To write your character’s story, you need to know them as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. This isn’t an easy ask. There are so many questions, so many things to learn. Where do you start? A chat over dinner and wine? A long, drawn out interview? I find actions speak louder than words.
The majority of my characters have been developed through short stories and, more recently, flash fiction. I like to put them through their paces, maybe torture them a little (a lot), and find out how they tick. Like a scientist (or just some kid with a bug in a jar), I immerse them in scenarios and study their reactions. You’d be amazed by how much you can learn and, if nothing else, it’s a whole heap of fun…
Backstory tells you a lot about your characters. Experience and past encounters shape who they are and what they’re capable of. Living through those experiences, alongside your character, is the perfect way to understand their motivations, goals and abilities. Flash and short fiction are the ideal media for this. They allow you to focus on individual events that had the biggest impact. They also allows you to gauge the condition of relationships in the character’s immediate circle. For example, does a loving husband find the relationship with his wife strained when they argue, or is he certain they’ll come out fine? What about their friends? Do they speak kindly of them when they are not around? Write the scene, learn from it.
Exercise: Choose three key moments in your character’s past and relive them in three flash/short stories. Be sure to pay attention to how your character reacts in the heat of the moment.
2. Test of time
When done correctly, character development takes an incredible investment of time. This is doubly so if you intend to use them as the main character in your novel. Ask yourself, are they worth all this effort? Often, it’s hard to tell. We might start writing and soon find they are not all they appear to be.
When I get an idea for a character, I write them into a short story, either as the main character or as supporting cast. There are two benefits to this:
- I’ve already started to test them in conflict; and
- I get a good idea if their story is the right one to tell.
Sometimes the person you think is right to tell the story is more of a supporting character, at best. Likewise, the character you gave a bit part to sometimes has the stronger voice and the better story.
Exercise: Choose a character you haven’t fully developed and write a story involving them. Do they come across as a strong character? Do they entice you to explore them further?
3. Trial by fire
Knowing how a character will react to a given crisis…situation is half the battle. The only real way to do this is to test their reaction, both external and internal, to conflict by throwing them to the proverbial, and sometimes literal, wolves. When you write with your characters in mind, you’ll find that they have a habit of steering the story down their own paths and in ways you never expected. This is a great indication of the extent that you know your characters, that you have started to adopt their mindset. It’s also as frustrating as it gets.
If you really want to find out how the character will react to conflict, write the conflict and, while you’re doing it, listen to what they’re telling you. It pays to listen to their thoughts and emotions too.
Exercise: pick an intense scene, one filled with conflict, and then throw your character into the thick of it. Do they sink, or swim? Do they react how you expected? If not, are they likely to react like that again?
Short fiction, especially that written in the first-person, is the perfect way to explore and develop your character’s voice. Writing from their perspective puts them in the driving seat and gives you a unique opportunity to discover the way they communicate with each other and with their audience. This is exceptionally useful for secondary characters, ones that play a significant part in your story but are not main characters. It’s all too easy to give these characters a generic, even stereotypical, voice. Don’t let that happen, coax it out of them with flash.
Exercise: Take a secondary character and write a scene, or short story, from their perspective. How do they talk? What mannerisms do they have? Do they seem educated? To what level? Do they favour slang and jargon, or do they avoid it?
5. Day in the life
Day to day activities are not the kind of thing that makes it into novels and stories. It’s not often that a character will have a typical day in a novel (these things are, and should, be edited out). You’ll never go into detail about their paperclip collection (unless you’re setting them up to be The Paperclip Killer, or his patsy), what they had for lunch, or give the blow by blow on their lunchtime meeting (Le Carré-esque spy thriller, anyone?). How a person lives tells a lot about who the person is. Short stories and flash allow you to live a day in their lives. It won’t make for exciting reading, but it will reveal all sorts of juicy secrets about them and their ‘ordinary’ life.
Exercise: write the story of your character’s typical day. What does it reveal about them? About their family and support network? How do they feel about their job?
Has anybody out there just short stories to learn about their characters? How has it worked out? Comments below please.