Over on her blog Caps, Lock and Stock the lovely Missouri has been talking about her character development process. I thought this was a good topic, and since I am trying to blog more and am too lazy to come up with my own topics, I thought I’d put my own take on it here. 🙂 If you’re a writer, feel free to post your take. I thought this discussion might make a good meme.
In her blog, Missouri states that the last thing she usually comes up with is the physical description of the character, but that’s normally where I start.
I’m a visual person, so most of the time I see the character before I being writing them. Once I get their physical image, I can peel back the layers. For example, one character I’m working on right now is named Olivia. She’s tall, with long blonde hair that has several small braids in it, and she tends to wear a lot of layered clothing, especially skirts.
Once I get a feel for the character’s outfit, I can start peeling back the layers. Why does she wear skirts all of the time, instead of pants? Why so many layers? Why braids? Why are her nails bitten down? What type of jewelry does she wear, and why? Are her hands calloused or smooth? Where did the callouses come from?
As I begin to answer these questions, I start to find out more about the character and the world that she is from. In Olivia’s case, each braid in her hair contains a protection spell. Why? Because there are people trying to kill her, of course. Who? Why do they want to kill her?
Each physical trait can be traced back to something in her personality or her past, from the type of shoes she wears to the fabric her skirt is made of. I use these visual, physical clues to tell me about what the character likes to do, what they eat, and where they go. What do they carry in their pockets? Will I find a bus pass or a magic lamp? How did the magic lamp get there? Where did they go to find it?
Once I start to see the character, they usually run around in my head for a few days before I decide if I want to commit them to paper. The characters that make the cut usually have an unusual past, or some quirk in the present. This is usually about the time I decide on a name. Olivia practically named herself, but sometimes it’s a little harder. I had a horrible time naming Cassie, who is a Nordic Shaman. Initially, she was supposed to be a psychic–hence the name Cassandra. Then her story took a dramatic left turn I wasn’t expecting. This turned out to be a good thing, since without that left turn, she would have been dancing on the fine line between heroine and Mary Sue. On the other hand, Evie was named after one of my favorite movie characters (Rachel Weisz’s character in the Mummy movies, though I spelled the name differently). For side characters, I usually start with a letter and an idea of how I want the name to sound (male, starts with an M, 1-2 syllables, Greek in origin: Micha. Female, an old fashioned name with a more modern, girly nickname, starts with a G: Rogena, “Gina”).
Evie is the exception to all of this, in that she had a personality before she had anything else. When I began working on her, I was trying to work through a difficult event in my own life, so I created a character similar to myself to see how she would handle it as a way of working through my own problems. Over time however, she took on a life of her own and has evolved a great deal. I’m quite proud of who she’s grown up to be, and it’s very different from that first uncertain incarnation.
From here, one of the last things that I look at is the character’s voice. Once I’ve seen them, gotten to know them without words, I start to listen. Sometimes, they don’t talk much at all, like Evie. She’s more introverted and prefers to keep her own counsel, but when she does say or think anything, it’s usually sarcastic and self deprecating. Cassie is from a small midwestern town, and therefore speaks very much like the people I saw every day growing up. However, she has a degree in English and tends to use a slightly broader vocabulary, and a mix of proper grammar (such as the proper use of “whom”) mixed with a tendency I’ve noticed around here to leave off words such as “the” and “at”. Olivia was raised in a school and spend most of her early years around people much older than her. Most of her spare time is spent reading, and she has taken on a much more formal, old fashioned way of speaking than those around her.
Like their clothing, voices can say a lot about where a person is from, even when the specific location isn’t voiced aloud. Next time, I’ll talk a little bit about how I do world building (or the lack thereof).