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.

Developing a Strong Female Lead

            Cast aside the notion of the female warrior who is perfect in all ways. Your female protagonist might be athletically gifted, amazingly beautiful and displaying a lovely personality, but then she’s boring. You also don’t want to cast her as only important because she’s dating a man. Female characters, in order to speak to today’s readers, must have the characteristics of real-life women.

            What are the cultural norms in the world you have created? Are the same as the real world in which women are often seen as second-class citizens? Perhaps you’ve given the women emotional, interpersonal, intellectual and creative strengths that allow her to have goals of her own?

            Do you have only one woman in the story or several? What purpose do they serve? If they are only sidekicks to the male protagonist, rethink your story.

            Your task is to write a story in which the female protagonist has agency. She has strengths and weaknesses, she is not the fairy-tale raving beauty and she is strong in terms of how she approaches life. She does not have to be violent, but she could be if needed to advance the plot.

            If there are two female characters, try not to pit them against each other unless there is a reason to do so in order to add tension that advances the plot.

            Have fun with this one.

Life’s Journey

            Characters are a product of their life’s experiences. The things they seen and done are major influencers in who they are at the time of the story. From birth, the people in their lives affect what they believe, what foods they eat, the clothing they wear, the attitude to education that they have.

            Imagine a character who grows up in a loving, fostering home. His attitude toward obstacles life presents will be completely different from obstacles that pop up in the life of someone who was abused in some way. It makes sense. In the first situation the character might love challenges and new experiences while the second individual might be fearful and prefer hiding at home.

            When you create a character you need to construct their life’s journey as a background into who they have become. This is different from a character arc. The arc traces the character’s trajectory throughout the story, encapsulating the events that change her as the story progresses.

            The life’s journey shows the path that she walked as the years passed by.

            Your task is to create a life’s journey for a new character that you would like to include in a story. Graph paper might be the best source as it allows for increments of time spaced out in measured blocks. Start at a point when they first event occurred. This could be birth or the first day of school. Add elements that played important parts, both negative and positive.

            When finished, using the data you’ve detailed, write a memoir-like story of his life.

            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.

From your Character’s Point of View

Imagine a character that you would like to write about. Before you include him in the story, take time to write a character study from his point of view.

You must use first person. You can begin anywhere and you do not have to proceed sequentially. Consider it more of a stream of conscious rambling.

Somewhere in the text tell something about his appearance, but do not give a list of features. Mention one or two, just a little something to help us see him as he sees himself.

Put us inside his mind. We want to know what he thinks about things. Consider politics, employment, housing, future goals, but don’t try to cover everything. Only hit the most salient points, those that help you develop him so that including him in a story becomes easier.

Your task is to write at least a page of text. When you reread, ask yourself how much you revealed about him and whether or not there are more things that should be included as well as what should be deleted.

Have fun with this one.

An Interesting Main Character

Let’s face it, your readers have to care about the main character. They don’t necessarily have to like the character, but they have to be interested in what he does, thinks, says.

If you expect the readers to spend time with your writing, then you must give them a reason to read. A boring protagonist, someone who has no opinions, faces no challenges, is never confrontational and lives only to please others will not inspire readers to make it to the end.

Main characters are usually imperfect. They have flaws which give them compelling personalities. Those flaws create challenges that the characters must surmount in order to succeed.

Your task is two-fold. First write a brief story about a practically perfect character. Put them in a scene that poses no challenges, no obstacles to overcome. People the story with likable friends, bosses, partners.

When you finish, analyze the piece. If you were a reader, how would you react?

Your next step is to rewrite the story with a flawed character whose life has pitfalls and confrontation. The character struggles to succeed. At the end something changes about the character. Either she overcomes and experiences a cathartic change, or she is deeper into her problems.

This time when you reread, do you sense a difference in your interest level?

Have fun with this one.

Walk into the Past

Today was a wonderful day for me. I got to relive good times in my past.

It got me to thinking that our characters can take similar walks.

What would they see? Feel? Do?

Even if you never include the information in your writing, it might allow you to see deeper into your character’s mind.

Your task is to send your character somewhere new and different, somewhere where artifacts from the past pop, up in rapid succession.

Write the scene. Mention the object in terms of the memory that it triggers.

Include as many objects as you can.

Have fun with this one.

People Watching

Can’t think of a character, setting or problem? Go somewhere and sit for a while.

Choose a place that is heavily trafficked. A shopping mall, park or busy street in a commercial district.

Bring a notebook with you as well as a camera. When you see an interesting character, take a picture, but also record how the character walks, what he is carrying, whether or not he is on the phone, and if he is walking alone.

Give the character personality. For example, maybe she’s a CEO of a start-up company and is hurrying off to a meeting that she’s worried about. Perhaps she has a sick child at home or just got a call from her daughter’s teacher.

Describe the setting. Is it bland or colorful? What types of buildings? Tall skyscrapers or low slung town homes. A park with green grass and flowers in bloom, or a snow covered field. Blue sky, pouring rain or skittering clouds.

Then take a look for another potential character and do the same.

Each time imagine the story that the character has to tell. Jot down ideas. Did he have a happy childhood or were his parents abusive? Does she keep in contact with her siblings or are they distant? Why?

When you get home, think about the stories you can tell. Begin writing. Use a stream of conscious flow of words. Let the story tell itself.

At the end, reread and look for places where you can embellish or deepen the conflict. Edit out unnecessary words. Add dialogue that develops the character’s personality.

When you are finished, you will have an original story. Plus, you will have enough information to write a few more!

Have fun with this one.