As writers, we all want our characters to stand out. Whether it's as the lovable sidekick, the brave hero, the swoon-worthy love interest, or the terrifying villain, we want our readers to remember them--maybe love, maybe hate, but definitely remember. Characters make a story, after all.
So how do you pull that off?
We may think we understand our characters perfectly well, but that doesn't mean our readers will when it comes to writing them down. Or maybe you're running into the ages-old problem of Now that they're here what do I do with this character, anyway? I've been asked more than once how to develop characters enough for them to start to come to life in the writing, so I've compiled 8 of my favorite, fun exercises to do just that.
1. Find Their Why
One of the core things any character needs is their why--that is, their motivation. This is often confused with their goal, but is a different, and often much more difficult to pin down, piece of information.
Goal: What the character is trying to accomplish
Ex: Harry Potter's goal is to stop Lord Voldemort
Motivation: Why the character's goal is what it is
Ex: Harry's motivation is to protect his friends and the wizarding world
Finding your character's motivation can be simple, but a lot of the time turns out to be something different than what you might originally think. A character may even have more than one motivation, or layered motivations, with each supposed motivation having another, deeper, and more carefully hidden one behind it. Your character may even have a different motivation for each of their goals (because face it, how exciting of a story would it be if that overarching goal of theirs didn't get sidetracked a time or two?) It might even change throughout the story as they grow and change themselves.
A character's why can tie into their past or a deeper, less obvious part of who they are as a person, and can tell you volumes about them. Writing them with this in mind can and will add life and depth to them, and make it much easier to understand exactly what's going on in your story.
Pay particular attention to villains' and antagonists' whys--they can be harder to see but just as vital. Nobody turns evil overnight or without reason.
One trick I've experimented with and found helpful in some situations (and that some of my author friends love) is questionnaires and character profiles. Conducting a sort of interview with your character or filling out a sheet of organized information on them can be extremely helpful in figuring out what you need to know about them and discovering things you never expected to find. A questionnaire or character profile can be as simple as the basic, key information or as detailed and elaborate as you like, and you can find many templates online.
3. Find Them in the Real World
No, I don't mean go out and stalk someone who looks like your character. I love finding what feel like little pieces of my characters out in the real world, whether it's a shirt in a store they'd wear or a song that reminds me of them or an art piece. I collect these things when I can and they give me something more tangible to build my character with. If you've read practically anything else on this blog you know I'm a music addict and have songs for all my characters, and I firmly believe music can give so much insight and inspiration into a character's mind. I also use Pinterest (click here for Pinterest boards for my published novels and upcoming projects) to collect images that remind me of each character and setting. To the left is a graphic made up of images that remind me of Blue from The Otherworld Trilogy, one of the things that helped me with her character.
4. People Watch
Is your character lacking detail or uniqueness? Too often writers seem to have a problem with locking their characters in the box of who they think they need to be (and I won't try to say I'm not guilty of this, too!) But real people aren't just the Farmboy Hero or the Misunderstood Rogue or the Rebel Girl, and your characters shouldn't be, either. People watching is your sly little friend that's perfect for gathering ideas for contradictions and quirks that will push your characters to the next level and make them feel like they could step off the page. Jot down the most interesting details--appearance and personality wise--of the people you see on the street, at the mall, in restaurants, at school,anywhere, really, that catch your eye and see if you can give them to a character. A perfect opportunity to mix and match! Give your Farmboy Hero a crooked smile and secret passion for computer science, or your Rebel Girl a fondness for colorful gel pens.
5. AU It
Yeah, I'm going there. AUs (Alternate Universes) may be thought of more often in the context of fanfiction, but they're not a tool to be overlooked when it comes to original fiction. What Hogwarts house would your character be sorted into? How would they react if put in the Hunger Games? If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, what would your character do if they'd been born and raised in our world? These types of questions can open up new sides of your character you might not have previously thought to explore. Whether you want to write these scenarios down or just leave them as food for thought depends on who you are as a writer, but either way they can make for interesting exercises to find out more about your character.
6. Break the Cliches, Find the Unexpected
Nobody wants to be a cliche. We want our characters to stand out, not be lost in the ocean of stories out there. Now, this isn't to say that you can't take a trope or cliche and do it well, but one way to make your characters memorable and well-developed is to make them different. Understand the expectations and cliches of your character's trope or role--I've mentioned the Farmboy Hero already, a common trope in fantasy adventure. He's often strong, kind, brave, and not expecting to have the fate of the world suddenly put in his hands. Why not flip some of those expectations on their heads? Maybe your farmboy isn't so heroic after all; he'd rather run from the monsters than stand up and fight them. Maybe he's been secretly expecting to have to save the world all his life, and his time has finally come.
This same mindset can be used for a character's physical design, as well. A fantastic writing panel I once attended (look out for an upcoming post on writing conferences and panels for more stories and advice on that topic) brought up the scenario of designing a unique alien character. The authors' advice? Brainstorm a list of all the "alien" traits you could possibly give this character, and cross out the first five. They're the ones that everybody will think of first. Past that your real creativity will start coming out and you'll find new ideas.
They say everything has been done before, but that doesn't mean you can't put your own spin on things. Let your creativity shine. Don't be afraid to break expectations.
7. Character Chat
Now, this is my personal favorite exercise for character development, hands down. Anybody who knows me knows I'll character chat every chance I get. A form of roleplaying, character chatting involves two or more writers throwing their characters into a neutral space and giving them a chance to, well, chat. Unlike traditional roleplaying the focus is on the characters' interactions rather than any sort of plot, allowing them to talk about themselves, their worlds, and their situations to an outsider and oftentimes bring up things the writer never expected. I've had countless epiphanies while character chatting. It also helps to develop a character's unique voice--the way they think and process, how they react to people and situations of all sorts, and even down to the words they choose--which carries over fantastically into writing your story itself.
Character chatting can be done in person, with each participant acting out the role of their character, or in writing, over text, an online chat, or whatever means the participants like, really, so grab a writer friend and go for it. Not only is it helpful, but it can get incredibly fun.
8. Find Their Shade of Gray
We've all heard about gray characters, and I'm a firm believer that no story or character can be simply black and white. Even if you start out that way, your characters have to end up some shade of gray--maybe a very light one, maybe a very dark one, but gray all the same. Remember that nobody is fully good or fully evil, and pay special attention to your heroes' flaws and villains' virtues. They'll bring them to life all the more.
There are as many ways to develop your characters as there are kinds of characters themselves, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But I hope it's a start for any of you who may be struggling with what is arguably one of the most difficult parts of writing. Have any more ideas, exercises, or tools for character development? Tell me in the comments! I'd love to try them out!