Characters. They’re the little engines that make the whole story tick. Without them, you would just have your setting. It may be an absolutely lovely setting, but without anyone to journey through it just becomes a barren landscape with the occasional tumbleweed rolling by. Every story needs a hero. We all know this. It just making the hero that’s the tricky part...
When I sit down to write (and I’ve finally gone through the agony of naming my core characters) I go straight to work diving into the story, because who needs orderly steps right?? Still, even if a lot is happening all at once in my creative process, I know I have to have fleshed out characters in my mind or I won’t know where I’m going. A lot of the time, I genuinely feel that I’m getting to know the characters as I tell the story and they grow before my eyes, but in the instances when I feel they need a little self-discovery push I have several different techniques to get them that final distance.
Get visual aids
Sometimes my problem is finding the finer points of a character is solely based around their appearance. When writing about a character’s appearance, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into telling the reader their hair color and eye color, but nothing more. Believe me, there’s a whole world of physical description out there that goes way beyond eye and hair color. I know, because I’ve had to force myself to actually look into it instead of sitting back on those two descriptors (which I’m always tempted to do).
If I’m absolutely stuck and completely drawing a blank on my characters appearance, Pinterest is always ready to save the day. I’ll hop on there and start acting like I’m casting the movie version of my book. I’ll pin headshots of actors I think would be perfect for the role and use their appearance as a frame of reference when considering what other aspects of appearance I can branch out into describing.
And yes, this approach works with my anthropomorphized animal books as well. I can assure you that on secret Pinterest boards I have pictures of polar bears, squirrels, penguins, otters, cats, chipmunks, bees, and whatever else I’m writing. It looks like a crazy woman’s Pinterest. Still, there’s something massively helpful about having a reference image in front of me when working on physical description. Artists have models, and we writers can absolutely do the same!
Bookmark their personality
Every author is different in how they like to develop their characters and we all create our own process to make sure they’re varied and as unique as we can get them. No one wants a cast of characters that are the same personality running around with a bunch of different names. Your characters have to be as varied as people in real life are or your book is dead in the water.
To keep tabs on the different personalities of my characters for reference while writing, I hop online and pull up a familiar personality test: The Myers-Briggs. I love this test. Love it. Not for dictating my own life, but for putting a character through the paces. It’s fantastic. I go through the test answering each question as the character I’m developing, challenging myself to really dig deep into how they would answer. Sometimes I even discover a new personality trait just from a single question as it brings up something I hadn’t yet considered about them.
When I’m done, I have a personality type that I bookmark for them (again on Pinterest. Yay Pinterest!) and can then reference throughout the book writing process. Short, simple, and an easy way to reference personality for a character in my book.
Find a theme song
A lot of my best ideas for books have come to me on solo car rides when I’ve got music blaring at volumes that are probably a little questionable. Sue me. You can blame my mother, who seemingly played U2 and the Gladiator soundtrack on a loop during all childhood car rides, for this habit. I have a massive playlist of soundtrack music to just let me play creatively when I’m stuck in the car.
So a simple way I connect with the idea of a character is to find a piece of music that just sounds like them. Some bit of music that every time I hear it I can’t help but think this was meant to be their theme song. In the case of The Fantastic Adventures of Captain Acorn, the Master and Commander soundtrack provided the perfect theme for the plucky little squirrel itching for her next adventure. Before long, if I was listening to music from that soundtrack, I was writing chapters of the book in my head and making phone notes at stop lights.
Throw everything you’ve got at them
If all else fails, there’s one tactic that’s always made a character finally make an appearance: throw them into a crisis. Forget your outline, forget your writing plan, forget whatever prologue or first chapter you’re writing, and just throw your hero into the middle of some chaos. Don’t even worry if it’s not a scene that you intend to have in the book. The idea is not to write a brilliant piece of fiction at this moment. You’re here to learn what you’re character does when their back’s against a wall. After all, we often show our truest selves in moments of intensity. Sometimes the best way to learn to swim is to just jump in the water, right?
I was fortunate in the case of Acorn in that she’d been a well-known character in my family for years before I wrote the book. In other instances, I’ve had to dig around a little more. A few months ago I had a character whose personality was becoming clearer but I still didn’t feel like I’d “met” her.
So the first scene I ever wrote in that book was the scene in which she essentially collides with all the danger of the story headfirst. It was a great way for me to ask myself “how would she handle this?” at every turn. Writing her in that scene was the final push I needed to feel like I truly had a character I could build a book around.
Building characters with depth and difference to them is no small undertaking. As always though, keep fiddling with your formula until you find what works for you. After all! No two authors are alike.
Let’s find some joy,