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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Character Development is Good for You.

An example of my character template. The picture came via Flickr.com
and, if you click on it, it will lead to the photographer's gallery.
Is it possible to write a story without at least one character? I seriously doubt it, even if the ‘character’ is only something inanimate. But is it desirable? Definitely not. Characters are the writer’s means of delivering story. Plot is a framework, a guide, sometimes a straightjacket, that determines a story’s direction and ultimate end. But it’s the character (or characters) who, taking the reader’s hand, guides her through the twists and turns. And the more believable that character can be made, the more thoroughly will the reader engage with the story.

A lot has been written about character development, so I can add to the cannon only by describing my own method. Before I can start any story, I have to know my main characters. In my current fantasy trilogy, which is well under way (Volumes 1 & 2 are written and edited), I’ve so far developed a cast of 83 named characters. Each of these people has a history, biography, physical description and a picture on which I can hang my memory. I know; a lot of people will think there are too many characters here, but this is a tale in the tradition of the epic fantasy, though it’s more adult than many. It’s common in the genre to have a large cast list: think of Lord of the Rings. How I keep track of all these individuals is for another day, another post. For now, I’ll concentrate on how I ‘invent’ my characters.

As an ex-professional photographer, my driving creative muse is visual. So, having determined gender and age, and having a vague idea of what I want the character to look like, I search my catalogue of images of people. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve made it a habit to collect pictures of real people I come across on my flights through the matter on the internet. I copy these pictures and assign them a basic designation according to race, gender, age (approximate), and hair colour. I have so far collected a library of around 1,200 from which I can take my pick. (Some of you will be concerned about copyright infringement, but, as these pictures are never published by me, that’s not really an issue).

Having chosen my picture, I attach it to a template on Word in the form of a table, listing physical features, beliefs, relationships, political persuasion, family history and asking the character two questions: 1. What does this person want? 2. What is this person prepared to do to get it? I now have a pretty good knowledge of my character.

At this stage, I use my table of names to select an appropriate name. (I’ve a document listing over 10,000 names, sorted alphabetically and by gender, with annotations showing the nations that use the name. For access to that list, please visit the tab above, labelled ‘Tools & Links’ where you’ll find a .pdf version that you can copy/print for your own use.) For my fantasy, since I’ve invented a whole world along with everything that goes with it, I’ve made up my character names and tested each against Google to ensure I’m neither using one that already exists, nor naming somebody by using a word that means something inappropriate in another language.

I now have my character with name, age, physical attributes and belief system. I also know what motivates that character and what that character is prepared to do in order to achieve any ambition. That gives me a pretty rounded person to put on the page before I even start writing the story. This may seem a lot of work, but in my experience, the bulk of writing is preparation. Once I have my characters and locations and any historically factual information that may be relevant, I can start the story. I find that the preparation allows me to write very quickly. I always place hyperlinks in the story to each of my character’s bio pages so that I can quickly check to make sure I haven’t either changed some physical aspect or turned a peace-loving pagan into a warrior extremist.


So, there you have it: my method of creating and developing characters. Once they are on the page, I allow them to guide the story for which I only ever have a very loose framework, or none at all. Often, they take me along roads I didn’t know existed. I love that. I learn a great deal along the way, as well. Character is vital to the story; we neglect it at our peril.

This post first appeared as a guest post on Brian Hayden’s Blog where you will find lots of other interesting stuff.
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