current behaviour is linked to his past and, conversely, how my character should probably behave given his past. So thanks!

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    1. Oh, I think that's a very good point, and something a lot of readers would relate to! For most people life is too easy. They are comfortable, content where they are. They believe the whole world to be mostly perfect, as long as you avoid causing trouble. Yet... if they actually do something, anything they will find out they were believing a lie, that their logic is flawed.

      I love stories where the character grows and learns! Dark moments give you insight, but a lack of dark moments could result in future dark moments that require one to learn soooooo much! :D

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    2. Such a great point, Rebecca. It doesn't have to be traumatizing. What you've come up with is perfect. Glad this got you thinking.

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  2. Thank you for the post! I can see how these points would be vital to good character development. Your worksheet has been very helpful to me with this kind of stuff. As I was reading your post I notice that your MC Drake sounds very similar to one of my MCs Reed. It's Ironic really, how similar their backstories are, only Reed's mother walked out with Reed and his little brother leaving their alcoholic Dad behind. Reed ends up working with a smuggler to try and take care of his family (the captain of the ship become a ort of father figure). Reed's mother never uses the money he sends home though (both she and Reed's littler brother die). All of this makes Reed's lie that he isn't good enough, not hero material, and can never be saved.
    I really, really want to read your book now though.
    - Book Dragon

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    1. Good job, Book Dragon. Their backstories are similar, but also different too. It sounds like you've really done a great job of incorporating Reed's past into his present.

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  3. In my world, monsters hunt the streets of the main character's town (Ember's Peak) at night.

    Who are you?
    A Terrified Defender

    1. What is your dark moment story?
    My friend Abigail and I were walking around town, just talking. You know, like teenagers do. We'd lost track of the time a long time ago. It was only as the last rays of sunlight lit up the mountain to the East that we realized how late we were. We hurried through the streets to reach home--either of our homes. It didn't matter which one.
    Before we could make it to safety, a troll lumbered across our path. We turned and ran until our breath felt like a solid lump in our chest, but though the troll seemed slow and bulky, its huge legs allowed it to cover a lot of ground. Finally, we found a crack in a wall big enough to hide us both. The troll never stopped trying to get at us, not through the whole night. Only when the sky began to lighten and the stars vanished did he turn and leave, heading back to the forest before the sun could strike his skin and turn him to stone.

    2. What lie do you believe because of that event?
    The feeling that I could do nothing, that I was utterly helpless in the face of the monsters that nightly invade our town.

    3. What wound did you suffer as a result of that event?
    A horrible, cold, clenching fear in my gut every time I see a monster.

    4. What flaw did you develop from that wound?
    I threw myself into learning combat, so I'd never be in that situation again. I absorbed myself into it so wholeheartedly that I had time for almost nothing--and no one--else.

    5. What is your greatest fear?
    That I'll encounter a foe stronger than I could ever hope to face. That I'll have no chance of fighting, no chance of running, nothing whatsoever I can do to escape the inevitable death it brings.


    Because of all that, what do you want most in life?
    I want to protect my city. I don't want anyone else to suffer the same fate I did, the utter helplessness.

    What else do you want (that will compete with what you want most in life)?
    I want to live a normal life, and be a normal girl. I want to not put myself in danger.

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    1. Good job, Christine. This character's motivation is sound!

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  4. Thank you for the post! The dark moment example for Kaitlyn really made me love her, because her memory was what could have been a very small memory to someone else but completely changed her, which is what most memories really do. Super cool!

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    1. Thanks, M! While there are many who experience major traumas, I think that most often it is a little thing that happens at just the wrong time and we carry it with us.

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  5. Thanks for the post! I'm always looking for more/better things to ask my characters to get to know them more. I do have a question related to characters, though. How do you come up with last names for your characters? I know a lot of people have problems coming up with names in general, but I don't want to use names that other people have, so I make up names that no one would ever be able to pronounce.

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    1. I usually Google some random country + the word "surnames" and that gives me lots of lists. Sure, there will be names on there that sound very Western, but there will be some on there that won't. You can Google so many different things. Just the other day I Googles "Norwegian surnames" and "old saxon surnames." One of my favorite lists I found once was a list of Hebrew surnames from medieval times. I used that list so much! So choose a country where the culture is a hint like the one you're looking for names in, then Google it with the word name or surnames or even dictionary, and scroll through until you see some you like. And you'll be able to use parts of them too, to make your own. That's what I do.

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    2. Thanks! I'll try that!

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  6. Kaitlyn's dark moment though, that one really makes me feel bad for her. Poor girl. Anyway, I want to read Onyx Eyes more and more each week!

    As for my primary cast, here goes nothing:

    The MC, Lily, she doesn't have a specific dark moment in her backstory. Her moment happens in book one. She starts off doing all she can to suppress any and all emotion, deeming it ridiculous, and disregards something important her father told her, just because he began a statement with the words: "I feel". Anyway, her 'logic' almost gets him killed, and that's when she makes up her mind that she is a horrible person. She then recognizes the need to find a balance between heart and mind, and develops a deep fear of failing her father, or later, her friends. She would easily label herself as a 'cold-hearted monster'.

    Her father, William, had his dark moment when Lily was six. She was kidnapped and nearly killed. Even though father and daughter have always managed to come out alive, he's absolutely terrified that, as much as he loves her, one day, he won't be enough to save her.

    Next is Lily's friend, Nick, and they officially hate each other. (A defense mechanism of sorts.) His dark moment is the worst of the lot. It happened first at age fourteen. Upon returning home after arguing with his mother and storming off, he found her on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood, murdered. Many a time, he wondered if things could have turned out differently had he been there. Worse, two years later, his little sisters were murdered. The thing is, that time, he was there, and he wasn't able to stop it. All three deaths were caused by Nick's father and his gang of children, all of which are older than Nick, far larger, (And are also major villains in the series). Now, it's basically an established fact for him that if he cares about someone, anyone, he is sentencing them to death, he will never be able to save them.

    Then we've got Sylvia. Her childhood has been incredibly lonely because her adoptive father (The primary villain, who kidnapped her as a baby), kept her mostly isolated. Her dark moment was when she decided to run away, got chased by a couple creeps, and was narrowly saved by a towering stranger. The whole incident gave her the idea that good people were a rare thing, that it really was safer in isolation.

    Then, we've got Tom, who is quite secretive about his personal life. First of all, he's the random stranger who saved Sylvia, second of all, he's actually her father, which he keeps from her because he's afraid of having to be her father (Honestly, he ran away before she was even born because he was afraid). His biggest problem is the fact that any sort of commitment or friendship terrifies him. As for why, he's always been that way, but it has been amplified a couple times over the course of his life.

    I could go far more in detail, but I think I've already gotten quite carried away. Sorry about that.

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    1. Not at all Gwen, you did great! You're really getting into your character's heads and finding out what makes them tick. That's awesome. I enjoyed reading about your characters. :-)

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  7. This is so, so awesome. I have one character in particular whose role is kind of to be confusing, but I still have trouble figuring him out because of that. I'll try to fill out these questions for him.


    Rishatta: I am an unloved son.
    A little backstory: In this world all the characters have particular powers that give them different things they can do. Some are stronger with cooler powers, others have lesser powers. Rishatta's power is lesser, but his father has a really, really powerful ability.

    So his dark moment came when he was about eleven and his father was meeting with important people and showed off Rishatta's younger sister (who /does/ have a very impressive power) and completely didn't even mention that Rishatta was his son. He believes because of this that he's lesser, that his father doesn't care (which may actually be true) and that he has no worth because he isn't as powerful as others around him. Because of this, he'll do everything he can to try to gain his father's approval, even if it violates his conscience or goes against what he believes is right.

    This exercise was SO helpful! Thanks, Jill! :D

    Faith//thefloridsword.blogspot.com

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    1. Awesome, Faith. This sounds really intriguing. And that's a powerful dark moment, too.

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    2. Wow, I like the depth of your character and his dark moment, Faith!

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  8. Who are you? (Give a specific adjective + noun.)
    Who I am depends on who you ask. I'm An Unknown Seeker to myself, but and Accidental Mistake to those who found me.


    What is your dark moment story?
    I have no story that I can remember. All I know is that I woke up not knowing anything about myself, where I came from, etc..., and that this organization rescued me from being killed by a LeShû (a dangerous ice dragon), which I find hard to believe. Especially since I now have to stay with these control freaks for protection, not to mention my supposed 'life debt' I have to pay off. This, obviously, is a bit suspicious, but there is not really anything I can do about the situation until I get some information. Which I WILL get, mind you. I WILL find out who I am, by MYSELF, because no one else will tell me the Truth.


    What lie do you believe because of that event?
    I don't know for sure. I do know that it is not what they say, (though I can't help but have some doubts when no one comes to rescue me), but I don't know anything else, other than the 'fact' that the only one I can trust is myself.


    What wound did you suffer as a result of that event?
    Insecurity. Do I really matter? Am I an accident after all? Is there anyone who really cares?


    What flaw did you develop from that wound?
    I HAVE TO KNOW. I had to have had a family to have been born, so there must be someone out there looking for me. I am torn between NEEDING to have someone to trust, and being unable to. Everything is so confusing, I'm unsure about what is up and what is down. So I Must Find Out, even if it kills me.


    What is your greatest fear?
    Being lied to. Not knowing anything. Having no one to watch my back. Forever being insecure about what to believe.


    Because of all that, what do you want most in life?
    For my family to find me, and for me to find out the truth.


    What else do you want (that will compete with what you want most in life)?
    I want to take down this corrupt organization. I'm not the only one being lied to, I'm just the only one who doesn't know who I was before I was brought here. If I can expose these people, it will free the other people being deceived.

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    1. Great job, Becca. This is very interesting. You're doing a great job of getting into your character's head. :-)

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    2. I love the situation your character is in as well as how that character's voice came through the interview. It sounds like a fantastic story!

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    3. Thanks! I appreciate the support!

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  9. How helpful! This was such a great post, and it's in perfect timing as I'm trying to sort out my main character for my current WIP. I was mentally answering the questions for my character as I read, and this was able to show me some of the motivation for my character and how he might act in certain situations. I've been struggling with this character's backstory and motivation for a while, and this is really helping to clear the path to my final goal. Thank you so much for this post!

    ~True // atruewriter.blogspot.com

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    1. You are so welcome. I'm glad it was helpful. :-)

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  10. I will definitely be referencing this post in the future! Thank you!

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  11. Very helpful seeing these progressive questions to ask one's characters. It was especially helpful to see you walk through them with your own characters. In other words, the example of how it could play out helped me catch the vision of where this is all going and how it plays into everything.

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  12. This was so helpful and makes it easier to writing relatable characters and flesh them out more. And I nearly cried when I read about Kaityln. I can relate to that since I have been through the same of what she had gone through and experience the feelings of being invisible to everybody. But I will definitely share this post to my other friends who are also trying to write and flesh out their characters. ^^

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  13. I don't usually comment, but this post has been insanely helpful in developing my main character. I'm not going to post everything I've written here, because it's very long, but it helped me define my MC's personality a lot, and gave me ideas for future plot points.

    Onyx Eyes also sounds amazing from all your posts about it! I can't wait till it's publsihed.

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