Creating Rich Characters – Prompts

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While my days are spent grinding out my WIP, I thought I’d share an old post about writing character bios, specifically about using prompts to expedite the process.

The prompt-list below looks more complicated than it is (a result of explanations and examples). For some prompts, a word or two is sufficient, while others require some contemplation. Unsurprisingly, I force my main characters to endure the entire process; incidental players get a pass with a mere smattering of details, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Ultimately, I believe that this pre-work pays off, not only in rich characters. To me, the process of writing flows with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their own stories when they know who they are.

The External Character

woman-1801830_640Physical Description: Appearance goes without saying, but add at least one remarkable feature: glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, or rumbling voice. Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect.

Gestures, Mannerisms:  A distinguishing physical habit not only defines a character but makes him memorable. A character may habitually pick his teeth, clear his throat, rub his jaw, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, belch…

Quirk: A distinctive behavior that goes beyond a gesture: Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, is afraid of heights, always misses the bus. There are numerous lists of quirks on the web.

Attribute, Trait: People have a blend of traits. Pick one or two for your character that stand out. Maybe she’s stubborn, lucky, picky, impatient, naïve, or flippant. Lists of attributes are also readily available on the web.

Skills, Abilities, and Interests: No real person is great at everything, and neither is your well-rounded character. Does your character have an education or special training? In what skills does he excel? Where is he lacking? What does your character do for a living? What does he do during down time?

Mix it Up: People are multi-dimensional. Villains can have redeemable qualities. They may rescue animals, love old movies, grow roses, or play chess in the park. Likewise, heroes have their flaws. They drink too much, have hot tempers, always run late, get easily flustered, or are slobs.

Don’t Overdo It: Creating a one-eyed, belly-scratching, kind-hearted, hypochondriac swordsmen with a penchant for chocolate is fun, but most characters will require much more subtlety.

The Internal Character

woman-1596954_960_720Backstory: Each character has a formative life that shaped him. What was the character’s childhood like? How strong were/are his family ties? Where are his parents and/or siblings? What significant event of the past shaped who the character is today? What was the character doing before the first page opened?

Secrets: A secret impacts a character’s attitudes and behaviors. It adds interest to the story because it can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics. What is the character’s secret that no one else knows?

Goals: What does your character desperately desire? A protagonist’s overarching goal will often drive the story, and conflicting goals between characters may be a major source of tension. Consider that the main characters will have goals related not only to the main plot but to subplots.

Obstacles: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal. This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.

Active Pursuit of Goals: At some point in the story, the character moves into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. What triggers the change for the character? How does the character take or attempt to take active control?

posing-1022162_640The Big Fear: This is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, aloneness, disgrace, insignificance, poverty, aging. It may drive the character’s goal or be an obstacle he must overcome. Fears have a basis in experience – where did this fear come from?

The Mask: A character’s mask is directly related to his fear. The mask describes how a character compensates for the Big Fear, or hides it from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal, may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. Often the mask comes undone during the course of a story and the character is forced to face and perhaps overcome her fear.

Cross-Character Relationships: Another way to add interest and tension is by creating similarities between conflicting characters, and differences between companionable characters. What might the protagonist and villain have in common? Perhaps they both love horses, appreciate fine wines, or fear water. Along the same lines, how might the protagonist and his cohorts clash? One curses constantly and the other finds it offensive; one might play an instrument poorly while his companions cover their ears.

There you have it – my prompts. I hope this is helpful. Let me know if there’s something I missed!

 

**Images from Pixabay**

Strength of Character

I spent a recent evening chatting with a group of writers about the public’s desire for strong female characters. The simpering, helpless, man-dependent archetype of the past is no longer the paragon it used to be. If any of our female protagonists swoon into the arms of their brawny rescuers, they better be seriously ill or recently wounded in battle. Encountering a spider no longer qualifies as trauma.

Then our conversation took an interesting turn. Someone shared an opinion that the presence of kindness and compassion in a female protagonist might make her appear “weak.” The unspoken implication was that a female character is “strong” when she is more like the stereotypical caricature of a man – as emotionally sensitive as a block of wood.

Yes, I’m talking stereotypes here and the wind blows both ways. Some believe that gentleness “weakens” a man as much as the lack of it “strengthens” a woman. It’s an antiquated mindset that persists on many levels and is slow to evolve.

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Of course, the souls who populate our books must be true to their natures. Both male and female characters (like the rest of humanity) fit into a broad spectrum when it comes to emotional intelligence. Expression can be passionate, volatile, ambivalent, or completely shut down. On top of that, consider that feelings are fluid and slide all over the place along the love-fear continuum.

Emotional texture is one element that puzzles together a character, no different than physical appearance, skills, aptitudes, and social competencies. An emotional undercurrent is one way to enhance complexity, but it’s not necessarily indicative of a character’s strength.

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Mother Theresa, Time.com

I’d argue that what makes characters “strong,” regardless of gender, is their determination to act upon the world rather than react to it. Kind and compassionate people fall as easily into this definition as ruthless overlords and heroic champions. Strength is demonstrated by conviction, how actively they pursue their goals, overcome their flaws, and engage both the internal and external obstacles that block their paths.

Happy Writing