Creating Dynamic Characters

            You pick up a book that looks interesting and begin reading. The main character, Sally, is a complex individual who can be friendly, but also rude, motivated but lazy, fun to be with but challenging. At the beginning you are intrigued by Sally because you realize that her life is about to change.

            Her best friend is manipulating her financially and emotionally. Sally is being forced into deciding between going on a vacation with the friend, who wants Sally to pay for the whole thing, or buying herself a badly needed new car.  Meanwhile Sally’s son has lost his job and is moving back home. Sally loves him, but can’t live with him for his sloppiness drives her crazy.

            As the story progresses you begin to understand why Sally behaves the way she does as each impediment arises. You root for her when you think she makes the right decision and lament the poor ones that get Sally in trouble. Ove the course of the story, you see Sally grow and change.

            That is called the character arc and it’s what makes characters dynamic: readers want to see them experience challenges that force them to evolve over the course of the story.

            Your task is to write a story in which a character is met with a series of difficulties that either are overcome or not. If overcome, then the character must change in some small way. If not, there still must be change, but is it positive or negative change?

            At the end the character must be different in some way. It should be large enough that the change affects behavior, status and beliefs.

            Have fun  with this one.

Names are Important

            Selecting character names is an art form that requires consideration. Good names help readers keep characters sorted out. For example, let’s say that Anna and Ann have significant roles. The names are almost identical, causing confusion for the writer and reader alike.

            Begin by researching names popular during the time period and location in which your story takes place. Shawnia is a great name for a woman from the south, but not back before the Civil War. Genre is another factor that comes into play. Fantasy novels utilize names that sound a bit exotic and unusual, while romance novels call for names that imply sexuality and attraction.

            Spelling and pronunciation are important as well. A name might look good, but when said aloud, it becomes an awkward tongue twister. Consider nicknames. Robert might be Bobby or Bob or Bubba, meaning that you can’t have all three in the same story.

            Your task is to create a list that includes first, last and nicknames for at least five characters. Examine the names looking for similarities, such as the same number of syllables, the same letters or initials, and if it seems realistic. Go online and research names that were popular during the setting of your story. Did you include them on your list? Look into the meanings of names. For example, Christopher might not be the best name for a villain, or could it? And, choose easy to remember names that are distinguishable from others in your world.

            Choose two of your characters and write a scene in which they interact. Reread, searching for confusion, repetition and similarities. If you find them, consider changing one of the names.

            Have fun with this one.

Stereotypical Characters with a Twist

            Picture the butler who answers the door. What is he wearing? What does he say and do? We probably all have the same image: he’s an older gentleman with a British accent dressed in a tux with tails. He instructs the visitor to go into the drawing room, and then heads off to summon his master.

            In mysteries the butler is often the top suspect in a murder. Despite the reserved image he portrays, underneath that calm lays an angry, vengeful man.

These are stereotypical characters because they are flat people that fill out the cast. They generally appear in quick bursts then drop into the background. Throughout the telling, these characters exhibit little or no growth and have limited impact on the story arc.

            Now picture the lowly farm boy toiling in the heat of the afternoon dredging soiled hay from the horses’ stalls. What is he wearing? What does he say and do?

            What if the butler gets fired and has to become the lowly farm boy? What if the farm boy is actually the son of a prince in a faraway land? Because the farm boy and the butler experience life-changing events, their impact on the story has gone from being minimal to critical.

            Your task is to write a scene in which what first appears to be a stereotypical, flat character and offer a twist in the plot that belies what the reader thinks to be true. You can use the characters mentioned or introduce a different one. For example, what if the wise old woman lacks skills to be a mentor or the orphan who is thought to be the descendant of royalty really is just a street kid?

            Have fun with this one.

The Home in Story

While it might not play out in the story, our characters live somewhere.  It might be under a freeway overpass, an upscale condominium complex, or in a bedroom of Grandma’s house.  That residence affects how the character thinks, feels and reacts.

Imagine living outside on a cold, stormy day. How would you feel? Most likely you might be a bit grouchy. When someone passes you by, you might bark out a bit of foul language, angry because they didn’t recognize you as human.

Now place yourself in the condo. Do you feel entitled? Are you a bit haughty? Do you look down on those who you feel are beneath you and so treat them with disrespect?

Home influences our outlook on life.

Your task is to first of all, decide where your character lives. Draw it out, if you can or find a photo online that looks like the home. Consider what types of objects are inside the home: family heirlooms or a mishmash found at thrift stores or donated from family.

Now write a story that reflects how home influences your character’s behavior.

Have fun with this one.

Defining a Character

A good writer wants autonomous characters. That is, each character acts of their own, not as puppets that the writer controls. Characters should not be props within a story, but real beings. They have desires and knowledge. They are alive in all senses of the word. They have complex lives and intense emotions.

Your task is to imagine a character that might fit well in a story you are contemplating writing. Give her a name, age and residence. Then fill in these blanks:

  1. She would never consider doing/thinking/saying ________________________
  2. He knew this about his father, but not that _____________________________
  3. Her most prominent ambition is _____________________________________
  4. He would prefer to ___________________ over ________________________
  5. In terms of politics, she votes for ____________________________________
  6. He dislikes _________________________so intensely that he _____________
  7. His favorite recreational activity is ___________________________________
  8. Every day he drives to/buys/eats _____________________________________
  9. Her greatest fear is ________________________________________________
  10. She yearns to ____________________________________________________

Which of these appeals to you? Write a story in which at least one of these traits comes to fruition.

Have fun with this one.