Sunday, September 5, 2010

More on Developing Characters, by Sherry Thompson

I was planning to write about Characterization for this Sunday when I discovered that Christine wrote about Character Building, last Monday (23rd). I thought about changing subjects but, seriously, Characterization is a huge and critical part of writing. So let’s see what I can do to supplement what Christine discussed.

I began telling myself stories when I was in elementary school, because I often couldn’t get to sleep at night. This went on for years. Each night, I would run through the story up to where I left off and then add to it. Occasionally, I’d get tired of my POV character—who was often myself—and try out my current story from inside someone else’s thoughts. When I did this, sometimes I found myself backtracking in my “plot” because this other character was more interested in something else that was going on, or because he or she had “arrived late” in the story and I was just plain nosy to see what she or he had been up to before walking on stage.

In the meantime, my best friends and I used to imagine time travelling—or more specifically time-snatching. We would choose someone from different historical periods and imagine ourselves as hosts and guides to them, while we showed them the wonders of 1950’s America. (blush) Poor, captive historical people! Most of the time, we tried to imagine how they would react to electric lights, television (B&W) or cars. In our view, they were always impressed.

After a while, we branched out into SF and began wondering what aliens visiting Earth would think of our world. For that, we had to come up with personalities for the aliens. Generally, the group opinion was that the aliens were not impressed with us, so this was a short-lived pastime. We went back to historical periods and resumed time-snatching.

Years later, specifically when I was in my early 30’s, I got the inspiration to write a fantasy novel—Seabird. I didn’t think about it when I started but it turned out to be a young adult book. What else was it going to be when the POV character was a teen still in high school? Cara was on her summer vacation at the beach when she was snatched to another world. At first, Cara had a lot of me in her and not much of anything else. Poor kid.

I had a few elements of my story in mind: I knew that she would be swept to Narenta after finding an intriguing seabird necklace in a boardwalk shop. That she would be told that she had an important role to play in the welfare of the Narentans. That she would absolutely refuse to fall in with the plans at first. And, finally, what terrible event would change her mind, and how the book would end. But I didn’t know much about her personality or interests, and very little about the people she would meet—with the exception of one of the villains.

I wrote for a few days and then ran dry. I prayed about it a lot. This story, though only scraps of a few plot ingredients and one character, was already important to me. Anyway, various thoughts came wandering into my brain, and a few of those thoughts reminded me of how I used to create characters when I was a kid.

I started again. Who would Cara meet? What would they be like and what would they think of her? What would she think of them? What was their place like? Was it like an historical period with which I was familiar? (Not so much to that last question: Narenta turned out to be a fairly alien alien world.)

While gong back and forth between each character’s reactions to the others and vice versa, I discovered all sorts of interesting things about the Narentans and also about Cara. For instance, she had reneged on a promise to stay home with her best friend and was carrying an unopened letter from her friend in her jeans pocket. She had a brother who was into SF movies. She had worked briefly at a stable and was a local champion at Quark Brigade. And had sort of a boyfriend but wasn’t really that interested in him. Aha! Where could I insert someone to be a romantic interest? And, hey, how come he didn’t like her at first? What was that about?

I hadn’t written for days. (I didn’t think of any of this as “writing”.) I was too busy having fun developing characters—like the various Narentans who would just assume that Cara had some kind of magical ability because some Narentans did. Or that she naturally knew how to ride a horse and use a bow. (Yes, to the first. Not even a little bit, to the second.) Cara wanted to go back to the beach—now please. Some Narentans were desperate for her to stay and rescue them, though they didn’t all agree on how she was to do that. Meanwhile the antagonists wouldn’t mind if Cara left but figured it was safer to kill her.

“Seabird” set the pattern for my characterization—and my plotting—from then on. I work out a skeleton plot and always—nearly always—make sure I have an end to the story. Then, I set the storyline aside. I begin with two or three characters and get to know them—beginning with the protagonist. I “learn” far more about them than can possibly fit into the story. I’m afraid I don’t use physical character sheets—I have the equivalent inside my head. When I can think of nothing new about a particular character, I switch to another one, usually beginning with how they react to the character(s) I’ve already developed. In the process of developing these interrelationships and everyone’s individual motives, juicy little nuggets pop into my head. Look at that! This guy plays a flute! That one’s a poet and a bad one, and his mother abandoned him when he was very young under tragic circumstances. I know the name of that person’s horse, and I know why his girlfriend gave it that name. And so on.

Eventually, I reach critical mass when it comes to the characters, and I go back to writing the story. Actually, by now, I already have some scenes scribbled down on index cards or typed up in Notepad files. My skeleton outline has put on a lot of weight, but still has room to grow. Developments in characterization don’t cease until I type “The End”.


Here’s a couple of my favorite and more bizarre characters, and how they developed.

Khiva the stoah, from “Earthbow”. Khiva is a sentient arboreal animal. She was supposed to be in just two scenes: In the first, she surprises someone who is secretly crawling into a window and in the other she fortuitously gets a different character out of a fix. Khiva is based on my experiences living with cats and watching squirrels. Plus she has the prehensile tail of a monkey—which was needed for the plot. And she’s a chatterbox-mostly for the fun of it. That was it for her—at first.

As I wrote more and more of Earthbow, it kept getting darker and darker. Not what I had planned at all. Earthbow badly needed comic relief. I thought about bringing in another human character or making one of my protagonists more self-deprecating, but neither solution seemed to fit.

Then I remembered Khiva. I went back and thought through her character in depth, realizing in the process that she really had more going on in her furry little brain than I had given her credit for. She hates her job as a plant-gatherer for a human herbalist. She, like most stoahs as it turns out, is very into equal rights for stoahs alongside the traditional “three peoples” of Narenta. She seems self-centered if you just listen to her chatter, but she actually has a soft heart for anyone in trouble or in pain. She’s a bit vain—not that I blame her with such great fur. And she’s addicted to rosehips. Before I knew it, she was threaded throughout “Earthbow”, essential to its plot, and promises to turn up in its sequel.

Bert-and-Marsha-from-Hoboken, from “Marooned”. (Or, how not to do it.) Now I ask you, do Bert & Marsha—much less Hoboken—sound like names from a fantasy novel? I wrote most of Marooned during National Novel Writing Month, a few Novembers ago. For those of you who know nothing about it, the object of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000+ words on one novel during the month of November. I had done some (legal) prepping for the challenge before November 1st of that year, by nailing down the characteristics and motives of my two principle characters. I was busily writing away one day (1667 words per day, minimum) when I realized that the protagonist needed to hear news from a neighboring village and, without telephones or computers, that meant I needed people to arrive on the scene and be eyewitnesses.

I was so rushed with trying to reach my NaNo quota for the day that I couldn’t take time to figure out names according to my naming conventions and I hadn’t a clue what the village was called. So, Bert & Marsha strolled into the village where the main characters were and announced they had fled Hoboken. I have never characterized on the fly so much in my life. Suddenly they had three children. (Or is it two?) Marsha started acting like a real dim supermom.

Bert refused to fit the role of dad. Argh! I backtracked and stuffed Bert in jail. Why? A nameless character had attacked my protagonist the previous day, and I still didn’t know anything about that person, except that they were now in jail. “Jailbird” became Bert. Combining characters solved that problem. Ah! Marsha had arrived from Hoboken to break Bert out of jail! Outstanding! Next thing you know, I realized that Bert was not who he professed to be. Poor Marsha! And like that. Whoosh! Rush characterization for a NaNoWriMo novel is so much fun.

Bert, Marsha, and Hoboken are all still awaiting their real names—but I do know a lot about them.

Sherry Thompson – author of Seabird, Earthbow – and most of Marooned.



Fantasy Character Background Info (workform)


Fiction Factor – Creating Characters (numerous articles)


How to Create a Character Profile Sheet


  1. Hi Sherry

    It is so interesting how minor details can bring a character to life. I enjoyed reading about your process and the characters in your stories. I love to read a novel where you love one of the characters, hate another. If a writer can bring out those emotions in the reader then she's done her job.

    Nice post. Your books sound great.

  2. Thanks, Beverly!
    I love learning about quirks in characters when I'm reading--even quirks in villains. What's to love and to hate in each one.
    And when I'm writing, I always feel like I'm on a voyage of discovery about each character right through to the end.

  3. Great insight into your characterization process. I'm going to digest some of this and ponder how it can help me identify, grow and mature my characters in Night's Edge, etc...

    Awesome post!


  4. Xanthorpe, hi! Always glad to hear from you! Some of this may prove useful to others. I make no promises but I hope so.
    Funny thing is, I'd probably do all of this even if it were counter-productive. I just get a blast out of exploring characters and what makes them tick.

  5. Very informative post on characterization. That is, as you say, a big topic. And a never ending learning process, I guess because each person is unique, so there are near infinite combinations of qualities in fleshing out a character.

    I personally tend to start with a general idea of what personality type a character will be, but the character develops as I write and flesh him/her out. Which often means I need to go back and rewrite certain parts to conform with what happens later. The "devil" is in the details, though. Good thoughts.

  6. Good stuff, Sherry, this takes me back.

    For any writer with background experience at role-playing games, character creation is a natural place to start and one that comes quick. You need to know attributes, gear, and talents which lends to appearance. Personality is the skin on the anatomy, and is built from these basics. Lots of fun!

    Frank Creed

  7. Thanks for responding, Rick!
    "near infinite combinations"
    In real life, there's millions of people with no two like. Even twins have subtle differences in their personalities based on slightly different experiences. There's really no excuse for a cardboard main character with all the different descriptions, traits & motives to work from.

    "the character develops as I write"
    Yeah. No matter how much pre-planning you do, plot changes will instigate character changes--which is great, if a hassle. Look at my Khiva example. Your teens, Sisko & Josh, are constantly changing, as you add more to their tales. Only Wil E Coyote & the Roadrunner never change. ;-P

  8. Hi, Frank!
    You wrote that "this takes me back" to role-playing games.

    You know, that's something I skipped in my tale. Right around the time I began writing Seabird, I was also involved in an old-fashioned D&D group. For those who don't know from role-playing, you can't even begin to play the game until you've created your basic character.
    A lot of attributes for role-playing characters are created by chance, but the player still gets to choose things like gear & alignment, which ties into motivation and personality.

    During play, bits of the player's personality masqueraded tend to percolate into the character's make-up. Of course, whether we authors admit it or not, bits of ourselves end up in our various characters, just as bit of places we've seen end up in our settings.

  9. Author Karin Fossum has turned the relationship between authors & their characters into a novel, "Broken".
    "...a book in which the author's imaginary characters walk, talk—-in fact, they're lined up in her driveway waiting to be written. When an overly anxious character named Alvar cuts to the front of the line, he tries to tell Fossum how to write his part, but she warns him not to wish for a happy ending" ...
    "a totally authentic exposition of a writer's intimate relationship and responsibility toward their characters..."
    Looks like fun! I'm also reminded of Fred Warren's recent book, "The Muse":