I’ve always struggled with character development. I would get a great idea for a book, put together a cast of characters, give them names, and they would just stare at me with blank expressions, somewhere in their minds accusing me of not creating them properly. And, as much as I hate to admit it, they were right.
My novel Metamorphosis was my trial-run. I’d written before, and while my technique was good, the rest was sloppy and inexperienced. I was working on a novel that had inspired Metamorphosis, and getting bored of it and excited for my new project, I abandoned it and began to write Fraina, one of my principal characters.
She had initially started in my mind as a Mary Sue — yuck, right? Then her hair got shorn, I saw her petite little mouth always set in this tough line, and I witnessed the lightning-fast, penetrating look in her grey eyes. She became real.
(My model for Fraina).
So, I hadn’t had much experience creating my own characters well before this. I had always loved stories, but I had never really finished a novel. Not even close. I can’t tell you how many notebooks and Microsoft Word documents are two pages long, the few paragraphs filled with such promise, then abandoned when I realized I had no idea what to do with them. The best I had done was a historical fiction novel that I really need to get back to and the sweet, pathetic story that helped Metamorphosis come to be. (They will both get their spotlight. Eventually). Then Metamorphosis happened. I loved the idea, the characters, and no matter how hard it was or how confused I got, I kept pressing forward.
Perhaps there is magic in the world. Because somehow, miraculously, all the frayed strands wove together into something that I never could have accomplished alone. Now I know how important it is to get to know your characters before you start your story, but thankfully my team of misfits didn’t kill me as we struggled to come to terms with the others’ idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. As I wrote, I came to know them. Brunnhilde and I had a bit where I thought she should be regal and wise, and she wasn’t having it. She’s regal, yes, but in a fiery, wild way. She was underdeveloped because we were constantly fighting over who she was — it pays to listen to your characters, because the story became so much better after I admitted that she was right. (Thank you, Shelby, for helping me with that).
(Reference to Brunnhilde’s wings).
But with as much as I learned, even in the beginning chapters of my book, I still struggled with knowing who I was writing. I didn’t understand how to accomplish that. I asked my sisters, my friends, and they all said the same thing: ask them questions. In desperation, I emailed my friend Mirriam Neal and begged for assistance. She sent me a list of questions she asks her characters, and I still wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this.
I had a brilliant idea. (Okay, being Christian, I understand that most of my brilliant ideas have had a little help getting through my often-thick skull, so I am immeasurably grateful for a God who puts up with me). I simply wrote myself into a scene with them. I basically had my five protagonists in Metamorphosis covered, but I needed real antagonists. I knew their names, their species’, but nothing of their souls. Here’s an example of my interview with Quintessa, the Amazon:
Ana shrugged. “You basically tell me what happens and I write it down. Everyone controls their own fate – I just make it happen, being the writer. But I can’t do it properly until I’ve talked to each of you and gotten to know you better. I’d rather write you honestly and as you’d like to be portrayed. I don’t want to make a mistake, y’know?” She refrained from reminding them that they were the villains, and in order for them to seem as powerful and real as they were, she really needed to interview them. She gestured at Quintessa. “Let’s start with you, babe.”
One elegant eyebrow curved upward at the pet name, but she waved her hand and her companions rose and reluctantly left the tent, staring over their shoulders suspiciously.
Ana dragged Takeshi’s chair closer until when she sat down her knees would be but a foot from Quintessa’s. Pulling out her dad’s laptop, she lifted the top and opened Microsoft Word.
“One sec,” she said absently, frowning down at the screen. “Let me write down what you look like.” Jotting quickly, glancing continually up at the regal leader of the Invaders, she managed to write:
THE EPITOME OF ROMAN BEAUTY, EVEN IF HER HISTORY IS GREEK (NOT LIKE SHE KNOWS THAT). HER FACE IS OVAL WITH A PLEASANTLY DISTINCT JAW, RATHER RECTANGULAR. HER NOSE IS FIRM, AND HER EYES ARE LARGE AND BROWN WITH THICK, LONG LASHES. HER EYEBROWS ARE STRANGELY ELEGANT, AND HER CURLY DARK HAIR IS BRAIDED DOWN HER BACK. MAN, THIS WOMAN IS TALL! SHE IS ALSO VERY MUSCULAR, ALMOST LIKE A JAGUAR. OH, AND HER LIPS ARE MEDIUM-FULL.
“There,” she said finally, “I think I got it. Can you read?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
Ana shrugged, secretly relieved. “That’s fine. So, let’s get on with it.”
“I thought we’d already started,” she said coldly, obviously irritated at the inconvenience Ana was proving to be.
Ana laughed. “Not formally, no. I have a few questions suggested by a friend and I few I’ll add myself.”
“Which friend?” Ana could tell that what she really meant was, ‘what does this person know about me?’ She didn’t care about ‘which friend.’
“She doesn’t know about you,” Ana reassured her, “but she’s got some good interview ideas. So, what do you like to wear?”
A corner of Quintessa’s mouth twitched, as if she were hiding a smile. “And I thought these would be deep, probing questions that I would be seriously reluctant to answer. This is a bit trivial, don’t you think?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get to the difficult ones soon, babe.”
As a result of my interview with a Vampire (ha, ha, I’m so funny!) and other beings, I truly was able to know and understand these individuals. Despite their villainy, I love them. I know their — sometimes-questionable — motives, their fears, their joys. They blossomed into real people, one that someday, could even be called my friends. (Considering they nearly wanted to murder me for invading their privacy, I doubt that it will be anytime soon).
(Takeshi, the Vampire in Metamorphosis and my friend Ashley’s husband).
But even with this technique, sometimes it’s really hard to understand your own ‘babies.’ An idea I had after getting frustrated with Marian’s complete lack of interest in the project she’s the protagonist of was assigning them each a song. I grew up a dancer, so my second home was backstage. I have three different categories: Disney, Broadway, and pop. (Opera’s hard to work with because a lot of it is so specific to the characters and plot of its own production). My naughty characters were each given a Disney song and lovingly forced to perform it. I would write from each of their perspectives as they had to belt ‘Cruella de Vil’ and ‘Let It Go.’ I carefully selected the songs that fit each of the characters — ‘Be Prepared’ for Magar, ‘I See the Light’ for Nicky and (an older) Piper — and as they performed, seeing their perspectives, getting used to writing their individuality, I became closer to them and could understand them even more. Even their rage and irritation towards me for making them do all this helped me get to know them. (Really, I’m lucky I’m alive. Hugo wants my head). They even had ‘I’ve Got a Dream’ as the grand finale — it was awesome! So right now we’re struggling through the Broadway category, and it’s just as fun. And Hugo may or may not need a restraining order.
(This — this right here is the definition of magic).
These are some of the ideas I’ve had to get to know my characters from the inside out. They have become completely real to me. I feel like they’re my friends, like they’re my children. I love them very, very much — simply for being who they are. I am so proud I get to share my life with them.
I genuinely hope that if you struggle with character development, that you can find ways to come to know your people. Perhaps this blog post will help, perhaps it won’t. But I know that you can find a way that will be true to you, your writing style, and your characters. They will be some of your best friends.