25 January 2011

Character Development

Before I diverted myself with motivation and progress I was talking about characters.  For some people a character may appear fully formed, but for me it is an initial introduction and a getting to know you phase.  I keep a spreadsheet for all my characters, and start this when I'm planning although most of the information is added while I’m writing, as this is when I really get to know the character.
After talking with other writers about character development, I know that like all aspects of writing there are as many ways of developing character as there are writers.  I’m not particularly visual and have never felt the need to find a picture in a magazine that looks like my character, but if it works for you then do that.
My spreadsheet is a blank template in which I have a series of questions and pointers to character development.  The first few rows are the usual: name, reason for or meaning of name, nickname and reason for it, date of birth, parents, siblings, position in family (oldest, youngest etc.), and physical appearance including hair and eye colour, glasses worn or contacts, height etc.
I must add two things here.  One is that not all the rows are ever completed, some just aren’t necessary for a particular character.  Two: the information in this spreadsheet is often like backstory, stuff the writer needs to know but which doesn’t necessarily appear in the novel.
I always have a picture in my head of what the character looks like and although this description usually appears in the first draft, I remove as much extraneous information as possible in subsequent drafts and leave the physical description up to the reader.  I’ve noticed a move in books I’ve read recently to less physical description of characters other than where it has a bearing on their character.  Though this may well vary depending on genre. 

To give an example, I wouldn't care much about a character's hair colour unless it's mentioned because she dyes her hair as she is so unhappy with her life, and thinks things are going to improve just by being blonde/brunette etc.  When I’m reading a book I always end up with a mental image of the character, and this is very often in contrast to any description the author puts in.
Subsequent rows in my spreadsheet cover things such as:
Their job, what it is and how important it is to them.
Favourite films/music/books/food/clothes/jewellery.
Habits – do they smoke/drink/keep fit/have hobbies.
Habitual actions/habits/speech patterns.
Background – including any childhood events that still affect them, their first memory.
Relationship with parents, siblings, friends.
Attitude: What drives them, when are they most/least at ease, how they feel about themselves, a past failure they would be embarrassed for people to know.
Personality strengths, weakness, soft spot, who were they most influenced by.
How they react in a crisis – very important to know for your protagonist.
For more minor characters you wouldn’t need to know a lot of this information, but for your protagonist spending time getting to know them will pay off in a character the reader feels they know like a friend, rather than a cardboard cut out.

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